David Sowards watches his brother Daniel Miller read the card he gave him in Florida for his 70th birthday.
St. Petersburg Times/Joseph Garnett, Jr. Enlarge
David Joseph Sowards had searched most of his life for his birth family. Never did he imagine his daughter would be the first to make the connection.
Jennifer Chamoun of Toledo called her father — who was given up as an infant — late one night last month to tell him his lifelong quest to find his family had come to a close. She had just connected with his birth brother’s daughter on Facebook.
Mr. Sowards, 65, who does not have an e-mail address, was too caught up in tears to ask his daughter what Facebook was.
“It’s a hard thing to describe,” said Mr. Sowards, who now lives in Hudson, Fla., of his “dream come true.”
Sunday marks the first Father’s Day Mr. Sowards will have known his brother, Daniel Miller, and other members of his family — all thanks to his daughter and niece.
The brothers have since met, but 13 members of the two families will gather for a reunion in Florida next month.
“I just want to see what [my uncle] looks like,” said Amy Sowards of Toledo, who is Mrs. Chamoun’s sister. “I want to see the resemblance. I see a resemblance in the photos; I just want to meet him in person.”
“If you haven’t seen somebody all your lifetime,” Mr. Sowards added, “you realize just how important [family] is.”
‘The real deal’
The connection began when Mrs. Chamoun received a Facebook message from a stranger — Pam Webster in St. Petersburg, Fla. — suggesting the two might be related.
Mrs. Chamoun ignored the message.
A week later, Mrs. Webster sent Mrs. Chamoun a friend request with the message “Won’t you please accept my friend request?” according to Mrs. Chamoun.
Still, Mrs. Chamoun was hesitant but ultimately said yes after she said Mrs. Webster offered to have a friend of a friend, who works with Mrs. Chamoun, vouch for her.
Once they started chatting online, Mrs. Webster suggested their connection was through their fathers, something Mrs. Chamoun didn’t anticipate.
Mrs. Chamoun could see Mrs. Webster was from Florida, and Mrs. Chamoun knew her father was born in West Virginia, so she asked Mrs. Webster where she was born, what her maiden name was, and added that her own father was adopted at birth.
Upon hearing that Mrs. Chamoun’s father was adopted, Mrs. Webster requested that Mrs. Chamoun call her immediately. But the young mother was still wary of this stranger who had found her through the Internet.
In the meantime, she clicked through Mrs. Webster’s Facebook pictures and noticed she had pictures from West Virginia.
“Oh my God,” she recalled of that moment. “This is getting really strange.”
She decided to call her dad in Florida in the hopes that he had not yet gone to bed. When Mr. Sowards answered the phone, his daughter explained that she had been getting messages from someone named Pam Webster who believed their fathers were brothers.
Growing nervous, David Sowards fetched his birth certificate and told his daughter that his mother — the only parent listed — was Betty Miller and to call back if she heard anything else.
Then she got another message from Mrs. Webster, this time with a maiden name — Miller. Time to wake Daddy.
“My dad started bawling his eyeballs out,” she said.
Mr. Sowards called Mrs. Webster. The dates she had for his birth and legal adoption matched.
“It’s the real deal,” Mr. Sowards said. “I knew [Daniel Miller] was my brother.”
The next morning, Mrs. Chamoun woke up to a friend request from a Danny Miller, 69, her long-lost uncle. This time, she accepted immediately. Coincidently, Mr. Miller also lived in Florida, just 80 miles north of Mr. Sowards.
A Toledo connection
The next day, Mr. Sowards left work; he couldn’t concentrate. The brothers met the following day at Cracker’s Bar & Grill in Crystal River, Fla., where they began to piece together 65 years of their family history.
Sisters Jennifer Chamoun, left, and Amy Sowards are looking forward to learning about the uncle they have never met. The families are to get together next month.
When a barren couple saw an infant, David, lying in a banana box — neither of the brothers knows where the box was at the time — they fell in love with him immediately and asked his mother if they could have him and his older sister, Patty. His mother, Betty Miller, agreed to let the Sowardses take David, Mrs. Chamoun said.
“My dad has some major issues with that,” she said. “He feels like [his birth mother] had this baby and she just tosses him in this box.”
His adoptive family later moved to Toledo.
When his father died, Daniel Miller inherited a letter from the Lucas County Probate Court dated Dec. 31, 1952, in response to an inquiry about his adopted brother.
Daniel Miller, who had carried the letter for 20 years, gave Mr. Sowards the letter when the brothers met.
“Then the infant, born 1945, was placed in a banana box,” the letter said. “The couple were greatly impressed and were told by his mother that they could have him.”
It added that his legal father, George A. Miller, Jr., was separated from Betty Miller and was in service with the U.S. government overseas. The courts did not know whether George Miller was Mr. Sowards’ birth father — a mystery that remains unsolved, according to the court letter.
Daniel Miller could not be reached for comment. Mrs. Webster declined to comment.
Mr. Sowards’ adopted parents, Roy and Frieda Sowards, were always worried someone would take David away, and they did not legally adopt him until he was 7. The Ohio adoption was private, sealed, and, in principle, untraceable.
A lengthy search
When her son turned 9, David’s mother told him he was adopted. Afraid of offending his parents, David Sowards did not search for his birth family until his mid-20s. The next 40 years of searching would be fruitless.
“When I was little, I never really pushed the situation because I didn’t want to hurt them,” he said. “When I got old enough, I started looking.”
Mr. Sowards said he searched for his family when he would visit cousins in West Virginia but only ran into dead ends, and his children saw their father slowly lose hope in finding his birth family as they grew up.
“He would always say, ‘There’s more of them than me. If they want to come and find me they will,’?” Mrs. Chamoun said. “This whole time he just thought his brothers and sisters and his family never gave two cents about him. But they did.”
Dec. 19, 1945: David Joseph Miller is born in West Virginia to a family with three older children, and shortly after is given up for adoption to the Sowards family, who later move to Toledo.
Dec. 31, 1952: Lucas County Probate Court sends the Miller family a letter explaining David Sowards’ situation, and he is legally adopted.
Late April: Jennifer Sowards-Chamoun receives a Facebook message from a stranger, Pam Webster of St. Petersburg, Fla., suggesting that the two might be related.
May 3: Mrs. Chamoun accepts the Facebook friend request and discovers that Mrs. Webster is a cousin on her father’s side.
May 5: The brothers, David Sowards and Daniel Miller, meet at Cracker’s Bar & Grill in Crystal River, Fla.
Late July: The family will hold a reunion in Florida in honor of David Sowards and Daniel Miller.
She never thought to search for the Millers on the Internet, because so many people have that name.
“I was raised with the Sowards name, but I knew in the back of my mind I was a Miller. I never did anything because you look up Miller and you have like 50 million elements. Where do you even start?”
Mrs. Chamoun was unaware of online adoption search sites such as G’s Adoption Registry, which she said her cousin used with the information in the Lucas County court letter to find Mr. Sowards.
G’s Adoption Registry is an international nonprofit organization that helps reunite adoptees with their birth families. People searching for their families post their information on the adoption Web site.
Gary Schaefer, who heads the registry, e-mails that information to all available “search angels,” organization volunteers who are willing to search in the area they cover.
“[The search angels] each use their various talents and resources,” Heather Dodd, a G’s search angel, said in an e-mail, “such as public information databases, to find available information based on what they receive from the searcher.”
If the angels do not have enough information, she added, they will inform the searcher how to get information from the adoption or state agency that does not identify the adoptee but still might help the search angels.
If search angels find a potential match, they inform the searcher. But it is up to the searcher to make contact if they choose.
Searchers and search angels stay in contact through e-mail to update information until the family is found.
According to Mrs. Chamoun, Mrs. Webster had been looking for David Sowards the last two years in the hopes of finding him as a 70th birthday present for her father. G’s helped her make the birthday deadline, and Mr. Miller celebrated his May 30 birthday with his brother.
Despite some shared features, Mr. Sowards and Mr. Miller can be easily told apart. Mr. Sowards is just over 6 feet, while Mr. Miller is 5 feet, 6 inches. Their other siblings, Richard and Patty, drowned before the age of 35, and as a result, Mr. Miller is terrified of water, a fear his younger brother does not share.
Mr. Sowards said Mr. Miller was raised by his father after their mother left him and his other siblings when he was 6.
The brothers now talk on the phone about twice a week.
“I’m more a serious type. He’s a happy-go-lucky, joking-around type of guy,” Mr. Sowards said. “When I talk to him he says, ‘I love you.’?”
He added that his older brother has more gray hair, but he is in good health.
Mr. Sowards says Facebook is “pretty neat stuff.” He can now view pictures of his brother on his new Facebook account.
Contact Zoe Gorman at: email@example.com or 419-724-6050.
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