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Originally published Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 10:15 AM

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Reuniting with a first love after decades

The past is a good place to look for love as long as you remember that caution, friendliness and nostalgia are your best tools when approaching an old flame

Contra Costa Times

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Sept. 15, 1951. It was the day Phil Aker peeked over his fence in Arizona and saw five sisters moving in next door. His eyes landed on the oldest, a 12-year-old redhead named Jeanine Fetterly.

"She's cute," he told his younger brother. "I'll take her."

Before long, they were inseparable. They'd meet in the alley between their houses. They'd sneak out in the dead of night to go skinny dipping. Fetterly and Aker dated for three years until Fetterly ended the relationship. She thought he wasn't romantic enough.

Weeks later, she met the guy who would become her husband. Aker moved on, too. They each had children. And grandchildren. Eventually, they both divorced. But they always thought of each other. Fetterly often flipped through diaries from her schoolgirl days, marveling at how Aker was on almost every page.

Seven years ago, Aker, who lives in Los Angeles, was coming to the San Francisco Bay Area for a conference. So he tracked her down and they had dinner. Save for a brief encounter two years before, Fetterly and Aker hadn't seen each other for 35 years. Yet the sparks flew. And they've been together ever since.

"We find that all the things we loved about each other when we were young are still things we love and admire in each other now," says Fetterly, now 71 and living in Oakland, Calif. "I think when you have an extraordinarily close relationship very young, you bond in a way you never can with someone you meet later in life."

They say you never forget your first love. For many, the experience was so powerful, so pure, that reuniting, or attempting to reunite, feels natural. With an ever-shrinking dating pool (or maybe it just seems that way, particularly for older singles, looking back for love makes sense. People ask themselves, "I wonder what he is up to?" "Will she remember me?" Whether it is a mutual friend, a school reunion or fate that brings them back together, couples have inspiring stories to tell about ending up with the one who got away.

Fetterly and Aker don't have a perfect relationship, Fetterly says. But she loves that she doesn't have to prove anything to Aker. "He still looks at me like that 13-year-old trying to get to sneak out on an adventure," she says. "It's warm and comforting to be back in the arms of the first boy I ever kissed."

Not every reunion is an instant fairy tale. The past is a good place to look for love as long as you remember that caution, friendliness and nostalgia are your best tools when approaching an old flame, says Pepper Schwartz, a relationship expert with Perfectmatch.com. "Even if they're single, don't assume you know what's going on in their life, or that their memories are the same as yours," she says. "Maybe you forgot that there was a nasty breakup."

Keep expectations in check. Remember that you haven't had contact in years, if not decades, and that a person's values and challenges can shift, she adds. Take it slow. "Obviously, if both people feel the same way and walk off into the sunset, that's great," Schwartz says. "I just wouldn't be engraving the wedding invitations too soon."

Childhood sweethearts Patricia and Louis Jackson of Richmond, Calif., tied the knot. But it wasn't until their third time around, in 1996.

The first time was grade school. It was 1954, and they lived in the same San Francisco housing project. Patricia's family owned a dry-cleaning business, and Louis was always around. They played together. They shared ice cream cones. Years later, both families would relocate to Menlo Park, Calif., — Patricia's moved a few years before Louis' — but they'd since lost touch. So, when the two met again as teenagers, dated, fell in love and went to the prom, neither had any idea they were with that child from the third grade.

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"It just didn't register until years later that she was that little girl," says Louis, now 65.

Louis left for the Vietnam War in 1963, and the two went their separate ways. They married. Had children. By 1989, they were both divorced and single. Nelson Mandela was speaking in San Francisco that year, and Patricia came from her home in Sacramento for the speech. She missed her exit on BART and wound up in Union City, where she ran into Louis' sisters. She'd thought of him often and saw the mishap as a sign. "Have your brother call me," she said, handing them her number.

He did, and the rest is history. They've been together for 18 years without an argument. "It seems like I finally won," Louis says. "I had a lot of competition in the '60s. She is really pretty. But I don't have to sit by and watch her walk away this time."

Jacqueline Rossman Hensel and Jerry Hensel of Fremont, Calif., walked away from each other in 1954 after a broken teenage engagement. Hensel called it off before he joined the Air Force. All Rossman Hensel had to remember him by was the silver anklet he had given her. She carried it in a cellophane envelope in her wallet for 49 years, along with a photo of him in his basic training uniform. Unbeknown to her, Hensel never forgot her, either. "She was my first true love," says Hensel, now 74.

In 2002, Hensel, who had been married for nearly 50 years and subsequently divorced, asked his high school class president, who was organizing a reunion, to track Rossman down for him. She did. Eventually, Hensel called up Rossman Hensel on Valentine's Day, asking her to his 50th reunion. He didn't know if she was single or married. But he took a chance.

"I figured what the heck," he says. "It was meant to be."

It was. She picked him up at the San Jose airport, and they spent nine blissful days together. "The first day, we hit it off just like no time had passed," Hensel says. "There was always that connection between us."

Rossman Hensel, who had been widowed for 18 years when she got the call, says the only thing that's different about her first love is his curly locks. They're gone. Otherwise, he's the same boy she fell in love with nearly 49 years ago. "We play all the time," says Rossman Hensel, now 73. "We end each other's sentences."

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