Nearly everyone has heard about stories like this before.
The coming together of two people - torn apart years earlier by situations in which they had no control.
When Gina Hogan, owner of Mommy To Be, was 18 months old, she and her siblings were taken from their biological mother, which was rare in those days, and placed in the Lena Pope Home. She had no memories of her one younger and three older brothers. Despite the fact that she was adopted by a loving family in Del Rio, her life remained incomplete.
She began to search for her birth family in 1983, at the age of 27. When she was about 32, she found some information leading her to conclude that the older siblings were adopted, as well.
Then, the trail ran cold.
After being a widow for several years, she remarried in 1999. Gina, her husband, Jerome, and sons, Ryan and Kelly, drove through Stephenville in 2001 while on a horse trip. Her husband had lived in Stephenville a short while and had revisited occasionally. Gina said she thought San Antonio was where she wanted to move, but her husband liked the Stephenville area and the real estate possibilities for his cutting horses.
Gina gave in.
“My kids saw the school, the district’s sports signs and marquees, and said this was the town,” she said.
Shortly after, the family moved to Stephenville from Del Rio.
“We love the community,” she said. “It’s the best thing we could have done.”
On Thanksgiving Day, Jerome was watching reunions on a television program and told Gina she needed to renew her search. Bighugs.com was a Web site to enter information by those looking for a birth family or siblings. She thought it was just another “post-it” site.
She called one number, but the recording indicated the company was closed for the holiday. She returned to the computer and found the name of an adoption research specialist. A private investigator’s name came up, and Gina began to follow the lead. She researched Lisa Townsend’s referrals and decided she had to give the search another try.
She placed the call.
When the investigator answered the phone, Gina said she blurted out, “I guess I’m ready to find my brother.”
She said there was a laugh on the other end because the statement was so matter-of-fact.
Townsend lived in California, which was not indicated on the Web site. However, she told Gina that locating her family shouldn’t be a problem, but if the search was unsuccessful, another investigator would be recommended.
Gina knew one of her brother’s birth names, Jack Bills, and that he was adopted when he was about six years old. She also knew her birth mother’s name.
That was at 2 p.m. About 7:30 p.m. that night, the investigator called and said, “I’ve found your brothers.”
“The first question I asked,” Gina said, “was if he was in Texas.”
Townsend told her she would be surprised, then e-mailed her the information.
The first address she saw was Stephenville and then the next was Gainesville, where her brother had moved in 1994.
“I had his phone number just staring at me,” she said.
Her first thought was how she was going to handle this.
“This was the one person I had always wanted to find and hoped he had a wonderful childhood,” Hogan said. “It would mean a lot to me to know that he was okay because I knew my older brothers had not been fortunate.”
On Saturday, Nov. 24, Gina dialed the number. Her brother’s wife answered the phone and said that Jack was still at work at the newspaper. Gina hesitated, then related her information.
“About 45 minutes later, my cell phone rang,” she said. “It was Jack. It was overwhelming to hear the voice of a sibling for the first time…the completeness I had longed for.”
She learned that her oldest brother, Joe Hayes, had died. But there was a niece who lived in Illinois.
Gina said that she and her brother talked several times that Saturday. She called him before closing her business for the day and set up a meeting for the next day.
“I knew it was going to be beyond exciting meeting a blood relative for the first time,” she said. “I had gone through years of looking at people and wondering if they could be family.”
During all of this revelation, Gina and her friend kept up their usual morning breakfast meetings at Peacock’s. She was so excited she related the information to their waitress who always took their orders.
“When I mentioned that Jack Bills was my brother, I received another surprise,” she said.
The waitress informed her that Jack’s father, L.G. Bills, was at that very moment in the restaurant and came in every morning to have coffee with his friends.
“You can imagine my face,” Gina said. “I did not know the man but had nodded or greeted him, as you do in our town, not once, but several times.”
Gina finally approached Bills and told him Jack was her brother. She said he was very receptive, and almost immediately, he received a call from his son relating the same news.
In the meantime, she made contact with her oldest brother’s widow and her niece, Meg, in Illinois. Her sister-in-law worked for the Corps of Engineers and had just purchased property in Gainesville, not realizing that her deceased husband’s adopted sibling lived there.
Meg said they had been to the city several times.
“We have friends in Gainesville, and all the times we visited I never knowingly crossed paths with my uncle.”
However, she probably read the newspaper where her uncle had worked for seventeen years as circulation manager.
The Stephenville family loaded up on Nov. 25 to meet the biological family in Gainesville.
“It was suggested by friends that I should have asked him to wear some type of identification, such as a hat or special clothing,” Gina said. “But I just wanted to walk in and see if I recognized him.”
And she did.
She said they approached each other in slow motion. She tried not to stare, but he looked so familiar. After the initial shock, the families began to talk about the similarities in their and their children’s physical appearance.
Another twist to the story came when Jack told Gina of a conversation he had with his dad the day everything was revealed.
“Mr. Bills told his son that the day I saw him in Peacock’s and related my biological relationship with his adopted son was Mrs. Bills’, Jack’s adopted mother, birthday,” she said. “We kind of feel like she had her hand in it all.”
Jack’s newspaper, Gainesville Daily Register, has also covered the event. He was quoted as saying that after receiving the news, his emotions ranged from disbelief, amazement, closure, and Dallas winning the Super Bowl. He had tried to find his family off and on, but was never successful.
“What I had tried to do in 30 years, she did in one day,” he said.
A huge Christmas celebration is planned. There will be an understandable emptiness for the brother who will not be with the reunited family.
“My oldest brother passed away at 48,” Gina said, “but I know who and where he was and have been blessed with a niece because of him.”
She said she also found the next to oldest brother, Ronnie, but lost contact because of his moves and her remarriage. Her youngest brother, Duke, has a disability and she thinks it might be too much for him to meet them all at once, so that is yet to come. Her biological mother died from cancer in 1997 before Gina could meet her, but she did talk to her by phone. And, her adopted father, whom she adored, died in January 1996.
Her niece came through Stephenville last week on the way to San Antonio. When asked how she felt about her new-found family, she smiled.
“It’s been a blessing,” Meg said. “I had a small family that has grown significantly in a month. I’m looking forward to the big holiday.”
Gina said it would be her best Christmas ever.
“I have always had the love of my immediate family and will soon celebrate the birth of my first grandchild,” she said. “But lack of biological ties has tugged at my heart since the time I learned I had them. I have so much to be thankful for this year.”
SHERRY BOARDMAN is a staff writer for the Empire-Tribune and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 254-965-3124, ext. 229.