PRINCETON — Sara Hudson and Oakley Bland met in the fifth grade at Washington Middle School and were instantly drawn to one another.
They were attached at the hip throughout fifth and sixth grade, sharing their first kiss in the school hallway and conversing through notes they would slide across the floor of the classroom when the teacher wasn’t looking.
Outside of school, they met at the skating rink and made tokens in a machine punched with messages, “I love you very much Sara Hudson” and “I love you very much Oakley Bland,” which they exchanged with one another.
The connection was so strong, Sara went home and bet her dad $25 she’d marry Oakley some day.
“In my heart, he was the one,” Sara said.
Turns out, Sara lost that bet with her dad.
Some time in the seventh grade, Sara and Oakley split ways for unknown reasons. Sara said she doesn’t have much memory of Oakley after that. In fact, she thought he’d moved away and didn’t graduate with Princeton High School’s Class of ‘83. But Oakley did graduate with Sara and remembers her dating Eric, the man Sara did marry.
Sara never forgot about Oakley, though. He remained a part of her heart. He was even brought up at Sara and Eric’s wedding.
Eric, knowing Sara’s bet with her dad, pulled her father onto the dance floor, told guests about the bet as he handed over $25 and said Oakley was the one that got away. When they had kids, Sara shared the story with them and talked about Oakley and their childhood romance.
“My kids knew his name and they knew the story of us, which how much of a story is it for fifth and sixth graders,” Sara said with a laugh.
“It was a deep enough connection that I thought about him all those years.”
Sara and Eric eventually divorced. Sara remarried, but that, too, did not last. She dated with no luck whatsoever and got comfortable with the thought that she might be single for the rest of her life.
“I had been burned. I was not going down that road. I wasn’t even going to date. I was done, done, done,” she said.
That was until Oakley’s sister, Lori, ran into Sara by complete coincidence at the Princeton Culver’s in June 2018.
The meeting in Culver’s
Sara can remember the day like it was yesterday. She’d sent out an email to her Business Leads Team that morning suggesting they move their lunch meeting from its usual place in the Prouty Building to Culver’s.
That meeting just happened to be the same time Lori was having lunch at Culver’s. Sara had never met Lori, but Lori recognized Sara from high school and felt a strong urge to speak with her because Oakley had mentioned her name numerous times over the years.
“When she approached me, I had no clue who she was,” Sara said.
When Lori introduced herself as Oakley’s sister, Sara outright told her she’d been in love with her brother for years.
Lori said Oakley had talked about reaching out to Sara, but never did because he was afraid he’d interrupt a happy life.
Lori and her siblings were in town fixing up their parents’ home — Princeton’s famed Earth Home — before putting it on the market. She told Sara that Oakley lived in California, but had plans to be in Princeton just days later.
“When she said that, I went off the rails and was pointing at my name tag telling her to bring him by the bank, which is not me at all,” Sara said, who is the retail manager at Heartland Bank and Trust in Princeton.
“After she left, I thought, ‘Oh my God. I told her to bring him into the bank? What was I thinking? I hadn’t seen him in 41 years.”
What’s funnier, two seats away in Culver’s that day was Stephanie Gustafson, who happens to be Oakley’s niece by marriage. She’d overheard the conversation and got on her Facebook to show Sara pictures of current-day Oakley.
“When I saw his picture, I was like, ‘Ohh!’ He floated my boat,” Sara laughed. “He floated my boat in middle school and he floats my boat now.”
Reuniting at Heartland Bank
On July 5, 2018, around closing time at Heartland Bank, Sara was talking with receptionist Kathy Hermeyer at the front desk when in walked Oakley.
“He came walking in and I said, ‘Oh my God’ out loud, because his fifth-and-sixth-grade eyes are looking back at me. The bankers are looking around wondering what’s going on,” Sara recalled.
Hermeyer made sure Sara’s reaction didn’t mean trouble before welcoming Oakley into the business. Sara introduced him as a friend from school and led him back to her office as her colleagues gave double-takes to make sure she was OK.
As the two got reacquainted, Oakley pulled out Valentine cards Sara had given him in the fifth grade and the token they’d made together at the skating rink back in the 1970s. The old mementos had been found in his parent’s home while it was being cleaned out.
As Sara stared in disbelief, she said she had to take a minute to wrap her mind around what was happening. Some time during catch-up of the last 41 years, the bank closed down unbeknownst to Sara, who was completely enthralled by their conversation.
Not wanting the evening to end, Oakley asked her to dinner.
“I said, ‘Sure’ and did a hard shutdown of my computer so fast I’m surprised it didn’t crash,” Sara said.
As they spent the evening getting reacquainted, Sara found out that Oakley had gotten married out of high school and moved to Sacramento where he started his own construction company. He had two daughters the exact same years she had her two kids. He’d been through two divorces as well, but through it all, he never stopped thinking of Sara.
“When I got divorced both times, I thought, ‘I wonder what Sara Hudson is doing?’ It was kind of a running joke. I just knew if I was able to reconnect with her again that would be it for me. I just never thought it would actually happen,” he said.
Sara also found out when Oakley had been back to Princeton, he’d driven by her parents’ home on Peru Street and was tempted to stop by and ask about her. But he kept driving, afraid he’d hear she was happily married.
The night led them back to Oakley’s parents’ home where Sara was introduced to his siblings she’d gone to school with but had never met.
Until that night, Oakley was about two trips away from never seeing Princeton again. Once the work on his parents’ house was finished, he said he would have had no reason to return.
“Until my sister got involved, I had no intentions of stopping by or looking around to find her to see how she was doing,” Oakley said. “The way it came together it was like, ‘Well, this must be it.’”
A surprise marriage proposal
During Memorial Day weekend last year, Oakley was able to pull off a surprise proposal under her brother, Mark’s, memorial tree in City County Park. He flew in his two daughters from California and brought together Sara’s closest friends and family for the occasion.
Since then, they’ve bought a house together in Princeton, and Oakley is working on figuring out what to do with his business in California.
“We’re just trusting the process at this point,” Oakley said.
As they build their life together, they stay in touch daily via Facetime.
“It’s so junior high,” Sara said with a laugh. “We’re such a big part of each other’s day even though we’re not together, except for every five weeks when we take turns visiting one another. We’re fortunate we can do that.”
They plan to have a small wedding some day. Oakley is also waiting on Sara’s dad to repay that bet of $25 with 41 years of interest, which is now a running joke in the family.
Sara and Oakley often talk about what would have happened if they would have stayed together in the seventh grade. Perhaps, they would have gotten married eventually, but maybe wouldn’t be able to appreciate the happiness and love they feel for one another today.
“I think it took us going through all the things we went through to then find each other and realize what truly happy means,” Sara said.