I have a friend back in Columbus who can trace his lineage back to sixteenth century France, and then forward through a woman who was hanged as a witch in Salem. I, on the other hand, have only recently learned a few facts about my biological father. It’s quite a story.
“I know what you’re going to tell me. Everyone in Logan has known about it for years.”
Let’s start out with a couple of definitions. When I talk about “Dad”, I’m referring to the person who raised me from the time I was born. When I talk about “Jack”, I’m talking about my biological father, whom I did not find out about until I was sixteen years old.
At that time, we lived on a farm about four miles outside the small town of Logan, Ohio, population then, and now, about 6500. In the spring of 1966, I was turning over the dirt in a flower bed beside the garage, when a newspaper clipping came up in one shovelful of soil. I glanced at it, read the headline “Anna Virginia Sellers marries Lieutenant Jack Steward Woodruff”, and thought that it was odd that this woman had the same maiden name as my mother. I looked at it again, saw that it was dated in the summer of 1948, and suddenly realized that 1) this was about my mother, and 2) it was about a year before I was born. I’m pretty good at math, and this explained a lot of things, such as why my brothers were six inches taller than me, and why I always got the worst of the physical and mental abuse that my dad heaped on all of us.
I took the clipping in and handed it to my mother, who turned white as a sheet and said “We’ll talk about this tonight.” That night at dinner, my dad stood up and said to my younger brothers and me “Your mother was married before. We don’t talk about it.” End of discussion.
The next day, I drove to school, walked upstairs to my girlfriend’s home room, and said “I found out the strangest thing last night.” She replied “I know what you’re going to tell me. Everyone in Logan has known about it for years.”
I found out over the next few days that Jack was a doctor who had trained at The Ohio State University. Much later, I learned that my mother, who had been a nursing student while he was in med school, had walked by him one day and caught his eye, and that they had run off to Kentucky to get married. He finished med school and began his residency in Indianapolis. At some point, he saw a younger, prettier nurse, and told my mother that he wanted a divorce. He apparently didn’t realize that she was already pregnant, with me.
Mother went home to Logan, determined that I would at least have his name when I was born, and found an attorney to handle the divorce. That attorney was my dad. I came into the world on August 4, 1949, and was named Jack Stewart Woodruff Jr. At some later date, my dad formally adopted me. My mother told me that when Jack sat in Dad’s office to sign the adoption papers, she handed me to him for a few seconds, and that I promptly threw up on his uniform. My name was changed to Jeffrey David Gerken – my maternal grandmother was deeply religious, and wanted a biblical name for me.
My dad tried to hide from me what was clear to me from the start. When I got a speeding ticket and had to go to juvenile court, he at first told the clerk that he and my mother were married in 1951, and then said “Oh, that can’t be right, Jeff was born in 1949”, and changed the date on the form. Of course, everyone in the court knew the real story. Finally, many years later, as he was about to go to jail for failure to file his federal income taxes, he said to me “You know I’m not really your father.”
Dad would go into a rage any time my mother was around a doctor. (Remember, she was a nurse, and so there were many opportunities for him to go into a rage.) And I got the worst of his abuse, although my brothers also got their share. He delighted in telling me that I was stupid, although that lessened to some degree when I headed off to Harvard.
Dad died in 2001, and I decided I would try to find out some more about Jack. My brother had done some research and determined that Jack was a doctor in Santa Rosa, California. I sent a long hand-written letter to the address my brother had found, telling Jack about my college degrees, my career, and my two daughters. I never heard back from him, and so I dropped the matter.
Fast forward now to about 2015. My wife, June, was determined to find out more about my heritage, and by that time she had the internet to assist in the search. She Googled “Jack Stewart Woodruff” and came up with the obituary of his second wife, Micky. In that obituary, Micky and Jack’s children were listed. The two sons had very common names that would have yielded hundreds of hits, but the daughter had a unique last name, which gave just one hit, in Fort Bragg, California. June handed me the contact information for Diane, my half-sister, and said “Write her a letter!”
That contact information sat on a table beside my recliner for a year. Finally, June grabbed the paper with Diane’s address and wrote the letter for me. I did a light edit, signed the letter, and sent it off to California. A week or two later, I got a note from Diane, who told me that she, too, had learned when she was sixteen years old that her dad, Jack, had been married before.
She said that Jack told her and her brothers that he had divorced his first wife when he discovered that she had had an affair with his best friend. He said that he had heard that there might have been a child from that marriage, but he didn’t know whether that was true or whether the child was a boy or a girl. I know my mother, and knew that she would never have had an affair with anyone.
That really got June fired up. She was able to get my adoption papers from the courthouse in Columbus, and the divorce papers from another court, in which Jack acknowledged that he was my father and agreed to pay $50 per month in child support. She also found newspaper clippings talking about trips that my mother and dad had taken, along with little “Jackie”.
I sent that information to Diane, and was concerned when several weeks passed and I had not heard from her. (She had seemed very excited about learning that she had a half-brother when I first contacted her.) I wrote to her again, and asked if my revelations had upset her. She replied by email “No, but your last letter was a doozie!”
In November of 2016, June and I traveled to Oakland for a birthday party, and arranged to meet Diane and my half-brothers in Santa Rosa for lunch. Diane, both brothers, one brother’s wife, and Diane’s daughter and husband were there. We talked, took pictures, and then June and I drove back to Oakland.
Both June and I have stayed in relatively frequent contact with Diane. She has shared a lot more information about Jack. He set up the first medical clinic on the north shore of Oahu, then was brought back to the mainland to set up a medical clinic in the area near Fort Bragg. He would often helicopter in to take care of injured lumberjacks and forest fire fighters.
But he, like his parents before him, was an alcoholic, and was eventually forced into rehab in order to keep his license. And, he was abusive to his children, who eventually told him that if he ever hit one of them again, he would never see them again. I had said that same thing to my dad while I was in college. Jack had a stroke at the age of 61, and died around 2001, so he probably never saw the letter that I had written to him.
So it appears that my high school wish that I could have been brought up by a person who would have treated me better was just a dream. Who’s yer daddy? In my case, it didn’t matter.
I have made every effort to make sure that my own daughters, and June’s son and daughters, have all the love that it is possible for me to give.
Wow, Jeff, what a story! It’s amazing to me how many families keep secrets of things that should surely be told. If you had done one of the currently popular DNA tests, and any of your brothers had too, you would have seen that something was not right. But otherwise, you might never have known. Finding the marriage clipping in a flower bed? And then being told by your girlfriend that everyone else in Logan knew about it? It would be hard to believe, except I know you are not making it up. Kudos to your wife June for pursuing the truth, when you might not have. Thank you for sharing this story on Retrospect!
This is such a powerful story, Jeff. Thank goodness people are a bit more open about things like this these days. I know of siblings, middle aged now, who did not know they were adopted when everyone else in the family and community did. Of course, the truth eventually came out when they were adults, and it was very hurtful that people like me knew when they knew nothing. When we look for the truth about our families, we never know what will be unearthed. Thanks for sharing your story.
I can relate, Jeff…more so than you might imagine. Not having seen your story, when I discovered Retrospect in November of 2019 (a couple months after you wrote this story) I wrote a similar story, actually two stories, “Who’s Your Daddy” and “Who’s Your Daddy Now.”
I’m wondering, did you have any sort of “a-ha” feeling when you were told the truth, like that suddenly things made sense? I know you said it explained a few things, like why your brothers were six inches taller, but had you had the nagging feeling so many of us who experienced something similar felt, that something just wasn’t right but figured it was just us, and that learning the truth was like a light going on?
Wow, Jeff, as the other commenters have said, this is quite a story (I just started following you, so got info about this story this morning). This could have been a TV show for all the plot twists, but it was your real life. Finding the marriage announcement in the flowerbed! And good for you for pursuing the nagging truth after all those years. I hope it gives you some peace of mine. It sounds like it has made you a wonderful parent, so that’s a blessing. Thank you for sharing the story with us (even tho I saw it belatedly).