High school sweethearts reunited by the child they gave up

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — How their teenage love story would end was beyond their control. Donna Horn, a beautiful cheerleader, was pregnant. Joe Cougill, a star high school athlete, was the father.

On a spring day in 1968, the Cougill and Horn families sat down to talk, but mostly it was the fathers who talked.

“Joe will do whatever you want him to,” Joe’s dad said to Donna’s dad, according to Cougill. “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 the tears and heartbreak brought on by an abrupt end to a two-year love story, the mandate was issued by the parents, and the promise was made by the teens. Joe would never call Donna again and Donna would never call Joe again.

For five decades, they made good on that promise. Until one day, 51 years later, their baby girl who’d been put up for adoption found them. She brought them together.

And they fell in love all over again.

Joe was in the office of an auto dealership in Greenfield, waiting to have lunch with his son, who sells cars for a living. It was June 29, 2019, and across his 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 freaking head just dropped onto the desk, going, ‘What?’” said Joe, who was a 3-sport athlete at Franklin Central. “Obviously, Donna and I spent two years together in high school. Obviously, we knew she got pregnant.”

But Joe never knew what had happened after that. Did Donna have the baby? Did she keep the baby? Was it a boy or a girl? Did she put the baby up for adoption?

Joe knows it sounds strange, but over the years there has been a certain patch of grass in his yard and when he mowed that patch, he would think about Donna.

“And I thought, ‘Do I have a son? Do I have a daughter?’” he said. “I can’t tell you over the years how many times I had wondered.”

Laura had wondered, too. What were her biological parents like? She had grown up with a wonderful mom and dad, a great life. She had attended Franklin Central just like Joe and Donna.

“But as an adopted person, you always grow up thinking, ‘I don’t really look like my family,‘” said Laura, who now lives in 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 biological person really looked like me,” she said. “I look like this person and it made me think, there is someone else that looks like me.”

Her curiosity to find out where she came from, who her biological parents were, grew more intense. But it was the 1990s, and the internet and searching and connecting 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.

They had met in the fall as the leaves turned and classes began. Joe was a freshman and Donna a sophomore.

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 a spot in the house where they could whisper their feelings so no one else in the house could hear.

“We were first loves,” Joe said. “She was all I wanted, and I was all she wanted.”

At school, Joe was a superstar. He was the starting varsity quarterback as a freshman, then started on the varsity basketball team. During track season in the spring, he was the second-fastest runner on the squad. The next year he became Franklin Central’s star baseball pitcher.

Donna went to all Joe’s events she could get to, even if just to catch a glimpse of him. 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 a disagreement or argument. We just got along tremendously,” Joe said. “We liked hanging out with each other. It was obvious first love.”

And then Joe got his driver’s license December 1967. His mom had a 1962 Chevy station wagon.

“The seat folded right down,” Joe said.

Donna found out she was pregnant at the beginning of April. 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 senior year. She had planned to finish her last year of high school out at Franklin Central, but after the pregnancy, the move was a perfect explanation for why she was gone.

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

Donna remembers as if it were yesterday, going to Community East hospital Nov. 5, 1968. She was in labor and she was devastated. This was not the day she wanted to have the baby.

Nov. 5 was Joe’s 17th birthday and she loved him. It was another brutal reminder they weren’t together.

And then when Donna walked in that morning, Joe’s mother, who worked as a patient representative at that hospital, was the first person Donna and her mother saw. Another reminder.

“That’s the first time I ever heard my mother swear in my ear,” said Donna.

Inside the delivery room, 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 the baby. She wouldn’t look at the baby.

“There was some mistake,” Donna said.

A nurse walked in and placed Laura in Donna’s arms. For 30 minutes, she held her baby girl.

“That has haunted me,” Donna said.

Joe knows how much easier he had it, a teenage father who had none of the responsibilities of a father, who went on with his life. His name was in newspaper articles weekly for all of his sports accolades.

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

Joe kept quiet. He had a hard time getting past the heartache, though. He didn’t go on a single date his junior year. And he had plenty of girls asking.

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 said, “were 100 times more magnified than mine.”

Joe went on to Indiana State where he played football. 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.

Donna earned her high school diploma and worked at the Fort Benjamin Harrison finance center. She married twice; her second husband passed away from cancer in 2011. Donna, a breast cancer survivor, had three children. In 2019, Donna was a single woman.

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

But 2019 was the year Laura’s husband got her a 23andMe DNA and genetic testing kit as a gift. He had seen her sobbing as she watched TLC’s “Long Lost Family,” as people were reunited with their biological relatives.

Laura was sitting in bed when the results came in. You have a relative, 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.”

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 email 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 went into my boss and colleagues’ office and said, ‘You guys are not going to believe this,’” Laura said. “I just could not believe it. 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 had married Joe’s nephew.

When she talked to Joe on the phone for the first time, the first words out of his mouth was this: “Oh gosh, if you look anything like Donna I bet you’re so pretty.”

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

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

They were married in 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.

“It really does feel good to be part of...” Laura trails off. To be part of finishing out that teenage love story.

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

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