After two decades, college sweathearts reconnect
Peter and Ellen Johnson keep photos of special moments together after rekindling their love in 1985, 20 years after they met. Photos courtesy of Ellen and Peter Johnson
A first love is powerful and nearly impossible to forget. And if it’s meant to be, it can be strong enough to cross the span of time and space — no matter what happens in between. There’s something truly romantic about a love that never quite ran its course.
In 1956, Ellen Kayser and Peter Johnson came to UW–Madison from two different worlds.
While Peter had his eyes on Ellen during their freshman year, it wasn’t until the fall semester of their sophomore year when they began dating.
It was a love story that began on Langdon Street; Ellen was the president of her sorority, Delta Gamma, and Peter was a part of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity.
At the time, though, they simply didn’t sync up.
Peter was too wild. Ellen was more mature.
Ellen and Peter graduated from UW–Madison in 1960, and diverged onto their own paths into the world, to become the people they were meant to be.
Lights out. Curtains closed. Radio silence.
Ellen and Peter Johnson’s love story came to a close following their graduation at UW–Madison. Each of them went on to marry other people, follow their career dreams and have children.
Ellen combined her passion for social studies, art and medical microbiology to become the director of the art department at Marshall Erdman and Associates, a healthcare design-and-build firm.
Peter went on to become a successful business owner, fueled by his strong and driven personality. He became the founder of two Madison-based companies, Hy Cite, a high-end cookware and consumer finance company, and Tetrionics, a contract manufacturer of high-potency drug compounds.
Back then, it wasn’t hard to be completely in the dark about what an old flame was up to. It wasn’t like today’s digital age, where you can enter a name into Facebook’s search bar and learn seemingly everything about what they went on to do with their lives since the last time you saw them.
While they both lived in Wisconsin, they didn’t cross paths. They lived their own lives, separate from one another, without a clue of what either of them was up to.
Until one day when Peter bumped into Ellen for the first time in 20 years.
Peter was out mowing his lawn in Applewood, a subdivision in Madison’s west side. One of Ellen’s good friends happened to live right up the road from Peter at the time. Without knowing it was him, Ellen pulled over the car to ask for help with directions. As she walked out of the car, Peter looked up and for a brief moment, they simply just looked at each other. Peter realized it was her and Ellen realized it was him, and they went on to engage in small talk conversation — as former flames do — and before he knew it, she was back in her car and on her way.
“When she drove away, I said, you know, I think someday I’m gonna marry that girl, and I really did say that to myself as I continued to mow the lawn,” Peter says.
“When she drove away, I said, ‘I think someday I’m gonna marry that girl,’ and I really did say that to myself as I continued to mow the lawn.”
— Peter Johnson
Peter was recently separated, and he promised himself he would wait one year following his divorce before he would pick up the phone to call Ellen. He believed that if she was the one he was going to marry, and he knew she was, he had to wait at least one year before calling her. Peter felt he needed to acclimate himself back into being single, getting the hurt out of his system and the failure of his first marriage to allow himself to open his heart again.
It was August 1985, when Peter finally decided he was ready to pick up the phone.
One day at work, the phone rang. Ellen remembers hearing someone in the department saying that there was someone on the phone with a loud voice asking for her.
“Do you know who this is?” Peter asked her.
“With a voice like that. … A voice I can never forget,” Ellen told him. “Hi, Peter.”
Lights on. Curtains open. A familiar voice.
It wasn’t until November 1985 that Ellen and Peter finally found a date to meet. It took four months for them to find a time that their jobs weren’t taking them all over the world. There was a snow storm that day, so the roads were icy and Ellen called Peter to reschedule.
“Well, hell! I waited three months, it’ll take another three or six months to come up with another date,” Peter says. “There was a restaurant about eight blocks from her house where she lived, and so I said, why don’t we meet there?”
The two of them decided to meet at Smoky’s Club in Madison.
In the restaurant’s dark ambience, the two found themselves reminiscing about old memories, old friends and the nearly 25 years that had passed since they last saw one another.
“It was something that when we started. … It was altogether different,” Peter says. “I mean, you know, at the time, [we were] roughly 45, 46 years old, and you’re a lot more of a mature person, and you’ve experienced a lot of things in life by then. You approach a relationship a whole lot differently than you do when you’re 20 years old.”
The couple’s second act came as no surprise to Tim Dean, a friend who first met Peter when they were in high school and was his roommate at UW–Madison. Back then, Peter also liked to have fun, admitting he may have been “too lively.”
“He certainly was!” Ellen says. “He came from a smaller town and he just had a wonderful time.”
“I agree with that!” Dean says with a laugh. “I totally agree with that.”
“I always thought they were kinda meant for each other,” says Dean, who has remained friends with Ellen and Peter over the years. “They’re just both very intelligent and really good people, and just should’ve been together. … Their moral compass is straight north. It really is.”
Ellen’s son, Grant Frautschi, remembers her first official date with Peter. When Peter pulled up for the couple’s first official date in a red Corvette convertible, Frautschi had his doubts.
“I remember thinking to myself that, this guy doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell taking my mom out in a convertible on a cold night to a hockey game,” Frautschi says.
He remembers his mom coming home after the date and asking her how it was, he knew the hockey game wasn’t going to be the highlight of it.
“He drives too fast, but the sound system in his car was excellent!” Ellen says.
“And somehow he won her over [by taking her out to a Badger hockey game], I think it’s a testament to Peter’s excitement, and how fun and how great of a person he is,” Frautschi says. “Without a doubt.”
Despite the fact that Ellen wasn’t a fan of hockey, fancy cars or cold winter nights, it wasn’t about that. It was about the person sitting in the driver’s seat. It was Peter’s liveliness, not necessarily his fast driving, but the thrill that Peter gave Ellen that made her feel young again.
“I remember thinking to myself that, this guy doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell taking my mom out in a convertible on a cold night to a hockey game.”
— Grant Frautschi
While 20 years have passed since Ellen and Peter went to UW–Madison by the time of their first date, Peter’s wildness and zest for life had not faded.
Ellen reminisces on a memory of Peter from college when his liveliness shone through.
During their freshman year, following a Badger win, Peter ran out on the football field to yank one of the little red flags out of the end zone. It was an old school tradition for the band to parade down Langdon Street when Wisconsin won. Peter marched behind the band into Ann Emery Hall, where Ellen was living at the time, to leave the flag at the front desk for her.
Years later, after Peter and Ellen were married, the red flag was sitting in their garage.
“He couldn’t believe I still had that. I guess I always saved it.” Ellen says.
“She still had that flag,” Peter says. “She kept it.”
After all this time, they were meant to be. After those years of being in the dark, apart from one another, they finally understood why they needed that time apart. It was their time to become the people they were meant to be, together.
Peter and Ellen are known for doing things differently, in fun ways that keep life interesting. They got married in July 1988 and they planned a surprise wedding. Everyone thought it was Ellen’s birthday party, but little did the guests know that they would be showing up to parking lot 60 in Madison and shuttled to the Unitarian Church to watch Peter and Ellen exchange vows.
At 50 years old, their sense of excitement for love and life was not going anywhere.
“We’ve had a wonderful time,” Ellen says. “He’s so lively and spirited, and always wants to do things.”
With the emotions of a first love and depths of lived experience, Ellen and Peter Johnson remain as in love as they were at 50 today at 83 years old.
“As she said after we got married, ‘All that wildness at 20 I didn’t like, but that wildness at 50 I did like,’” Peter says.