OLDSMAR — Andrew Cavanaugh never gave up trying to find his first three children. He carried their photos in his wallet for 45 years, and a handkerchief in his pocket for whenever he thought about them.
After so much time, he wondered if he would ever find out what had become of them. Were they even alive? Did they know he existed?
Meanwhile, John, Randy and Candy Shuler never suspected their family tree was even slightly bent. Their parents were Johnnie and Jacqueline Shuler. That, at least, is what they had always been told.
But that was a lie. Johnnie Shuler was not their biological father, even though they always thought he was. So they had no reason to suspect their father was looking for them.
"He talked about them all the time," said Mr. Cavanaugh's wife, Armaleen, 81. "He asked everybody who might possibly know where they were."
Mr. Cavanaugh finally connected with his long-lost children in 2001. He died Monday, in a car crash. He was 79. His life story is one of blood relatives kept apart by a secret.
A native of St. Ignace, Mich., Mr. Cavanaugh got married at 17. He and his wife, Jacqueline, had three children. On the battlefields of Korea, he got a letter from Jacqueline: She wanted a divorce.
Her new husband, Shuler, became an Air Force officer who was stationed around the world. The parents never told the three children that Shuler was not their biological father — or that a fourth child they had together was actually a half sister.
"We grew up thinking that we were all four brothers and sisters, and that we all belonged to him," said Candy Shuler, 60.
The Shulers lived in Southeast Asia and the United States and always kept their phone number unlisted.
Mr. Cavanaugh remarried, too. He drove a truck and worked for a sign company.
In the last year of her life, Jacqueline Shuler began to drop clues. She said that they had been adopted, and that their biological father, whom she declined to name, might live in Tampa.
She died in 1997. A couple of years later, Candy Shuler, then 50, visited a terminally ill uncle in Arkansas and pressed him for information about her father.
"He went into his room," Shuler said, "and he came out with a St. Ignace phone book, where we all came from. And he handed me the phone book and he said, 'His name is Andrew Cavanaugh.' "
"You feel stunned," Shuler said. "Questions start hitting you, like 'Why? Why didn't they tell us? Why did they keep it a secret?' "
Through directory assistance, her brother, John, found Mr. Cavanaugh in Oldsmar, where he had lived since 1964. "This is your son," said John Cavanaugh, now 57.
On the other end of the line, his father wept.
In 2002, the two long-separated families met in Oldsmar.
"Bless his heart, he cried for two days," stepdaughter Shannon Baker, 58, said of Mr. Cavanaugh.
Sometimes, anger mixes with the elation. "We grew up with aunts, uncles and grandparents that weren't even really, biologically ours," Candy Shuler said. Nor did they meet Mr. Cavanaugh's new, blended family: five children with Armaleen (one of whom they will never meet; Michael Cavanaugh drowned at 18), or the four from her first marriage.
Each family had qualms about how it would be received by the other. "We wondered if they would resent us," Candy Shuler said. But over eight years, dozens of extended family members have strengthened relationships.
On Monday, this feel-good story took an unexpected turn.
Mr. Cavanaugh, who took a daily walk in Philippe Park, was headed there shortly before noon when his 2004 Buick Century collided with another car at State Road 580. He died six hours later at Mease Countryside Hospital. Dozens of family members gathered Friday morning at Philippe Park to begin a daylong celebration of Mr. Cavanaugh's life. As at previous reunions, there were tears and hugs all around.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.