For this Father’s Day, I’ll honor my old man by sharing some intimate information that he himself never knew.
The late Keith Clark (1923-81) spent nearly half his life as an Arlingtonian (I count six addresses beginning during World War II). As an intelligence professional, he was comfortable with secrecy. Which is why he never mentioned – until I stumbled on it – the fact that he was adopted.
This fraught fact came out when I was 19 and off at college, where I met his sister. “You look just like my dad,” I told her, only to behold her befuddled look. “Never felt the need to mention it,” he later told me, pleased, as he seemed, to have been raised in Oregon by the only mom and dad he ever knew.
In 2010, while perusing my parents’ papers after my mother died, I noticed a discrepancy: some of my father’s documents said he was born in Helena, Mont., others said Butte.
That gave me the idea: why not seek to unseal my father’s adoption papers, with nearly 90 years gone by, and learn the real story?
With my siblings’ blessing, I began phoning and corresponding with some good people in Montana, a state I’ve never visited.
Helena is in Lewis and Clark County, while Butte is in Silver Bow County, each with its own records and judges. A search for birth announcements in newspapers was made difficult by the decline in the newspaper industry that has forced newsrooms to fire their librarians and turn their morgues over to state history organizations.
I befriended a staffer at the Montana Historical Society who, on failing to find a record of a boy born Aug. 28, 1923, in Helena, suggested I check statewide through the Office of Vital Statistics. Census records from 1930 and an adoption certificate with his Oregon parents’ names confirmed that my dad was born in Butte.
Then I had to write to a judge in Silver Bow County petitioning for the unsealing. I promised the search was for family history only, that no one would contact descendants.
The judge signed off. I sent the $25 fee and, after a wrong file sent initially, I finally received it: a 1941 document certifying the live birth 18 years earlier – must have been created for my dad’s matriculation to college – listing his birth parents.
I learned the name my dad once bore. I then took his unmarried parents’ names (omitting them here) and scoured the Internet. No luck on the mother, but I did find the father’s obituary in a 1973 Butte newspaper.
The photo of this copper miner who went on to raise another family bore some resemblance to my dad. I found discrepancies between the birth certificate and the obituary. Neither is guaranteed accurate. As my historian (and female) wife pointed out, the mother, at age 20, could have given birth without the father, 26. She could well have given incorrect information about the father to the hospital clerk.
My aunt had always been told romantically that my father was born to two students at the University of Montana who couldn’t afford to keep him. These documents suggest a less committed relationship.
Whatever the circumstances, my dad turned out fine. I only wish he were around so I could share all he inspired me to learn.
* * *
Sat in on a local VIP-studded fundraising breakfast June 7 at Army Navy Country Club, a benefit for the homegrown charity Linden Resources.
As the largest Arlington-based employer of people with disabilities, Linden (named for the tree with heart-shaped leaves) trains and annually places 450 challenged individuals – including wounded warriors – in steady jobs. Its own staffers perform federal contract services in document conversion, shredding and warehouse fulfillment.
Successful program graduate Mike Erb gave a moving testimonial: “I have the dedication and commitment employers find difficult to find.”