DANVILLE — Alfreda Louise Johnston says she spent the last five decades wondering what happened to her little 1-year-old girl who was taken away from the then-teenaged mother on the front doorstep of her Danville home in 1961.
Did she have a good life? Does she have a family of her own now?
At the end of November, Johnston had her answers.
Danville native Ted Osborn, 66, knew he had been adopted as a newborn. What he didn’t know, until just a few months ago, was that he has a 69-year-old brother in Arkansas and a host of half-siblings. He met his older brother for the first time in October.
A change in Illinois’ birth certificate law late in 2011 made these two reunions possible.
Through the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Division of Vital Records, adopted individuals older than 21 can order a non-certified copy of their original birth certificate for $15, which now gives their biological parents’ names that previously had been redacted.
According to statistics provided by The White Oak Foundation — which provides free and at-cost search assistance to Illinois adoptees and their birth and adoptive families — Illinois issued 2,973 new or amended birth records per adoption in the first three quarters of 2012.
Mom and daughter reunite
Marsha Woodard and her husband, Richard, usually go out to dinner with friends on Friday night somewhere in Danville, so the evening of Dec. 28 seemed perfectly normal to Marsha … at first.
“Usually we don’t know where we’re going to eat until that day, but he (Richard) knew for days we were going to Red Lobster, which I thought was funny,” she said.
Arriving first and by herself at Red Lobster, Marsha was seated in the more private back room rather than at a table in the general dining room, and when Richard and their friends showed up, they insisted Marsha sit in a different seat.
It was then that a waitress escorted Alfreda Louise Johnston to the table. The 69-year-old from Portland, Ore., is Marsha’s biological mother whom she just located on Nov. 30 after receiving a new birth certificate from the State of Illinois with her biological mother’s name on it.
The surprise visit was orchestrated by Richard, who flew Johnston into Indianapolis and picked her up that afternoon at the airport.
Woodard, 52, knew she had been adopted by a Hoopeston couple, Herbert and Marg Shoufler, who named her Marsha Ann. Woodard, however, also knew her given name at birth was Brenda Lee Danner.
“I’d been curious about it for a while, especially after I had my daughter,” Woodard said. “I Googled my name, Brenda Lee Danner, a couple of times but didn’t find anything.
“A friend told me the law had changed and I could get my original birth certificate and an agency could maybe help me locate my biological parents,” she said.
Woodard requested her new birth certificate in late October and once her biological mother’s name was revealed, Richard — who owns a computing service — scoured the Internet for her.
“We Googled her name and found a couple of obituaries where she was listed as a survivor. The most recent was for one of her sons who had passed away in 2009,” she said.
It was a June 1961 obituary for a late-term miscarriage of an infant boy that listed Alfreda as the mother and his sister, Brenda Lee Danner at home, which convinced the couple they had found the correct woman.
The 1961 obituary also led to another discovery.
“I wasn’t adopted at birth like I always had thought,” Woodard said. “I was 13 months old. I had no idea I had been with my mom for a year.”
Johnston said she was a 17-year-old Danville High School student when she gave birth on June 15, 1960, to Brenda Lee, whom she named after the popular singer.
She admits that unwed teenage mothers were looked down upon in the 1960s, but that her mother and stepfather allowed her to continue to live at home with her baby girl.
Within a year’s time, however, the teen had married, was expecting again and living with her new husband, his grandmother and baby Brenda Lee in the grandmother’s home.
“His grandmother didn’t care for me, especially since I was a young mother and had a child,” she said.
After Johnston miscarried, she said her husband’s grandmother suggested to her that she should let an aunt take care of baby Brenda Lee for a while but added that she needed to sign some paperwork because the relatives might need to take the baby into Canada.
“I signed papers to give up my parental rights,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was signing. I had no clue.
“Somewhere along the line I realized it was a put-up deal,” she said.
Johnston clearly remembers the day in July 1961 when a car pulled up while she was outside playing with Brenda Lee.
“The man said they had to take her right then, and I gave her hug and that was the last time I saw her,” she said. “We had just celebrated her first birthday the month before and she had just taken her first steps.”
Johnston said she never forgot about her little girl, even after leaving Danville and moving to Portland, Ore., in 1971.
“I did try several things and organizations over the years to try to find her, and even when I still lived here in Danville, I had a woman who would do the legwork, but they kept asking for more money,” she said. “A lot of times I thought I would go through Oprah Winfrey to try to find her.”
Johnston said she could never get very far with her searches because she had been told that Brenda Lee’s name had been changed, but she didn’t know that for sure and she certainly didn’t know what her new name was.
Back in November, Richard continued to search online for Johnston.
“It gave us a lot of different addresses and phone numbers for her, but many of the phone numbers had been disconnected,” Woodard said. “One night Richard tried on the Internet again and came up with a different phone number.”
Richard dialed the phone number and handed the phone to Marsha as Johnston answered.
“I always hoped for this day to come. Both of us were speechless,” Johnston recalled. “It was a beautiful thing.”
The women exchanged e-mails and photos over the next month.
Woodard also mailed a scarf, some photos and a letter to Johnston. In the letter, she told Johnston she collected elephants.
“I collect elephants and like antiques, too,” Johnston marveled.
During Johnston’s four-day visit, the women shopped at Danville’s antiques stores and even purchased an antique elephant wind-up toy at Queen Ann’s Cottage.
For Woodard, finding her biological mother has brought her “closure,” she said.
“I’ve learned an awful lot in a short time, and I’ve asked her the most important questions,” Woodard said.
Johnston agreed. “We’ll learn more about each other, but being there for each other is the important thing.”
Woodard plans to visit Johnston in Oregon sometime this year, and Johnston said her two sons — Woodard’s younger half-brothers — Michael and James Finnell are “excited and can’t wait to meet her.”
“I never forgot her and I was hoping and praying I would find her someday,” Johnston said. “I told my boys when they were small that they had a sister and we would find her someday.
“It’s been a long journey, but it ended good,” she said. “I always wanted her to have a good life and a good family. That’s what I mainly wanted.”
For Osborn, finding out his biological parents’ names was the key that led to the discovery of an older brother, R.E. Stancliff, in Russellville, Ark. But Osborn admits he didn’t have any preconceived notions of what he hoped to find or have any idea what his new birth certificate would reveal when he requested a copy of it early last year.
“When they (State of Illinois) opened it up, I didn’t know about any siblings. I didn’t know anything,” he said about obtaining his birth certificate.
“I was told at an early age that I was adopted, and I think that’s the right thing to do. I wouldn’t know where to look if my adoptive family had kept it a secret.
“I already had my original birth certificate with my adoptive parents on it but not my biological parents,” he added.
Osborn’s biological parents, who are both deceased, were Robert Reece Stancliff, an unemployed 24-year-old who had just finished his service with the Marine Corps, and 22-year-old housewife Charlotte Lucille Knowlton. The couple from Helena, Ark., already had a 3-year-old son, R.E., at home when their infant son was born in 1946.
No one knows why the couple chose to give up their newborn, but the decision brought the Arkansas couple to Danville, where there was an “unwed mothers’ home,” Osborn said.
“I was the only one given up,” Osborn said of his biological family that also boasts five half-siblings on his mother’s side and five half-siblings on his father’s side.
Once in Danville, the infant boy was adopted shortly after birth by Danville couple Harold and June Osborn. Years later, the couple also adopted Osborn’s sister, Linda Lucas Anstey, who is the Vermilion County auditor.
Osborn graduated from Danville High School and is president of Central States Distribution.
“My brother knew of my existence,” he said, adding his biological mother in her later years before her death in 1985 mentioned to various family members about the infant son she had given up for adoption.
“Lucille didn’t forget that she had dropped me off up here,” he said. “I think she really wanted someone to know before she passed away.
“R.E.’s wife, Diane, started looking online a year or two ago (for me),” Osborn said.
Without knowing Osborn’s name, and Osborn not knowing he had a biological brother who was looking for him, the online search was fruitless.
It wasn’t until Osborn received his new birth certificate in the mail that the pieces of the puzzle came together rather quickly.
Osborn recalled the day he discovered his biological last name.
“I’d never heard that name, Stancliff, in my life,” he said. “But I went online and found a Stancliff genealogy site — The Descendants of James Stanclift of Middletown, Conn., 1690 — and I asked the administrator of the site, ‘Can you tell me where I fit in?’
“She’s the one who told me about R.E., so I Googled him and I found his address and phone number, but I decided to craft a letter.
“There was some trepidation,” he admitted, “but I told him a little bit about myself and some contact info.”
Upon receiving the letter, Stancliff picked up the phone and called his long lost brother, and the two men had “a long conversation,” Osborn said.
Months of e-mails finally culminated in Osborn and his wife, Cathy, driving down to Russellville, Ark., at the end of October to meet R.E. and Diane face-to-face.
“I was curious at that point,” he said of meeting his brother. “He had sent photos and I knew exactly what he looked like, but I wanted to meet him in person.
“There are a lot of similarities — the way you think about things and the half-smile we both make when we’ve had just enough of something,” he said with a chuckle.
Stancliff, who is retired from a nuclear power plant, Osborn and their wives spent four or five days visiting Little Rock and sightseeing in the mountains and state parks around Arkansas.
“We plan to get together again. Two of the half-sisters have shown interest in getting together, too,” he said. “It’s kind of reconstituted the family.
“Anyone who’s written to me, I’ve told them I’m open to writing to them,” he said of his numerous half-siblings.
Osborn said if it weren’t for Illinois releasing birth certificates with the biological parents’ names on them, he most likely would have never known about his brother.
“The State of Illinois is broke and threw caution to the wind (by releasing the biological parents’ names), but this is neat stuff. We got along well,” he said of meeting his brother.
Osborn encourages others who have been adopted to spend the $15 on a new birth certificate.
“Get the birth certificate, look at it, and then you have two choices: either shred it or pursue it like I did.”
To begin the process of ordering a non-certified copy of an original Illinois birth certificate, go to http://www.idph.state.il.us/vitalrecords/birth.htm