The power of love--Karen Coston had an unforgettable romance when she was a high school foreign exchange student. Now she feels like a teenager again.
By Travis Williams The Roanoke Times
June 9, 20012
Daniel Lin photo
Retired Blacksburg High School social studies teacher Karen Coston fell in love with Hartmut Laegel more than 50 years ago when they met in Germany. She found him on Facebook recently and the connection was immediate.
Photo courtesy of Karen Coston
Karen Coston wrote Hartmut Laegel more than 100 letters when she returned to the United States, and he still has them all.
Photo courtesy of Karen Coston
Karen Coston and Hartmut Laegel met when she was an exchange student in Germany and played in a youth symphony orchestra. "We just clicked," Coston said. "We made sweet music together." They recently reconnected and will be married in September.
BLACKSBURG — Karen Coston just finished her final year of high school, and now she's planning to run off and marry a man from Germany she connected with on Facebook.
Teenagers these days, right?
Coston, 67, just wrapped up a 28-year teaching career in Montgomery County and in September plans to wed Hartmut Laegel, whom she first met and fell in love while she was a 16-year-old exchange student in Braunschweig, Germany, in 1960.
"It was that wonderful first magnificent love that you have," Coston said.
Coston said she met the then 18-year-old German while he was serving as the concertmaster for the youth symphony orchestra in which she played string bass. The pair quickly fell in love, she said.
"We just clicked," Coston said, adding with a smile that "we made sweet music together."
That music suffered a forced ending in 1961 when Coston's time as an exchange student came to an end and she returned to the United States.
Though the two attempted to remain connected through letters, Coston said because each letter took almost a month to travel to its destination by sea, they soon drifted apart and eventually lost touch.
Coston went on to earn a bachelor's degree in foreign service from Georgetown University and a master's degree in economics from the University of Southern California, before moving to Blacksburg, where she married and started a family.
Once that plan took root, Coston said, she turned to teaching because she felt it was a career that fit well with her duties as a mother. She earned her teaching certificate from Radford University and began teaching full time at Shawsville High School in 1985, before moving to Blacksburg High in 1990.
In the classroom, Coston developed a reputation as an educator who could reach students with even the most complex material, teaching many Advanced Placement courses.
"She's really funny and keeps her class interesting, but at the same time you learn stuff," said 2012 Blacksburg graduate Edwin Lu.
"You can't really explain the Ms. Coston experience," he said.
Outside the classroom, Coston often could be spotted participating in extracurricular activities ranging from coaching academic teams to occasionally working the "chain gang" — assistants to the referee who handle the first down measuring chain and the down indicator box — at junior varsity football games, according to former Blacksburg High School teacher Johnna Elliott.
"Yeah, we wore the little outfits and everything," Elliott said.
Elliott not only worked the sideline with her friend of close to 20 years, but she also played a key role in helping Coston locate her long-lost love.
Elliott said that for as long as she could remember, Coston resisted the "fun parts" of technology, but about two years ago finally was coaxed into joining Facebook as a way to stay connected with her current friends. Little did Elliott know, Coston would be reaching out quickly to her special friend from the past.
"The first thing she did was Facebook Hartmut," Elliott said.
"Are you my Hartmut from many years ago?" Coston asked, describing her first message.
While Coston waited anxiously for a response, she sought comfort from Elliott.
"She came over to my house. She said, 'I've done this thing and I don't know what to do,'" Elliott said.
Her worry soon turned to glee as she said Laegel answered, "Yes, that is me and I've been looking for you!"
Laegel said in an email that he had been looking for Coston for more than five years when she messaged him, which he described as his greatest wish coming true.
The two began the process of getting reacquainted and found out their lives, up to that point, contained many parallels. Both had been through a marriage and a divorce, both had two children and both were nearing the end of their careers in the field of education.
"I was kind of surprised and shocked ... he was in the same phase of life, looking for someone to share some of your retirement years with," Coston said.
Coston said she also learned that she had been Laegel's first kiss and that he still had all of the close to 120 letters she had written him in a shoe box.
Through the power of modern technologies such as Skype, the two soon rekindled their relationship and in July 2011, Coston traveled to Germany to see her first love in person for the first time in more than 50 years.
"He was a grown-up version of a young boy," Coston said.
Coston returned that fall to begin her final year at Blacksburg, and a few months later, Laegel took his first trip to the United States, traveling to Christiansburg to spend Christmas and New Year's with Coston.
In March, the two met in New York City, where Laegel presented Coston with an engagement ring.
As their relationship bloomed, many of Coston's friends and co-workers said they noticed the positive effect it was having on her.
"It's been cool to watch her be transformed because of her newfound love. She's so happy," said Blacksburg High School teacher Amy Stevens.
"It made her like a schoolgirl, she's just giddy and happy," Elliott said.
Stevens added that it wasn't just the faculty taking notice either, but in true high school fashion, talk of the romance soon spread throughout the student body.
"The students have been a part of it. They love it. They all tease her about her German lover," Stevens said.
Lu agreed and said he couldn't remember how it started, but it had definitely become the relationship highlight of the school year.
"Everyone is like, 'Aw that's so cute' or 'That's awesome.' I haven't heard a single person disapprove," he said.
Lu was one of the students who had the chance to meet Laegel in person during his winter visit. He said he has given his former teacher the go-ahead for the wedding.
"He's a real cool guy. He's really nice. I approve," Lu said.
Though there was plenty of good-hearted teasing, Stevens pointed out that Coston was this year's student selection to speak at the senior program, as well as having the yearbook dedicated in her honor.
One key part of the two-page spread, which contains several pictures of the couple, is a German inscription that reads, "Happy wishes for the future and a wonderfully beautiful life with Hartmut."
Coston will begin that wonderfully beautiful life Sept. 15 when a new chapter is added to her and Laegel's love story with an outdoor wedding held in Elliott's back yard.
Elliott said it seemed only fitting that just as her friend's career of helping students achieve their dreams was coming to a close, all the cards fell into place to make one of Coston's oldest dreams come true.
"It's a fairy tale," Coston said.
"Let's just hope isn't one of those Grimm ones where the kids get eaten in the end," she joked.
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