ESCANABA - Google the name William James Smith and you will come up with about 232 million results. So if you're looking for the man you believe to be your father, how do you begin sorting out that many possibilities?
This is the challenge that faced Lorna Ayala, formerly of Plainwell in the Kalamazoo area and a recent resident of the Escanaba area along with her husband, Angel. Lorna knew that her father had at least one other family before he married her mother, Ruth (Hicks) Smith, and was curious, not only of learning more about her dad, but also the possibly of connecting with other siblings she might have through him. Her quest began more than 10 years ago while still living in Kalamazoo.
"My mother and father didn't stay together," she explained. "After my birth, he abandoned my mother and I was raised by my grandparents. They never told me anything about my father, but I did have a name and birthdate."
Dorothy McKnight | Daily Press
Bill Phillips of Gladstone, seated at left, and his sister, Lorna Ayala, formerly of Lower Michigan, center, never knew each other existed until Lorna began looking for their birth father on the Internet. They are pictured with Bill’s wife,?Eileen, and Lorna’s husband, Angel.?After they were united for the first time in 2008, their families began sharing information about each other and made frequent visits between the Kalamazoo area and Gladstone. The Ayalas moved to the local area in 2013.
Although she realized that it would be almost miraculous to find any meaningful information, Lorna decided to post an inquiry on a genealogy website. The inquiry, posted on Oct. 18, 1999, read as follows:
"Searching for any information on James William Smith born in Escanaba, MI, March 4, 1924, son of Hal and Virginia (Daoust) Smith. Lived in Kalamazoo, MI, for many years, served in the U. S. Army during WW II. He has two sisters and two brothers. Married my mother, Ruth of Plainwell, MI, in 1953. They never divorced. Any information regarding this family would be greatly appreciated. I believe that they may have come from Canada at one point. His sister's names are Mary, called Sue, and Marian. Thanks Lorna"
Meanwhile, more than 400 miles away in Gladstone, Bill (James) Phillips was also curious about his birth-father. Because his mother, Lucy, had remarried a man named Ray Phillips who had adopted Bill and his brother, Richard, Bill never realized his biological father was named Smith.
"I always knew my father married my mother locally and then went into the Army only to abandon us," said Bill. "I always thought my name was Phillips and didn't know that I was adopted until I went into the service and my parents had to sign for me to go in."
Years later, after learning his biological father's real name from his mother, he started looking for information about him - mostly for medical reasons. That was about 10 years ago. But Bill couldn't find any records on him at the local court house.
By astounding coincidence, Bill said his son, Joe Phillips, who had been helping with the research, found Lorna's posting on the genealogy website and shared that with his father. Together, they decided to respond to Lorna's request. But despite the response, Lorna was cautious.
"I wanted to protect myself as my father has hurt a lot of people," she said. "But when I got an email from Joe, I couldn't believe it! I really had mixed feelings and wondered if I really wanted to get involved. I asked my husband what he thought about it. The only reason I even made any connection between us was that I heard he was married to a lady in the U.P. But that could have been anyone. I decided to answer. Even then I didn't knew that we could possibly be related until I got a second message from Joe."
Lorna then knew her father had two families, unknown to each other. She thought there might be other children, thinking she was likely the eldest. She also knew that her father had died in 1979.
A short time later, Lorna received a personal phone call from Bill.
"That was on Nov. 7, 2007, and we talked a very long time and even talked about meeting half way at sometime in the future.
In January 2008, after many telephone calls to one another, and one particular call, Lorna said to her husband, "We really had a nice talk...let's go."
Lorna did not want to tell Bill they were coming to meet him.
"I wanted to surprise him," she explained.
With Joe help, the plan was set into motion. They had exchanged photos in the beginning so Bill knew what Lorna looked like.
"But even as we went, within just three miles from Gladstone, I wondered if we should turn around. I kept thinking, 'What if we don't get along and don't like each other?' I worried about rejection and feelings of being alone most of my life. I just wasn't sure if I wanted to go through with it."
Despite her own hesitation and some very bad weather, Angel, Lorna and Joe met at a gas station in Gladstone before finally meeting her half-brother and his wife, Eileen, for the first time.
"He was speechless and that was odd for him," said Eileen describing her husband's first meeting with his sister. "He wasn't saying a word...he was just hugging her and hugging her."
"It's been awesome ever since," Lorna said, smiling at the memory. "Eileen is just wonderful and the rest of the family is just great."
Lorna learned that she had five nephews and a niece, and Bill had gained five nephews. The siblings traveled back and forth for meetings for several years before Lorna and Angel decided to moved to the local area in October of 2013.
"I had recently retired and wanted to be by my brother and decided to come," Lorna said. "So we sold one house and bought another."
Both extended families have enjoyed getting to know each other, and Lorna said Bill's mother, Lucy, has helped to bring the new-found siblings closer together.
"Lucy has been a good source of information and she helped Bill and I put together information," Lorna said. "I learned there are certain other relatives on my father's side, but it will be hard to find them because girls' names are changed when they marry or remarry."
Both Bill and Lorna feel that there are other reasons - perhaps more practical - for divided families to find each other if they can.
"There might be people looking for medical information they might need and it's especially nice when you're getting to our age where it's helpful to know," Bill said. "My one regret is that Lorna never got to meet my brother (Richard) who passed away in 2000."
Finding her brother has cleared a lot of questions in Lorna's mind as well.
"It's a really strange feeling when you don't know about your family," she said. "I didn't look like my mother or my grandmother either and I always wondered. Lucy has been so good to me and she introduces me as 'my daughter' and I love her very much."
Listening to his wife and her brother talk about their experience, Angel said, "When she got the letter from Joe, we already had a lot of immediate family. But all we had was information from one side of the family."
As Angel talked, Bill nodded his head and smiled as he added, "We had 53 years of never knowing anything about each other and now it's amazing. I found my sister and inherited a lot more family."