Share on Facebook  |  More Articles

Published Sunday June 21st, 2009 at 11:43am

Original Article by Pat Shellenbarger

The Internet and DNA tests were useful tools forRichard Hill in his search for his past. In the historic photos, topleft, baby Richard poses with his adoptive parents, Thelma and HaroldHill; top right, his birth father, Douglas Richards, center, poses withhis four brothers; bottom right, his birth mother, Jackie Hartzell,died in an accident a year after he was born.

ROCKFORD, MI -- For 26 years, through a series of false leads andfabricated records, Richard Hill repeatedly was frustrated in searchingfor his birth father.

Frustrated, but not deterred.

When he began, the tools he would need to complete the search hadnot yet been developed. Aside from his own persistence andresourcefulness, it was the rise of the Internet and DNA testing thatsolved the mystery.

Hill, of Rockford, has become an advocate for using those high-tech tools, and he has set up a Web site, to help other adoptees seeking information about their biological past.

"Here DNA had solved the problem for me after 26years," he said. "I'm thinking there are a lot of adoptees out therewho don't know anything about this."

Until he was 18, Hill, now 63, did not know he was adopted. It wasthe family doctor who let it slip. Hill was surprised but too focusedon starting college to think much about it, let alone start searchingfor his birth parents.

Besides, when he was born in 1946, out-of-wedlock births were tabooand open adoptions decades away. On his deathbed in 1978, Hill's fathertold his then-32-year-old son, "You must know by now you were adopted."

Richard's birth mother, his father told him, was "a cute littleIrish girl" named Jackie from the Detroit area who was unwed at thetime. Harold and Thelma Hill, unable to have children, had heard abouther through friends, and she came to live with them during herpregnancy. They took her to the hospital in Lansing, where he was born,paid the bill and kept Richard to raise as their only child.

A year or so later, Jackie died in an auto accident.

And one more thing, his father said: Jackie had another son from anearlier marriage, Richard's half brother. "I think you should find yourbrother," his father said.

A few years later, Hill joined a support group for adoptees and meta volunteer who helped find out more about his birth mother. Her namewas Jackie Hartzell, and she and her sister died when a Jeep they wereriding in rolled over near Northville, he learned.

"My mother was already dead, so I never got to have that reunion,"he said. "But the fact I had a brother, that's what kept me going, totry to find him. When you grow up as an only child, you're sometimesjealous of those who have brothers or sisters."

With the volunteer's help, he found his half-brother, who until then did not know about Richard. They have become close.

Finding relatives on his father's side would be more difficult. Hilldidn't know it at the start of his search, but two facts about menwould help him: The Y chromosome passes from father to son, and, inAmerican culture, so does the surname.

He knew nothing of his birth father. He tracked down friends andrelatives of his birth mother, but none knew his father's name. Onebirth certificate listed his adoptive parents as his birth parents.Another listed Jackie Hartzell's ex-husband as his father, but Hillconsidered that unlikely.

False lead

He obtained adoption records listing his birth father only as anunnamed Polish man. The same volunteer who had helped find hishalf-brother got a judge's permission allowing her to see the closedadoption file.

In those records, she found Hill's birth mother had named a man witha Polish surname as his father. The volunteer arranged for them to meetin early 1990.

"I thought I was talking to my father," Hill recalled. And the mansitting across from him was thrilled he might be talking with his son,but he also was a little skeptical. He had been married three times,the man said, and never had been able to father a child. Just to besure, Hill suggested they undergo a DNA paternity test. The resultsshowed they were not related.

"I think that was the most deflating moment for me," Hill said. "Ihad been chasing this Polish man all these years. He would finally havea son. I would finally know who my father was. We were bothdisappointed."

He was at an impasse, but time and emerging technology were on hisside. In 2006, he learned of a new DNA test more commonly used bygenealogists than adoptees to find their ancestral links.

Through an online service called FamilyTreeDNA, he ordered a Y-DNAtest, comparing his genetic makeup with that of other men in theservice's database. Those he mostly closely matched likely shared acommon ancestor, and, he believed, probably had the same surname as hisbirth father.

"It was kind of a crazy idea," he said, "but I thought this could work."

His closest match, the test showed, was a man in Florida with thelast name of Richards. He e-mailed the man and asked if he hadrelatives in Michigan. The answer was, "No."

Hill turned back to his growing pile of records. He pulled out acopy of his mother's Social Security work record he had ordered 16years earlier. It showed she had worked at a bar called Dann's Tavernin Livonia in 1945. The bar owner's name was Douglas S. Richards.

"Bingo," he said. His wife sat across from him in their lakesidehome. "I think I just found my father," he told her. But where was he,and was he still living?

Through records in Livonia, he learned Dann's Tavern was long gone,and Douglas S. Richards had moved to Texas. He died there in themid-1980s, Hill learned. On the Web site, he searchedSocial Security death records for a Douglas S. Richards who died inTexas in the mid-1980s. He found one.

From the library in the town where Douglas Richards had died heobtained an obituary identifying him as a rancher who once lived inMichigan. He tracked down a Richards relative who confirmed DouglasRichards had owned a bar in Livonia. He was one of five brothers, allof whom had been in the Livonia area in 1945. Any one of them couldhave been his father.

Another test

All five brothers were dead, so testing their DNA was out of thequestion. Hill turned back to the Internet and learned of one more DNAtest -- a "sibling DNA test." All five Richards brothers had sons. Hillwrote them, and they all agreed to submit a cheek swab for testing.

The one most closely matching his DNA would be his half brother,Hill believed, and the other four would be his cousins. The testsshowed Douglas Richards Jr. was his closest match, his half brother.Douglas Richards Sr. was his father.

Since then, Hill has concluded he likely was conceived around Aug.14, 1945, V-J Day, a time of celebration and drinking marking theJapanese surrender and the end of World War II. His birth mother, hebelieves, deliberately listed a wrong name for his birth father,because his actual father was married.

In July 2007, he attended a Richards family reunion near HoughtonLake. He learned more about his birth father, a "serial entrepreneur,"who had started or been involved in some 40 businesses. His one mementois a cowboy hat his birth father wore on his Texas ranch.

In October 2007, Hill and his wife, Pat, took a two-week tour of theSouth, meeting other Richards relatives. In addition to his maternaland paternal half brothers, he has a paternal half sister born threemonths after him.

"Some people have said to me, 'Oh, you've found your real parents,'"Hill said. "I'm very sensitive to that. I correct them. I say, 'My realparents are the people who raised me. I found my biological parents.'

"I don't have to give up anybody in my adopted family. It's not aneither-or thing. You're just adding on. You can't have too much family."