It’s a love story that has spanned five decades and two continents and which would be at home in a Hollywood blockbuster yet it all began in Kennedy Place, just off the Fountain. Finally, this week, local woman Avril Lappin had her happy ending when she travelled back to her home city on the arm of the American sailor she first fell in love with on the streets of Derry 49 years ago. Journal reporter CLAIRE ALLAN heard their remarkable story.
It was July 11, 1960 and Bob Faunce, stationed with the US Navy at Campsie, was celebrating his 20th birthday. But there are other reasons for his remembering that day so clearly - because it was the first time he set eyes on Avril Lappin from Derry’s own Kennedy Place - and it was the day he fell completely and totally in love.
“I’ll never forget it,” Bob said, sitting beside Avril in Derry’s Tower Hotel as the couple returned to the city for a naval base reunion this week. “I’ll never forget meeting Avril. My life changed that day,” he said. The couple quickly became inseparable and spent the following year falling “madly in love”.
“We would do a lot of walking, a lot of going to the movies. Or maybe going out to the base. Bob would come back home to have his tea with my family. My mammy always said to me he was a ‘lovely wee sailor’ but wondered why he never so much as brought her a tin of spam,” Avril laughed.
“Or we would go to the Bollies - that’s were you went to neck,” Bob laughed, a twinkle in his eye. So inseperable were the pair they intended to get married - and were only separated when Bob’s stint in Derry finished and he had to return to the States.
“I was to follow him,” Avril said. “I had the money for my passport. He had sent me money for a wedding dress. I was all set and it was then I got that lovely sad letter.”
With tears in both their eyes, Bob recalls how he simply took a case of “cold feet”. “I was young, and a sailor - travelling around. I didn’t really know what I wanted and I made the biggest mistake of my life.”
Avril said that receiving the letter sent her into a “tailspin” but she remained determined not to give up hope on Bob and their love. Bravely, she left her life in Derry - and her job as factory girl - and travelled to Chicago intent on finding Bob again. “I figured once he saw me again he would realise how he loved me and everything would be okay,” Avril said. Working as a nanny for a family with five children she settled down into American life and eventually contacted Bob’s mother to tell her she was looking for him.
“His mom said she would pass on a message. What she didn’t tell me at the time was that he was already married. He had married within a year of leaving Derry.”
Devastated and alone on the other side of the world to her family, Avril acted with her trademark tenacity and decided to forge a life for herself, meeting and marrying a man she describes as a “wonderful father” to their children. Despite the contentment she found with her marriage, she said she remained in love with Bob. “We did meet up in those early years. We knew then that we still wanted to be together but we were both married and we could not have hurt our partners. And in time we just drifted apart although Bob said he could never get his “lovely Avril” out of his mind. “I spent 21 years with the US Navy and moved around a lot. I never in all that time stopped thinking of Avril or of what might have been.”
Still entranced by Derry and his time here, Bob returned to the city 2007 for a reunion at the Campsie Naval Base. “I travelled for 21 years with the US Navy and nowhere made as big an impact on me as Derry,” Bob said, “and it wasn’t just because of Avril. The people here were so friendly. All the sailors said the same - Derry was the base they talked about. I suppose I had more of a link than most but I was happy to come back here in 2007.”
He said at that stage with more than 30 years having passed since he had last heard from her, he admits he did not even know if Avril was still alive.
“It was strange really,” he said, “I was in back in Derry when I heard she was still alive. My heart just leapt. She was alive and I knew I had to seek her out.”
In fact it was a letter Avril had written to the ‘Derry Journal’ after her own trip back to Derry in 2007 that alerted him to the fact that she was still very much alive. “The Journal had written a story about me and my sisters - we were back for a reunion - and afterwards, well, my sister had said something not very nice about Derry and I was so angry!” Avril laughed. “So I wrote to the paper and when Bob was back for the reunion our friend, Kitty Doherty Williams, told him she had seen the letter.”
Now armed with the information that his beloved Avril was still alive and still living in the States, Bob returned home and began searching for her using the power of the internet.
“I knew her married name and that she was now living in Rochester so I went online and tried to track her down.”
It was yet another of Avril’s letters that would lead Robert to her. He came upon a letter she had written for a local newspaper about her grandchildren.
“I knew it was her. I knew the person writing the letter was speaking about her grandchildren exactly the way I would imagine Avril to speak about her grandchildren. I knew and managed to get an email address.”
He sent her a quick email asking simply: “Are you are who I think you are.”
She replied simply: “I’m still the same. I’m me.”
Once he replied, double checking she was Avril Lappin of 1 Kennedy Place, both knew they had found each other again-forty seven years after their first meeting.
Vowing to stay in touch the couple met face to face for the first time last year in Palm Coast, Florida. “It was very emotional,” Avril said. “Very, very emotional. And we’ve not been apart since.”
“It was as if we had never been apart,” Bob said. “ We just fell into conversation again. Everything was comfortable. Everything was perfect.”
“Being madly in love isn’t just for the young ones!” Avril laughed, saying they had both now found “the peace that everyone deserves in their later years.”
The icing on the cake for the couple has been returning to Derry together - 49 years after their first meeting. And while they say the city has been transformed almost beyond recognition, the warmth of the people remains the same. “We’ve walked around and yes, it is different, but it is brilliant. You can feel the souls of all the people who have lived here before. The warmth of the welcome you receive is still the same.
“We’ve been down to the new Peace Bridge - early in the morning and the Foyle was like glass. It was just breathtaking. There have been a lot of tears shed.”
Do either of the couple have any regrets? “No,” Avril says. “We always knew we would be together again. We just didn’t think it would take this long. We don’t want to waste time thinking about what might have been. I think we know what might have been.”
“We just want to look forward to the future, together,” Bob said.
“And he will marry me this time,” Avril laughed.