Identity crises usually are reserved for the young — or, at the latest, those navigating the rapids of middle age — so it might raise a few eyebrows when an octogenarian embarks on an existential quest to discover who he is.
All these years, Flagstaff resident Dave Hill, 83, harbored a niggling sense of curiosity and trepidation about his biological parents, whom he never knew. It didn't dominate his life, but he always wondered about his roots. All his adoptive parents, the Hills of Blue Rapids, Kan., knew and told Dave that he was born on May 9, 1936 in Kansas City, Mo., at the Willows, a home for unwed mothers.
Missouri state law, which prohibited the release of such records, precluded Hill from knowing for decades. He tried the courts. He tried private investigators. He lobbied state legislators. Every time, he came up empty. Finally, three years ago, Missouri changed its laws and allowed release of sealed birth certificates for those born prior to 1940.
And when he first held the long-sought, single-paged photocopy in his hands, what he discovered was that he was not Dave Hill, in the strictest sense.
His birth mother, before giving him up, had scrawled in shaky cursive "Ellis Pool" on the line denoting "Name of Child." Why, he wondered, would his birth mother, Barbara Pool, a 30-year-old from the tiny farming town of Summers, Ark., anoint him thus before releasing him? And who was his biological father, still an ominous blank space on the form?
In the time since, armed with that information and stoked by a need to know more, Hill commenced a quest many Americans are undertaking: using genetic DNA testing services to learn the identities of, and make connections with, relatives who, in a less technological time, would remain relative strangers.
"He's the kind of person that, once he grabs a hold of something, he's like a dog with a bone," said Terri, Hill's wife of 59 years. "He finally had an identity; that's the thing. It was huge."
Any qualms Hill once felt about delving deeply into the past vanished when that name, "Ellis Pool," stared back at him. He wanted to learn about this conceivable parallel existence, what might have been had he not been sent to live with Kenneth and Ruth Hill back in the depression era southwest.
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What he's found has made for a ripping yarn that Hill, who spent most of his career as a sportscaster in Kansas and Nebraska, shares with friends, colleagues and residents at Northland Hospice in Flagstaff, where he volunteers along with his therapy golden retriever, Louie. Fact is, he'll tell just about anyone who asks.
"When I got my birth certificate, I was 80 years old, and I felt like a kid with a new toy," he said while sitting in his living room, shuffling and stacking the long-sought documents. "It was that exciting. A story like this may help someone else and spur them on to find out about themselves."
Through DNA kit results, the help of a Cottonwood friend who works as a genealogist and then direct contact with kin, Hill discovered the identity of his biological father, one John Langley of Oklahoma. His father's family was believed to have dabbled in bootlegging; Hill said arrest records of Langley's grandfather show he was pulled over once with six kegs of whisky in his car.
That got Hill to thinking: "I spent most of my life as a sportscaster. (As Ellis Pool), instead of carrying a mic, I'd be carrying a gun."
He laughs, head tilted back. It's one of Hill's favorite lines. But he does occasionally ponder an alternative life in Summers, Ark., on the Pool family farm. He'll look at the only photo he has of his mother, posing in a pasture in a sleeveless sun dress and her light-brown hair swept back by barrettes, and wonder what her life was like. Barbara Pool had a daughter, Doris (now deceased), by another man 10 years earlier. Barbara eventually married Langley three years after delivering Dave/Ellis, but it ended swiftly in divorce.
"It was probably a fling; I don't know," Hill said. "Things were kept quiet. Taboo. She did put her real name on the birth certificate. Without that, I'd still not know."
No rancor pervades Hill's voice, nary a trace of resentment toward his biological mother. In fact, he plans to fly to Tulsa in the fall to meet two nieces and then drive the 102 miles to Summers to visit her grave.
"I just want to stand over her grave, say a prayer and lay a flower on it," he said, "and thank her for bringing me into this world."