LARGO — The first time Bill Marion saw Carol Ann Mackuch in a wedding dress, tears streamed down his face in the back of a Michigan church.
He tried to convince his first love not to marry an older bricklayer her parents favored, but he'd come too late.
"It was shortly before the wedding," Carol, 72, a technology coordinator at the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, remembered. "But there was no way. The wedding was all planned and I couldn't do that."
That was 1958.
Bill teared up again when he saw Carol in a wedding dress on Oct. 27, but this time they were tears of joy. Fifty-four years after losing Carol, Bill got her back. The couple were joined as man and wife at St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Largo, at an evening ceremony for 80 friends and family. It was a long road back to love for Bill, 71, a retired tour bus driver, and Carol, who parted ways, married and had children, still remembering their teenage love affair.
Carol, then 18, was a senior in high school and Bill, then 17, was a junior. Their friends invited them to go bowling on a double date.
"When I first saw him I thought, 'Whoa! He's hot,' " Carol said.
Bill was instantly smitten. "I fell in love with her right away," he said.
Not only was she beautiful, she loved the things he loved — bowling, dancing and the outdoors. They were young, but serious.
Then Bill left high school and joined the U.S. Army.
They kept the flame lit with letters as he went through basic training and jump school. Her parents thought she ought to marry someone older and more established, just at the time when a 22-year-old bricklayer strolled into her life. The man who would be her first husband proposed, and she wrote Bill a Dear John letter.
"I had to read it again because I couldn't believe it," he said. "I had planned on her being my wife someday."
Not satisfied with a letter, Bill went home. He found Carol at her job and asked her to call off the wedding. She wouldn't.
So he willed himself to go to the church that day. "I had to see it for myself," Bill recalled. When she said "I do," Bill walked out distraught.
It would be a few years before they would see each other again. Both were married and Carol had already had two children. Their eyes met, but they couldn't speak to one another. Bill and Carol both remember that moment with disappointment.
"I thought I'd never see him again," Carol said. So she stopped looking. She lived her life, eventually moving to Florida.
Two years ago, her daughter asked her if she'd ever tried searching Facebook for her first love, Bill.
Carol's second husband had died of a heart attack four years earlier, and she didn't see the harm in looking Bill up.
Bill looked at the computer in his Stafford, Va., home, stunned. "This can't be her," he said to himself. But he replied anyway. The messages gave way to long phone conversations, and one month later, Bill was coming to Florida.
"He said he was going to come down and buy a car," Carol said, laughing.
He used the opportunity to meet Carol at an Applebee's restaurant near her home. "I was so nervous because it had been so long," Carol said.
But nerves gave way to comfort once Bill strolled in with those same beautiful eyes.
"You haven't changed at all," he told her.
Neither had their feelings. Soon, Bill was moving to Florida. Two years later, they finally married. Carol is in the process of changing her last name from Pilarski to Marion, restoring her original initials.
"I'm back where I started," Carol said.