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Published Saturday October 3rd, 2009 at 10:03am

Original Article by Celia Dewoody

Willie Whitescarver of Harrison looks through a photo album of his childhood, compiled by his adoptive mother, Shirley Childs. Whitescarver and his children will fly to South Korea this month to meet Willie's birth mother for the first time.
Willie Whitescarver -- once known as "Jo Kyung-Nam" -- is flying back to his native South Korea this month for the first time since he left in 1957 as a 2-year-old. He's going to meet his birth mother, whom he hasn't seen in 52 years.

Whitescarver, a 54-year-old Harrison building contractor, has lived in the United States since he was adopted as a toddler by Shirley and Jimmy Whitescarver of Redding, Calif., who gave him "a happy childhood." He's lived in Harrison since 1977, and his adoptive mom, now Shirley Childs, lives here as well.

Willie has lived his whole life with no information about his Korean family, and without having visited his homeland -- until this year.

For the past 20 years, he has thought about making a trip to Korea, but it has never worked out, either for financial reasons or because of scheduling problems, he said.

"Last winter, I had decided I was going to go this fall, regardless," Willie said.

He started making plans for a trip to South Korea, but at that time, he had no plans to try to find his birth parents.

Then in June, out of the blue, he got a letter from the Holt International Adoption Agency.

"They said they needed to get in touch with William Ray Whitescarver," he said.

Willie called the adoption agency and talked to a social worker, who said they had received some letters from a woman in South Korea they thought he would interest him very much.

"He read them to me on the phone," Willie said.

One of the letters read, in part:

"Dear my son, Suh Chul Soo,

It's been a really, really long time ... I always pray before my Lord for I want to know how you live and hear some news from you. I pray a lot for you to live happy there ... Your real name is 'Jo Kyung-Nam' ... I found where you are, my son. It is quite reassuring to think of the fact. I appreciate my Lord with my whole heart. I miss you! When could we meet?

Choi Chun-Hak"

"It took me by surprise," Willie said. "I didn't feel anything emotionally until I hung up the phone and turned to one of my guys who was standing there, and started to try to tell him about the letter. I only got two or three words out, and I was overcome emotionally. I realized that there was a very strong possibility my birth mother was looking for me."

Willie said before things went any farther, he wanted to know for sure if this woman was truly his mother. Through the adoption agency, he was able to make arrangements to have DNA testing done.

Willie had his own DNA tested here in the U. S., and hoped to be able to get the woman in Korea, who might be his mother, to be tested.

A native Korean friend of his did an Internet search for the church that Choi Chun-Hak had mentioned in her letter. Through the search for that church, Willie's friend was able to get her phone number.

"Finally, about three weeks ago, I had my friend call her," Willie said. With his friend acting as interpreter, Willie urged the 81-year-old Korean lady to go to the Holt Adoption Agency in Korea have the DNA testing done. She agreed willingly to do that.

When they were talking on the phone, with Willie's friend interpreting, one of the first things the elderly lady asked Willie was if he were a Christian. He told her he was.

"This was just last week," Whitescarver said Wednesday. "I've talked through my friend to her about four different times on the phone."

On Sept. 25, Willie got the DNA test report, which showed that Choi is definitely his mother, and that he is genetically pure Korean.

The story of how the little Korean boy ended up in an orphanage is a complicated one. According to Choi Chun-Hak's letter, she was married to a man who had been married twice before and had three sons. After their marriage and the birth of their son, now known as Willie, Choi's husband's second wife came back to live with her husband's family. Choi, who "wanted to become a worker for God," was uncomfortable with the situation, and left Willie in the care of his father's family while she went to school to study theology. At some point, without Choi's knowledge or permission, Willie was taken to an orphanage, and Choi was not able to locate him and lost track of her little son for 52 years.

At this point, Willie does not have any information about his biological father, other than a few black-and-white photos of himself as a baby with his parents. He does not know if his father is living.

Willie said one of things that is very important to him about getting to know his biological mother is being able to find out if there are any genetic medical problems in his family.

"My family tree has always stopped with me," he said. "There's no history of medical records, and I was concerned about my kids' welfare."

Whitescarver, who is divorced, has three grown children: Mike Whitescarver, who lives in Valley Springs and is married to Amy; Michelle Methvin, who is married to Jamie and lives in Conway; and Nicholas Whitescarver, who lives in Denver.

Willie has two granddaughters, Michelle and Jamie's daughters Trinity and Alyssa.

"A big motivator in my life are my children and grandchildren," he said. "They are my most prized accomplishment as a human being."

All three children and the two children-in-law are going to Korea with Willie to meet his mom and to tour the country of his birth. They will fly out of San Francisco on Oct. 17, and will land at the Inchon airport. Plans are for them to meet with Willie's mother at the Holt International Adoption Agency, which originally handled his adoption.

"We'll devote that whole day to her," he said. "We're kind of playing it by ear. My original plan was to tour the country and see the homeland."

Although science has proven that he is genetically Korean, Willie says he is an American through and through. He proudly shows his naturalization certificate, which proves that he became an American at age six.

He remembers that day while he was still living in California with his adoptive parents.

"I remember going to the courthouse and being sworn in as a citizen," he said. "Just before the swearing in, I had a loose tooth come out, and I had blood in my mouth. Everybody was saying the Pledge of Allegiance, which I had memorized, but I couldn't say it except in a mumble."

After moving to the United States as a toddler, Willie completely forgot his native Korean language. He said he took five years of Spanish in school, and can speak pretty good Spanish.

Willie grinned as he told the story about being in a Harrison grocery store about 20 years ago, when an Oriental couple he'd never met came up to him and smiled and excitedly started talking to him in Korean. He couldn't understand a word they said.

"I told them, 'No habla!'" he said, smiling and holding his hands up in a "stop" gesture.

Willie soon became good friends with the couple, Gil and Suk An, who at that time owned the Bamboo Garden restaurant here in town. They explained that they knew he was Korean when they first saw him because of his physical appearance. The Ans took it upon themselves to introduce their new friend to some Korean culture.

"They were cooking Korean food for me every night," he said, explaining that he had never eaten Korean food before. "When I first tasted the food, it tasted so familiar to me. Maybe it was in my blood."

Years ago, the Ans encouraged him to try to find his birth parents.

"I mentioned it to my mom [Shirley], and I could tell by her expression that it kind of bothered her, so I decided not to do it," Willie said. "I'm perfectly happy with my American family, and I didn't want to hurt her."

At that point, he put the idea of looking for his birth mother on hold, and that's where it stayed -- until June.

After he got an email from the adoption agency with copies of the letters from his birth mother, along with photos of himself as a toddler with his birth parents, he forwarded them on to his children and also to Shirley, his adoptive mother.

Choking up a little, Willie said, "I put a note in there to my mom, telling her, 'You will always be my mom. There will never be anybody to replace you.' I asked her if it was okay, and she said yes."

How does Willie feel about going to see his homeland and the woman who brought him into the world?

"As it gets closer to time, I'm getting a little more anxious," he said. "Anxious to see the country and the people. But the real mystery is how it's going to go getting together with my birth mom. I don't know exactly how I feel.

According to my Korean friends, she's very excited. She's been waiting for this for a long time. She's prayed all her life that I was being taken care of."

Willie said he was once asked by friends to contribute something to a time capsule they were going to place in a building. He wrote something for them to place in their capsule to be read years in the future.

"I wrote, 'All that I have and all that I am and all that I will be is by the grace of God,'" he said. "This reinforces that. Even though you live your life by faith, to be actually able to see the proof of your faith in God -- this will be an affirmation for her."

Shirley's story

"My first husband and I adopted Willie when he was two years old," Shirley Childs said.

In 1956, the young couple, both from California, were going to a church in Redding, Calif., where an adoption agency showed films of children in a Korean orphanage who needed parents.

"They said my husband and I couldn't have any children," Childs said. "We were both 19 years old."

Childs said she and her husband, Jimmy, submitted the necessary paperwork to apply to adopt a Korean child, and then they waited. Finally, the agency sent them a picture of one child and asked if they'd like to adopt him.

They said yes, but that child got sick, and the adoption fell through. Then Shirley and Jimmy received a photo of a solemn little 2-year-old boy in a striped shirt.

"He looked so cute," Shirley said. "We said 'yes.'"

Childs explained that 89 children were flown over from Korea to San Francisco, where she and her husband went to meet the plane. The little orphans had been taken care of on the long flight by stewardesses.

When the children got off the plane, Shirley and her husband looked for the little boy who was going to be theirs.

"When they finally called our name, he had Whitescarver on one arm, and his Korean name, 'Suh Chul Soo,' on the other arm."

Shirley laughed and said, "He looked like he had a disease." But she soon realized that what she thought was some kind of rash on her new son's face was something much more innocent. The children had had a long lay-over in Hawaii on their voyage from Korea.

"In Hawaii, they gave him candy," Shirley said. "He had candy on his face. And he had one shoe on and one shoe off."

She wasn't able to find his other shoe, but someone piled all the children's clothes up on the floor of the airport for the new parents to look through.

"We got some jackets, a change of clothes, some PJs," she said. "And we took him home."

A little adjustment was required for both the little Korean boy and his new American mother, who had never had a child before.

"When I brought him home from the airport, I took his clothes off and put his PJs on and put him in the crib," Shirley said. "He cried and cried and cried."

The new mother just didn't know what to do. Finally, grasping at straws, she tried something.

"I put all of his clothes and shoes back on him and put him back in the bed, and he went on to sleep," she said. "I think he was afraid somebody was going to take his clothes away from him."

Shirley said every January, they had to go get Willie a green card, until he became a citizen at six years old.

Shirley and Jimmy Whitescarver ended up having three biological children. They later divorced when Willie was 13. Several years later, Shirley married Larry Childs.

How does Shirley feel about her oldest son going to Korea to meet his biological mother?

"I think it's wonderful," she said. "I've had him for 51 years. I'm not going to lose him. In my heart, I'll always be his mother, and I think in his heart, I'll always be his mother."