Constable: 'An open mind, and an open heart' -- senior living community welcome leads to marriage
As a volunteer ambassador helping new residents settle into The Fountains at Crystal Lake, Connie Kohl did a really, really good job welcoming John Mertes to the senior living community.
So good that John and Connie are about to celebrate their first Valentine's Day as newlyweds.
"Connie was the last person I met the first day I came here," says John, a 68-year-old widower, who moved into his apartment on Dec. 29, 2018. "I was sitting in the dining room area in a chair I wasn't supposed to be sitting in."
Connie, 78, who moved into her apartment at The Fountains on April Fools' Day of 2018 while recovering from a minor stroke, remembered how scary her first day was.
"When I first came here, I cried every single night," says Connie. She was divorced and had retired from careers teaching at a beauty school and working as a dealer at Hollywood Casino in Joliet. She adapted to The Fountains quickly, and volunteered to help others adjust. Walking up to John was nothing out of the ordinary.
"That's part of my job. I go around and meet people," she says.
Neither one was looking for a spouse.
"Oh, no, no, no, no," Connie says with a laugh. "I just figured I was getting older, and more independent, and no one would tell me what to do. And then he came along."
They ended up participating together in some of the activities at The Fountains.
"She taught me how to play euchre. It had been such a long time since I played it," John says. "And I taught her how to shoot pool."
They'd laugh, talk and sit together.
"He's got eyes for you," a resident named Thelma told Connie, who assured the retired teacher that John was just a really good friend in a big group of friends.
"The first thing we did together was go out with his sister for his birthday," Connie remembers.
But she really wasn't sure there was anything more to that than a friendship, and John was hesitant to push for a more serious relationship.
"I didn't want to lose her," John says. "There's nobody like her. I saw what a loving soul she is."
So, they just continued having a great time together.
"Then one day, right around Sweetest Day, he said, 'Do you want to get married?'" Connie says. That was on Friday, Oct. 17, 2020.
"I must have said, 'yes,' right away," Connie says, because they soon found themselves at Nelson's Jewelry in Crystal Lake picking out rings.
"He got down on his knees in the jewelry store," Connie says. "But we couldn't get married because of COVID."
Coping with pandemic restrictions, they were able to tie the knot on Sweetest Day, Oct. 16, 2021, at D'Andrea Banquets in Crystal Lake in front of 50 friends and family. "We wrote our own vows," Connie says. "I don't remember them, but we wrote them."
John's cousin, Lisa Caffero, officiated the ceremony, and Tyler Arnold, Connie's 30-year-old grandson, gave her away. Connie's five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren were part of the ceremony.
"And this one cried like a baby," Connie says, giving John a playful nudge. "And I cried, too."
She had so many tears, her 9-year-old grandson, Asher, said, "Grandma, don't cry. John's going to take good care of you."
Connie's three daughters, Aditra, Rhonda and Danielle, their families, and John's relatives were happy for the couple. "They said it was the best wedding they went to," John says.
"Then we ate and danced and went home," says Connie, noting she and John exchanged their single apartments for a much larger residence.
The Fountains also celebrated their wedding later with beef fillet, shrimp, baked potatoes and a beautiful wedding cake and ice cream.
"I've been here 22 years, and we've never had anybody get married before, so, of course, I wanted to go big," says Gina Alessi, the community life director, adding that she wanted to give residents a chance to join in the celebration of John and Connie's love.
"We're both Catholic, which makes it nice. We both like to eat, which doesn't make it so nice," Connie chuckles.
John says finding love at their ages is an example for others to "keep an open mind, and an open heart."
Their wedding photo hangs in The Fountains' "Tunnel of Love" with the much older photos of other residents who have been married for decades. Connie and John are the newlyweds. "They always hold hands when they walk," Alessi says.
John and Connie are going out for dinner on Valentine's Day, but they watched the Super Bowl with their friends at The Fountains.
"He taught me football," Connie says. "This is the first year I watch it and know what's going on."
As blissful as all of this sounds, the couple does have one regret, which probably will bring joy to residents who are Chicago Bears fans. Connie and John cheered for the victorious Rams, but had been hoping for a different matchup in the big game.
"Yes," Connie says. "We were rooting for the Green Bay Packers."