On the lawn of Oak Park High School, reunited sweethearts wed
Thirty-three years after Phillip Adams fell for Shelley Watkins in their Oak Park High School art class, they went on their first date.
Neither had let go of memories of a teenage romance that was forced to end before it ever really began.
They had reconnected on Facebook, and soon, Adams drove from Joplin, Mo., to visit Watkins in North Kansas City. They toured their old neighborhood. They went to lunch. They visited the high school.
“It felt perfect,” Watkins, 47, said. “Like I was where I was supposed to be. And we instantly were so connected, like we had been together and knew each other for years, for lifetimes.”
On Tuesday, they'll wed at the place where they fell in love. Adams, class of '87, and Watkins, class of '89, will say their vows by the big "O.P." letters on the lawn of Oak Park High School.
Watkins' uncle, former North Kansas City teacher Jack Sherbo, will officiate. The school orchestra will perform. The couple will get pictures taken in the school's Dr. Dan Kahler courtyard.
It’s a long-awaited ending for a couple who lived separate lives, had other marriages, children and careers before finally finding their way back to each other.
“It’s kind of a neat story because I think it testifies that fairy tale romance does exist,” Adams, 50, said. “It just takes the right person ... and perseverance.”
'He's too old'
In 1985, his junior year, Adams saw Watkins walk through the door of his art class, and “that was it,” he said. She was a beautiful, sweet and timid freshman, but when she laughed, her face broke out into a smile that he instantly adored.
So he made it his mission to make the girl assigned to his table laugh.
“The more we were around each other, the more she would talk and the more we would laugh,” Adams said.
Watkins, too, was smitten. Adams was funny, outgoing and talented at art.
She liked to watch his hands as he drew. She liked that he was goofy and didn’t take himself too seriously.
For a few glorious weeks, they were "going together" — spending time together in class, passing notes, chatting in the hallways.
Finally, Adams got her number and called her house. Watkins’ mother answered the phone first.
She learned that it was a 17-year-old junior calling her 14-year-old daughter.
“He’s too old,” Watkins’ mother said. And so the relationship stalled, limited to time spent in class and conversations in the halls. Then Adams graduated and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Twice they would run into each other again at school.
Once, Watkins’ mother dropped Watkins off at school after a doctor’s appointment and stayed to eat lunch with her. Adams had come back to say hello to his teachers and spotted Watkins in the lunchroom.
He walked right up and chatted for awhile.
“That’s Phil?” her mother asked when she learned who he was. “I like him.”
The next time Adams visited the school, Watkins was a junior. He beckoned her into the hallway as she sat in a classroom, and the two shared her first kiss. And then two more.
She didn't see him again for more than a decade.
After Adams served in the Army, he worked in law enforcement and corrections and enjoyed a brief stint as an editorial cartoonist for a small Missouri newspaper. He married twice. Watkins married and had a son.
When her son was about 10, Watkins says, she spotted Adams visiting the house across the street where her son often played with the neighbor's children. Turns out that was the family of Adams’ brother-in-law. Shocked, Watkins spied out the window until Adams walked outside, and then she went out to fetch her mail. But Adams never noticed her, even though she called to him.
Another time, she ran into him at a bowling alley. Then the years went by.
'It's always been you'
Finally, it was Watkins, shy and reserved, not Adams, gregarious and confident, who ensured their happy reunion.
She had tried her best to keep tabs on Adams. She dreamed of a life with him. She was tired of waiting.
And so in 2014, Watkins did something that she had rarely done before. She made the first move.
She joined Facebook to find Adams. She thought hard about her message. Then, she clicked send.
“You are my favorite memory of high school,” she told him.
Miles away, from a chair in the living room in his Joplin home, Adams' heart lifted. Their messages led to a phone call, and Adams would let all the feelings he had never shared come freely.
“Shelley,” he told her, “it’s always been you.”
After that first date as adults, Adams and Watkins quickly became inseparable. Adams moved in with Watkins in her home near Barry Road.
“The flames just took off," Adams said. "It was almost like we had never been separated."
They took a trip to New York City, walking and talking throughout Manhattan. Back home together, they scope out garage sales and sit on the back porch with Tank, their Chihuahua. She got him into the "The Real Housewives" on Bravo. He’s persuaded her to watch law enforcement investigation shows on the Discovery Channel.
Three days before Christmas in 2016, Adams proposed with a ring he wrapped in a gift bag.
Watkins says she saw the proposal coming, but it still felt wonderful to say "Yes."
It was her idea to marry at Oak Park High School, where they had met all those years ago. But Adams wasn’t sure how the administration would react.
Principal Chris Sartain loved it.
"We really pride ourselves on making sure that once students leave here, whether it's 2018 or 1968, that Oak Park is going to be part of their lives," Sartain said. "I said of course I thought it was a great idea. I felt honored."
The pair haven't planned a grand honeymoon, though they'll be hosting a wedding reception on Mother's Day. For now, they are happy basking in a beautiful three years together and reflecting on how they got here.
"The last three years have seemed like six months," Adams said. "The time has flown by."