If young Donna Mae Johnson had returned Charles Schulz's affections all the way to the altar, the world might never have received the greatest Valentine's Day comics narrative ever told.
Instead, because the redheaded Ms. Johnson chose another man over "Sparky" Schulz, readers would be forever gifted with Charlie Brown's annual ritual of unrequited love.
Tuesday was the 64th anniversary of the first Valentine's Day Peanuts strip, in which Charlie Brown bemoans, "I didn't get a single Valentine! Not one!!" – which prompts the gift of a pity card. That inaugural strip didn't feature the Little Red-Haired Girl, but Peanuts eventually would, as the off-camera object of Chuck's obsession became a running symbol of his dreams, desires and hard-luck love life.
Several years before that strip appeared, Schulz fell for the real-life "little red-haired girl" in his native Minnesota. In contrast to the comic, Charles and Donna actually dated.
"She was the first person Sparky was in a real relationship with – the first person he let his love all hang out for," Jean Schulz, who was married to the "Peanuts" creator for the better part of three decades, told The Washington Post in 2015. "When they were working together, they would pass each other drawn notes."
"Oh, we dated about two years," the real-life Donna Johnson told The Post in 2015. "I loved him." The boy who had once been too shy to hand out Valentines to classmates was a man in his mid-20s growing in his confidence with Donna. He even coached her on the company softball team at Art Instruction Inc. in Minneapolis.
Ultimately, though, Donna chose Al Wold, a strapping firefighter, over Schulz. "I guess I chose Al because I knew Al's friends, who became my friends," she said. "I didn't really know Sparky's friends."
"But it was a long time ago," she added.
Schulz, though, could not readily forget the sting of that loss. United Feature Syndicate launched his Peanuts in 1950; within three years, his first Valentine's Day card strip appeared.
In 1961, Charlie Brown mentioned "that little girl with the red hair" for the first time. But it wasn't to be; he pined for her through the end of the feature, as well as in the animated specials and the recent feature film.
We can't know her, Jean Schulz said. "There's this mystique and this fantasy."
But Charlie Brown's mailbox patience – like vigils for requited love – was enduring.
"There's an old legend that says if you stand in front of your mailbox long enough, you'll receive a Valentine," Charlie Brown says to Lucy in one especially memorable strip. In another, he says, "Valentine's Day is over. I'd give anything if that little red-haired girl had sent me a Valentine."
This dynamic would fuel two animated specials, 1975's Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown and Schulz's posthumous 2002 show, A Charlie Brown Valentine.
It also would spark a 13-year tradition at the Schulz Museum in the Bay Area: Ahead of Valentine's Day, redheads get free admission.
Donna Johnson Wold died last August – one year after she told The Post, "I've had a good life."
And the Valentine that never arrives remains a vital aspect of the feature – one of numerous Peanuts holiday rituals.
"All you need is love," Charles Schulz said. "But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt."