12/28/08 — Father, sons reunited after 38 years

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Father, sons reunited after 38 years

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 28, 2008 2:00 AM

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John Schafer, left, and broth Rob, reunite with their father William Schafer, right, at a California airport in October. The sons had not seen their dad since their mother took them from a day care in Durham 38 years ago.

It has the makings of a Lifetime movie ---- mom loses custody of her children, snatches them from day care and vanishes without a trace.

For John Schafer of Goldsboro, it has been his life for the last 38 years.

At 41, he was only 3 when his life suddenly changed.

Growing up,  much of his life was shrouded in mystery and for a long time, memories were sketchy.

His parents had met in Long Beach, Calif., where William Schafer had retired from the Navy. They later moved to Durham to be near his wife's family.

The couple stayed together until John was age 3. His brother, Robert, was 18 months younger when their mother and father separated.

"Him and my mother split up and he had custody of us," Schafer said, looking back. "We were at a day care while he was working. One day she came to see us, asked to take us for a walk and took off with us."

Just like that, their lives cha-nged forever. Their father tried to find them, but had no luck.

"He hired a private investigator to try to find us. It was all a dead end. After several months, the private investigator told him it was just a cold trail so he gave up."

In those days, there were fewer ways to trace missing children. The case was also complicated by the small-town friends and relatives who closed ranks around their mother, refusing to talk to outsiders.

"My mother had us in Lillington, where all of her people were from," John said. "It was like in the country. (Dad) had no way of finding us. ... Back then, it was just country people and they didn't talk about stuff to strangers. That's where all our people were from so they weren't going to say anything (about her taking us)."

His recollection of those early days remains cloudy.

"I remember that we were hiding from somebody, that's really all I remember," he said. "As I got older, I started piecing together, figuring things out. All of these bits and pieces of memories started to connect."

Some of those bits and pieces included a name change ---- to Hewitt, the name of his mother's first husband. She also had five other children by Hewitt, and let John and Robert believe they were their siblings.

"We grew up thinking we were Hewitts," John said. "But (Mr. Hewitt) wouldn't have anything to do with us, always treated us different. I never understood that."

He recalls hearing the name Bill Schafer, but it was a subject his mother refused to discuss. It wasn't until he was around 13 years old that he learned the man was actually his biological father.

"My mom had a boyfriend and they broke up and he told me who my real father was," John said.

At that point, the family lived in Durham, where his mother had relocated when it was time for the children to start school. But Schafer had already left the state and was living back in California.

Through the years, John grew persistent in questioning his mother about the gaps of his life. As he grew older and had a family of his own, it intensified his desire to find his father.

At around age 23, during a visit to Virginia with his half-brothers, stepfather Edward Hewitt happened to be present. A conversation with Hewitt's wife opened the door.

"She had birth records, check stubs with my dad's name on it, a letter from a lawyer saying that Bill Schafer was searching for his children, so that's how we knew that my dad wanted me," John said.

Hewitt's wife also produced a photograph of John's earliest years that he had never before seen.

"It's the only picture of my dad that I had, that came from my half-brother and sister's father," he said.

Still, he had no luck in finding his father. He tried for years with no trail to follow.

"Mom wouldn't talk about anything, period," John said. "I even tried to call, search for myself on the Internet, any name I could find."

Last year, his wife, Kerri picked up the search, but was stalled by misspelled names and reports that Schafer had died.

Which was a possibility, John said. After all, his father was 42 when his first son was born.

"The closer I got to getting to my 40s, I thought, he's going to be 80-something," he said.

Still, Kerri knew her husband would be happy with any connection ---- he just wanted to find some relatives, she said.

It was while John was on a business trip in June that his wife got another lead. Placing a call to New Jersey, Kerri asked whether the family had a relative named William Schafer.

"The person said he had an Uncle Billy," she said. Soon after, John's Aunt Gladys called from New Jersey.

"That's when I found out he's still alive, he's 83 and living in Long Beach," John said.

After John returned home, while driving with his wife, her cell phone rang.

"It was his dad and he said, 'This is William Schafer. Can I talk to my son, John?'" she said.

It was two days before Father's Day.

Reality blurred for a moment.

"His face turned red ... he almost ran off the road," Kerri said of the moment she handed the phone to her husband.

Initially, he admits, he could not find words to say.

"It didn't seem like it was real. This is my dad. ... I didn't know it was going to be so emotional. I couldn't talk to him for a few minutes. I couldn't speak," he said. "But I'm getting more used to being able to call him my dad because I have never really been able to call someone 'Dad.'

"He was just like, 'We have got a lot of catching up to do. Basically, our life has been stolen from us.'"

A week or so after that first conversation, John received a package from his father ---- a stack of Polaroids he had held onto, photographs John had never seen.

From that first conversation to a momentous Father's Day call, the duo talked often in the ensuing weeks, culminating in plans for a visit.

"As it turned out, my godmother lives about 20 minutes from him," Kerri says. "So in October we flew to California and he met us at the airport."

Ironically, there was one flight that flew to California via New Jersey. The couple took advantage of the opportunity to make contact with Aunt Gladys and Uncle Doug en route. And then came time for the long-awaited reunion.

"When we got off the plane, (Schafer) was sitting with (John's brother) Rob on a bench," said Kerri, who was immediately taken with the men's similar mannerisms.

The visit was comfortable, relaxed and entirely positive, the couple said. Not once did Schafer speak harshly or negatively about what his ex-wife had done or the years spent without his children.

"He said he prayed for them every single day at 10 o'clock," Kerri said. "He said he knew that he had a choice of shutting down or going and doing things by himself, so he continued on, going camping by himself, doing things on his own."

He never remarried, has no other children.

"He said, 'I always knew that it would happen sooner or later. I'm just sorry that it was so much later,'" John said. "He always believed that one day, he would meet me. He hadn't given up hope. Pretty amazing, after 38 years."

The two men now speak regularly, and brother Rob has plans to move to California, John said. Another visit is also being planned for March, when John and Kerri can take their four children along.

"We're all going to Disneyland," John said. "It's kind of like these are things that he wants to do, that he didn't get to do with us as kids. He's just trying to be a dad ---- things he missed out on."

As for his mother, she has also managed to put some things aside, John said. And even if she doesn't sound particularly remorseful, she is at least open to talking about it, he said.

In hindsight, John said it has been a long, difficult road, putting his family back together.

"At one point, I was like very excited, just gung-ho ho about trying to find him for years and years," he said. "Then I had just given up at one point, figuring maybe he was not even living any more. But I was going to change my name anyway."

Now he also has this "whole other side" of the family he never knew existed, he said.

"I'm real excited for my kids to meet (my father) for the first time," he said. "I never had that because of my mother's family ---- they're not close."

Adjusting to his father's re-entry into his life has also been a plus, he said.

"I guess you can say I have more of a sense of belonging. Not that I'm figuring out who I am but I know who I am. I feel more like a son and I have a father ---- I know where I come from."