INDIANAPOLIS – The end of their teenage love affair was out of their control. Donna Horn, a cheerleader, was pregnant. Joe Cougill, a star high school athlete, was the father.
One spring day in 1968, the Cougill and Horn families got together to talk, but it was mostly the fathers who spoke.
“Joe will do whatever you want him to do,” Joe’s dad told Donna’s dad, according to Cougill. “If you want Joe to marry Donna, he will marry Donna. If you want Joe to keep this a secret, Joe will keep it a secret. If you want Donna to have the baby, Joe will support her. If you don’t want it to be a part of his life, Joe won’t. “
Donna’s father wanted Joe to never talk to his daughter again.
Amid tears and grief over the abrupt end of a two-year love affair, the warrant was issued by the parents and the pledge was made by the teens. Joe would never call Donna again and Donna would never call Joe again.
For five decades, they kept that promise. Until the day when, 51 years later, their little girl who had been put up for adoption found them. She brought them together.
And they fell in love again.
‘I think you are my biological father’
Joe was in the office of a car dealership in Greenfield, waiting to have lunch with his son, who sells cars for a living. It was June 29, 2019 and on her phone, a text from a woman named Laura Mabry appeared.
Hi Joe, I got your name from Donna. I don’t know how to lob it off you but I think you are my biological father. I don’t want anything from you. I just want to know where I’m from.
“My creepy head fell on the desk, saying, ‘What? Joe said. “Obviously Donna and I spent two years together in high school. Obviously we knew she got pregnant.”
But Joe never knew what 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 was thinking of 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’ve asked myself that question. “
Laura had also wondered. What were his biological parents like? She had grown up with a wonderful mom and dad, a great life. She had attended Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, as had Joe and Donna.
“But as an adopted person, you still grow up thinking, ‘I don’t really look like my family,’” said Laura, who now lives in Arkansas. “I have always had a general curiosity. It didn’t pester me, but she was still 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 says. “I look like this person and it made me think, there is someone else who looks like me.”
Her curiosity about where she came from, who her birth parents were, intensified. But that was in the 1990s, and the internet, finding, 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 she never left.
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‘She was all I wanted’
They had met in the fall as the leaves were turning and classes were starting. Joe was a freshman and Donna a sophomore.
Other than school, they didn’t see each other much at first. A soft smile in the hallway, a nod at lunch, a note passed after class. During the week, they were not allowed to go out with them.
At home each evening, however, their parents allow them to make a 10-minute phone call. Joe and Donna were trying to find a place in the house where they could whisper their feelings so that no one else in the house could hear them.
“We were the 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 college quarterback as a rookie, then started on the college basketball team. During the spring track season, he was the team’s second-fastest rider. The following year, he became the star baseball pitcher for Franklin Central.
Donna went to every Joe event she could go to, if only to catch a glimpse of him. The weekends were what they wanted. Sometimes they were allowed to spend time on a lazy Saturday in one of their homes.
“We never had a disagreement or argument. We just got along a lot,” Joe said. “We loved spending time together. It was an obvious first love.”
And then Joe got his driver’s license in December 1967. His mother had a 1962 Chevrolet station wagon.
“The seat has folded down,” Joe said.
Donna found out she was pregnant in early April. The families had this conversation. The two were told their relationship was over.
The Horns had previously planned to move in the fall of Donna’s senior year. She had planned to finish her final year of high school at Franklin Central, but after pregnancy the move was a perfect explanation for why she was gone.
“People just assumed I had moved,” she said. But losing Joe, “it was devastating for me.”
‘It haunted me’
Donna remembers as if it was yesterday, going to Community East Hospital on November 5, 1968. She was in labor and was devastated. It wasn’t the day she wanted to have the baby.
November 5th was Joe’s 17th birthday and she loved him. It was another stark reminder that they weren’t together.
And then when Donna arrived that morning, Joe’s mother, who worked as a patient rep at that hospital, was the first person Donna and her mother saw. Another reminder.
“It’s the first time I’ve heard my mom swear in my ear,” Donna said.
In 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, deciding that after the baby was born, Donna wouldn’t hold it. She wouldn’t look at the baby.
“There was a mistake,” Donna said.
A nurse entered and placed Laura in Donna’s arms. For 30 minutes, she held her baby girl.
“It haunted me,” Donna said.
Joe knows how much easier he got, a teenage dad who had none of the responsibilities of a dad, who moved on with his life. His name was featured in weekly newspaper articles for all of his sports accolades.
“Were there any discussions? Were there any discussions? Were there rumors? Absolutely,” he said. “Everyone wanted to know.”
Joe fell silent. However, he found it difficult to overcome the heartache. He didn’t go on a single date in his freshman year. And he had a lot of girls asking for it.
He thought about Donna and what she was going through, the emotional and physical consequences imposed on her.
“Her feelings and the things she’s been through,” Joe said, “were 100 times more magnified than mine.”
‘We have had 50 years of life’
Joe went to the state of Indiana where he played football. In the five decades since he and Donna separated, he has married and divorced twice, taught high school, coached and ran a sunglasses business. In 2019, he was single, working at Walmart, and a father of two.
Donna graduated from high school and worked at the Fort Benjamin Harrison Financial Center. She got married twice; her second husband died of cancer in 2011. Donna, a breast cancer survivor, had three children. In 2019, Donna was a single woman.
Both were going very well in life. Neither of them knew what was going to happen.
But 2019 was the year Laura’s husband gave her a 23andMe DNA and genetic test kit as a gift. He had seen her sobbing as she watched TLC’s “Long Lost Family” as people reunited with their biological parents.
Laura was sitting in bed when the results arrived. You have a relative, an uncle by the last name Horn. She reread it. And even.
“Oh my God, that must be (Donna’s) brother,” Laura said to herself. Her mother had only told her the maiden name of Donna where she was born. “I had this wave of emotions.”
Then Donna’s sister appeared as a parent. Laura sent him a letter, thinking she might be his birth mother. She sent them both her contact details. Laura was sitting in her University of Arkansas office when the email arrived.
It was Donna who held out her hand. I am your biological mother. I feel like I owe you this. Everything you want to know.
“I went into my boss and coworkers’ office and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ Laura said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I had waited all these years.”
Donna gave Laura the name of her biological father.
In another twist of fate, Laura already knew Joe. Her best friend in high school had married Joe’s nephew.
When she first spoke to Joe on the phone, the first words out of her mouth were, “Oh my God, if you look like Donna, I bet you’re so pretty.”
Laura thought it was so sweet, after all these years, that love in her voice. Laura helped Donna and Joe get in touch. The two started talking and never stopped. When they met they hugged and it was like 50 years had melted away.
“We saw each other and hugged and cried,” Joe said. “We knew. We knew. You know what I mean?”
They got married in May.
Reuniting her biological parents is not what Laura had wanted when she went looking for them. All she wanted was to know where she came from. To ask if she was born of love.
“It feels really good to be a part of…” Laura walks away. Participate in the end of this teenage love affair.
And yes. The answer is yes. She was born out of love.
Follow IndyStar reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow
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