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The Reunion of a Lifetime

The Reunion of a Lifetime

After 50 years, high school sweethearts are brought back together by an unlikely cupid

On a spring day in 1968, the Cougill and Horn families sat down to talk. Donna Horn, a beautiful high school cheerleader, was pregnant. Joe Cougill, a star high school athlete, was the father.

“Joe will do whatever you want him to,” Joe’s father said to Donna’s dad, according to Joe. “If you want Joe to marry Donna, he will marry Donna. If you want Joe to keep this secret, Joe will keep it secret. If you want Donna to have the baby, Joe will support her. If you don’t want him to be part of her life, Joe won’t.”

Donna’s father wanted Joe to never speak to his daughter again.

Amid tears and heartbreak, the two-year love story came to an abrupt end. Joe and Donna promised never to call each other.

For five decades, they made good on that promise. Then one day 51 years later, the baby that tore them apart brought them together, and they fell in love all over again.

Flash forward

Joe was waiting to have lunch with his son. It was June 29, 2019, and across Joe’s phone came a text from a woman named Laura Mabry.

Hi Joe, I got your name from Donna. I don’t know how to lob this to you but I think you’re my biological father. I don’t want anything from you. I just want to find out where I came from.

“My head just dropped onto the desk, going, ‘What?’” says Joe. “Obviously, Donna and I spent two years together in high school. Obviously, we knew she got pregnant.”

Joe never knew what had happened after that, but he thought about it over the years. Did Donna have the baby, and keep it? “I wondered, ‘Do I have a son? A daughter?’” he says.

Laura had her own questions. What were her biological parents like? She had been put up for adoption and had grown up with a wonderful mom and dad in the city of Indianapolis in the U.S. midwest.

"Did Donna have the baby, and keep it? I wondered, Do I have a son? A daughter?"

“But as an adopted person, you grow up thinking, ‘I don’t really look like my family,’” says Laura, who now lives in the state of Arkansas. “I did always have a general curiosity. It wasn’t nagging at me, but it was always there.”

Then in 1995, Laura had her son. And in 1998, she had her daughter. “It was the first time in my life that a person really looked like me,” she says. “And it made me think, There is someone else that looks like me.”

Her curiosity about where she came from grew more intense. But it was the 1990s, and using the internet to search and connect wasn’t as easy as it is today.

Then life got in the way. Laura pushed the idea to the back of her mind, but it never left.

Flash back

Though Joe and Donna hadn't dated long, they were clearly in love

They had met in the fall as the leaves turned and classes began. Joe was in his first year at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis and Donna was in the year above.

Except for school, they didn’t see each other much in the beginning. A sweet smile in the hallway, a wink at lunch, a note passed after class. During the week, they weren’t allowed to date.

At home each evening, though, their parents let them have a 10-minute phone call. Joe and Donna would try to find spots in their houses to talk so they could whisper their feelings and no one else could hear.

“She was all I wanted, and I was all she wanted,” Joe says.

At Franklin Central, Joe was a superstar. He played on the football, basketball and baseball teams. He was the second-fastest runner on the track squad.

Donna went to as many of Joe’s events as she could. The weekends were what they longed for. Sometimes they were allowed to hang out on a lazy Saturday at one of their houses.

“We never had an argument. We just got along tremendously,” Joe says. “It was obvious first love.”

Joe got his driver’s license in December 1967. His mom had a 1962 Chevy station wagon. “The seat folded right down,” Joe says.

Donna found out she was pregnant at the beginning of April 1968. The families had that talk. The two were told their relationship was over.

The Horns had already planned to move in the fall of Donna’s final year of high school, and with the pregnancy, the move was a perfect explanation for why she was gone.

“People just assumed I moved away,” she says. But losing Joe “was devastating to me.”

Given up for adoption

Donna remembers going to Community East hospital on November 5, 1968, as if it were yesterday. She was in labor, and she was devastated. This was not the day she wanted to have the baby. November 5 was Joe’s 17th birthday. It was another brutal reminder that they weren’t together.

At the hospital, Joe’s mother, who worked as a patient representative, was the first person Donna and her mother saw. Another reminder.

Donna gave birth to the baby she planned to never see again. She and her mother had talked about it at length. After the baby was born, Donna wouldn’t hold or look at the baby. But a nurse walked in and placed Laura in Donna’s arms. For 30 minutes, she held her baby girl.

“That has haunted me,” Donna says.

"Donna wouldn’t hold or look at the baby. But a nurse walked in and placed Laura in Donna’s arms. For 30 minutes, she held her baby girl"

Joe knows how much easier he had it. He had a hard time getting past the heartache, though. He didn’t go on a single date that year. And he had plenty of girls asking.

“Was there talk? Were there rumors? Absolutely,” he says. “Everybody wanted to know.”

Joe kept quiet. He thought about Donna and what she was going through, the emotional and physical toll placed on her.

“Her feelings and the things she went through,” Joe says, “were 100 times more magnified than mine.”

Moving on

After high school, Joe went to Indiana State University. In the five decades since he and Donna parted, he married and divorced twice, taught high school, coached, and owned a sunglasses company. In 2019, he was a single man, working at Walmart, and the father of two children.

After high school, Donna worked in the finance center of a U.S. Army post. She married twice and had three children; her second husband passed away from cancer in 2011. Donna herself survived breast cancer. In 2019, she too was single.

Both were doing just fine in life. Neither knew what was coming.


Joe and Donna, with their daughter Laura, reunited after 50 years

But 2019 was the year Laura’s husband got her a DNA and genetic testing kit as a gift. He had seen her sobbing as she watched people reunited with their biological relatives on the TV show Long Lost Family. Laura was sitting in bed when the test results came in from the company 23andMe. “You have an uncle with the last name Horn.” She read it again. And again.

Oh my gosh, that’s got to be [Donna’s] brother, Laura said to herself. Her mom had told her only Donna’s maiden name and that she’d been born at Community East. “I got this rush of emotions,” she says.

Then Donna’s sister popped up as a relative. Laura mailed her a letter, thinking she might be her biological mother. She sent both of them her contact information. Laura was sitting in her office at the University of Arkansas when the e-mail came across.

It was Donna reaching out. “I am your biological mother. I feel like I owe you this. Whatever you want to know.”

“I could not believe it,” Laura says. “I had been waiting all these years.”

Donna offered Laura the name of her biological father. In another twist of fate, Laura already knew of Joe—her best friend in high school (Franklin Central, same as Donna and Joe) had married his nephew.

When Laura talked to Joe on the phone, the first words out of his mouth were “If you look anything like Donna, I bet you’re so pretty.”

"I am your biological mother. I feel like I owe you this. Whatever you want to know"

Laura thought it was so sweet to hear that love in his voice after all those years. Laura helped Donna and Joe get in touch. The two started talking and never stopped. When they met, it felt as if 50 years melted away.

“We saw each other and we hugged and we cried,” Joe says. “We knew. We knew. You know what I mean?”

They married the following May.

Bringing her biological parents back together is not what Laura had intended when she went looking for them. All she wanted was to find out where she came from. To ask if she was born out of love.

And yes. The answer is yes. She was born out of love. 

Copyright Indianapolis Star (March 3, 2021), Copyright © 2021 by USA TODAY NETWORK

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