A Second Chance at Love

updated 10/06/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was New Year's Eve in Boston, 1967. Wearing a red velvet dress, 17-year-old Eileen Campbell walked into a party and caught sight of Jack Crowley, a dark-haired college freshman. "He took my breath away," she says.

He felt the same, and soon they were dating—driving around in Jack's green Nash Rambler and going to the dog track. Then one day Eileen discovered she was pregnant, and their lives fell apart. Eileen's mortified Irish-Catholic mother sent her to Ireland, where Eileen stayed in a boardinghouse. (Eileen's father and sister were told she was studying abroad.) Her mother also forbade Eileen from contacting the boy who got her into trouble. Heartbroken, Eileen put her daughter up for adoption. She and Jack drifted apart.

And that's how their story would have ended had fate not lent an unexpected hand. The daughter Eileen put up for adoption, Ann Lansing, grew up and found her biological parents. Within months they were all reunited, and the couple that had been forbidden to see each other discovered something remarkable: The spark was still there. So 40 years after they were forced apart, Eileen and Jack finally had their happy ending on a schooner in Gloucester Harbor, Mass., as their grown-up daughter looked on. "I'm shaking my head every day, saying, 'I can't believe he's here,'" says Eileen, 58, a corporate accounts manager. Says Jack, 59: "It's not often you get a second chance in life. I didn't know it was possible to be this happy."

He'd had a preview at 19, after he began seeing Eileen, a high school senior and honor-roll student. But then she got pregnant. ("You didn't talk about birth control," she says.) Though they were terrified, he'd bought her an engagement ring with four diamonds. "[We'd] planned to get married," he says. "That was taken from us."

Eileen returned to Boston two months before giving birth—but had scant contact with Jack and none with her family. So on June 17, 1969, frightened and alone, Eileen gave birth at what is now Boston's Beth Israel hospital. Though she'd decided on adoption, she peeked at her daughter in the nursery. "She was fair and didn't have a lot of hair," Eileen said. "I remember a nurse saying, 'She's so beautiful.'"

In time both she and Jack moved on. Jack—who never knew what became of the baby—had two children with his first wife before they divorced. He later remarried and adopted a daughter, Cass. Over the years, from time to time, something would remind him of his lost love. "I'd kick myself: 'How did I let her get away?'" Eileen moved to Houston, married and had a daughter, Elizabeth. But she'd never forgotten her first child. She put her information on the Massachusetts Adoption & Reunion Registry, hoping her daughter would find her.

In March 2003 Ann did (see box). The registry called Eileen; the next day she and Ann were on the phone. "I thought about you every day," Eileen told her daughter through tears. "I was shaking," recalls Ann, who says her adoptive mother supported the reunion. "Eileen was so loving."

Two months later Eileen trekked to New York City, where Ann, now 39, runs an eponymous belt-design business. Knowing Ann's birthday was coming up, Eileen decided to try to find Jack. Reaching his brother through a Web site, she passed on her contact information; Jack—still living near Boston and working as an executive recruiter—called right away. "His voice was the same," Eileen recalls. "I told him he had a daughter."

For Ann, reuniting with her birth parents filled a lifelong void. Raised with love in Boston by a dad who was a professor and a civil-servant mom, she'd nevertheless see a woman on the street and ask herself, "Could that be my birth mother?" "When you're adopted," she says, "you always wonder, 'Was I loved? Was I missed?'"

But she never could have guessed that Eileen and Jack would find love again. Both single (Eileen was separated and Jack was a widower), they quickly felt the old chemistry. Agreeing Eileen would visit Jack that fall, they both spruced up over the summer: Jack dropped 30 lbs., and Eileen got Botox. Meeting at the airport, Jack recalls, "we hit it off instantly."

In December 2006 Jack proposed at Eileen's favorite landmark—an old lighthouse off the Maine coast. This past July 12 Eileen and Jack were married, surrounded by family and friends—with Ann officiating the 4 1/2-minute service. Now Ann's two sons—Teddy, 3, and Peter, 22 months—are getting visits from Grandma Eileen and Grandpa Jack. Says Ann: "They were meant to be together."

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