With Facebook, adoption search angels and luck, I found Dad's brother

"I have a brother. He was born in Huntington, W.Va., in 1945 and was put up for adoption in Toledo. If you know anybody in Toledo, ask them if adoption papers are open to the public."

My father, Danny Miller, was 68 when he told me he had a brother he never knew. His cryptic request, sent by e-mail after he learned I was traveling to Toledo, Ohio, to visit friends in summer 2009, came as a shock, and I had questions. He didn't have many answers.

His brother was born David Joseph Miller. But what was his name now? Does he know he has a brother out there, somewhere? What does he look like? Is he even alive?

I told my father he should write to the Ohio court, where he knew David's adoption had taken place, and request David's file.

A reply came back. Request denied. "Under Ohio law, all adoption records are sealed, confidential files. I am sorry I could not honor your request for information — and I hope you find your brother," the writer said, as if to soften the blow.

We had hit a dead end.

• • •

Over the next year or so, I gleaned bits of information from my father. A 1952 letter from a Toledo court, which he inherited after his own father's death in 1992, was helpful.

David was a World War II baby. Betty Miller, 28, already had three children when he was born — Richard, Patty and Danny — and her husband, George Miller, was serving in the South Pacific. When a couple in town visiting relatives for the holidays expressed interest in David, who was just days old and sleeping in a banana box, they were "greatly impressed and were told by his mother that they could have him," the Toledo court wrote.

That couple took David in when he was 9 days old, and in late 1952 took steps to make sure they could keep him. The letter from the court shed some light on the circumstances of David's birth. It described George Miller as "David's legal father, but not necessarily his natural father, as he was serving overseas at the time of David's birth." The letter informed Miller that David's foster family wanted to adopt. The court was recommending approval. "David is loved by his present foster parents and is a happy, normal child," it said.

• • •

Fast-forward to this year. My father Danny Miller's 70th birthday was approaching and I decided to try in earnest to locate David. I sought help from G's Adoption Registry, a free website dedicated to reuniting adoptees with birth relatives. At gsadoptionregistry.com, people searching for family members answer a questionnaire and it is posted on the website, which acts as a bulletin board that can reach the world.

The information is also shared with a team of "search angels." G's angels are volunteers, usually with some adoption connection themselves. They conduct a search online using databases and genealogy websites funded from their own pockets. They work as a team to pool resources and expertise. Still, a search can take years and yield no results.

I provided David's birth name, date of birth and where he was born and adopted. I listed his parents' names and mother's maiden name. It took a couple of days for the form to get posted.

It took just a couple of hours to get a reply back once it was forwarded to the search angels: "I'm not sure we could be this lucky, but this DAVID JOSEPH matches the DOB and had a connection to Toledo."

His name was David Joseph Sowards. Age 65. And he lived in Florida. Could this be him?

• • •

A baby adopted at birth is often renamed. David, however, went years before his formal adoption. This was good news. "Unless they completely changed a 7-year-old's name, that should be him," the search team told me.

I wanted reassurance before trying to contact this man. The search angels offered more evidence: a page from the Ohio amended births index, 1940-1998. David Joseph Sowards was in the book — a sure sign that some sort of adoption had taken place.

We had a possible match: first name, David, and middle name, Joseph. Born 12-19-1945. Has a Toledo connection. And this David had an amended birth record.

The search angels had provided a list of phone numbers attached to David Sowards over the years. It was hard to tell how old they were and I called, one by one. They did not pan out.

I wanted to know more, so I Googled. The Internet is a vast dumping ground of data. We all leave behind bread crumbs, bits of information about our lives waiting to be followed. I followed David Sowards'.

By comparing people-finder websites, like spokeo.com and www.radaris.com, I compiled a list of possible relatives and looked for lives that overlapped. Eventually, I thought I had a tenuous portrait of David Sowards.

He spent time in Ohio, then Michigan. He had a wife, or ex-wife, named Diane or Diana. She didn't appear to follow David when he moved to Florida. Two other names, judging by their ages, were likely his children: Jennifer L., 39, and David II, 45, both living in Ohio. Another name threw me off: Amy or was it Ami? I dug further. An item in the Toledo Blade dated in March made me think this was a daughter-in-law. I filed that information away and concentrated on Jennifer and the two Davids.

I scoured Facebook and found lots of Sowardses. Some in Florida, some in West Virginia, others in Ohio. By cross-checking friend lists I found Jen Sowards-Chamoun, who had a friend named Dave Sowards and another named Amy Sowards. Could these be David's children? I decided to focus on Jen and sent her an e-mail.

I typed "Sowards genealogy research ... Ohio relatives" in the subject line. I explained that I was researching my family tree and it led me to the Sowards family tree. I was hoping she could help me connect some dots. I included my phone number.

A week went by. Nothing.

So I sent her a Facebook friend request. I included a message: "I think we may be cousins, can you help me find out?" And I waited. Silence. I later found out that she called her mother and asked if she recognized the name Pam Webster and were there any Websters in the family. Her mother said no. I had not mentioned my maiden name, which might have been enlightening, and Jen ignored my Facebook request.

I asked friends and co-workers with Ohio connections to type Jen's name into Facebook to see if they had any friends in common. A Toledo friend had a match.

I sent a second Facebook message: "If you need someone to vouch for me, one of your Facebook friends (Linda) went to high school with one of mine (Dawn). Dawn will say nice things about me. I think."

That got her attention. She works with Linda. But Linda called in sick that night. Jen took a chance and friended me back anyway, thinking "I could always delete you later."

I was nervous. How do you ask a stranger if her father is adopted? I sent another message, repeating my contention that we might be related.

She replied back, asking if I was born in Ohio and what was my maiden name.

"I was not born in Ohio," I said. "But there's a possibility we are cousins on your father's side if your father is David Joseph Sowards, age 65."

She was stunned. It had never occurred to her we might be related on her father's side. You see, she said, her father was adopted.

"My dad is David Joseph Sowards. He was adopted at birth and he's been looking for family his entire life. He was born in West Virginia and my grandparents (adoptive) lived there and then moved to Toledo. I don't know anyone on my dad's side of the family. Where were you born?"

I told her. And I told her I thought that my father and her father are brothers, or at least half-brothers. She pressed me again for my maiden name, and this time I replied: Miller.

"I got chills," she later told me. And she immediately called her father in Florida, who double-checked his adoption papers.

Minutes later: "Oh, my gosh, Pam! We are! My dad's birth name was Miller! I just talked to my dad and he's in tears! He's going to call you tonight, okay? Thank you. Thank you!"

It was 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. Within minutes I was talking to David, my uncle. He lives in Hudson, 50 miles from me. He works in Clearwater, five miles from my house.

He asked lots of questions. For some, I had answers. Others, I didn't think it was my place to tell. He wanted to call my father right away.

"Let me break the news to him first," I said. "He doesn't know I've continued looking for you." It was late, and I debated whether to make the call.

"You talked to WHO?" my father said when I woke him to share the news.

The rest is a blur.

While my dad and I were talking, David and his daughter were, too. It was a late night for everyone.

Jen filled me in afterward. "My dad called me and started crying," she said. "He's been looking for over 25 years. I can't wait to tell my brother and sister. … My mom said every time they would go to West Virginia, my dad would look for his family and always ended up on a dead end."

The next day, I got a text. "My Dad is sooo excited to meet his brother!"

• • •

The brothers agreed to meet in Crystal River, between my father's home in Fanning Springs and David's home in Hudson. My husband and I drove to Hudson to pick up David. We pulled into an IHOP parking lot. A tall man with close-cropped hair walked up.

"Well, do I look anything like him?" David asked.

"A little," I said. But I had to laugh. David is 6 foot 1. My father, 5 foot 6.

"You sound like him," my husband said.

We piled into one car and headed north toward Cracker's Bar & Grill in Crystal River.

The brothers met in an unpaved parking lot at the restaurant. A cautious hug. Two big smiles. Some nervous laughter. Then jokes about height and weight and hair, or lack thereof.

My father joked a lot. David was more serious. He teared up a couple of times. He was amazed that not only had he finally met his brother after 65 years, but that they live just 80 miles apart.

"What if you lived in Montana?" he said. "We might never have met in person."

They discussed family, wives, girlfriends. You'd think they were 16. My father told David that their brother Richard had drowned in California in 1963. He shared Dick's dog tags and a telegram from the Marines informing the family. Their sister Patty had drowned, too, in Biscayne Bay in 1977. My father joked that he avoids the water. David said he is drawn to it. David had a revelation of his own: His parents wanted to take in Patty back then, too. It did not work out.

The brothers each brought documents. David had his adoption papers and a birth certificate. My father brought the letter from the court that had been so instrumental in finding his brother. "You can keep that," he told David. "I've carried it for 20 years. It's your turn."

Pam Webster is a copy editor at the Times. She can be reached at pwebster@sptimes.com.

With Facebook, adoption search angels and luck, I found Dad's brother 05/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 5:16pm]

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