It’s not every day I receive an email from a reader who believes she has found her long-lost father — in an article I wrote. After decades of wondering about a man she has never met or been able to find, there he was, staring at her from newspaper photos that accompanied the article.
A few months ago I wrote a story about Randy Stevens, who had never met his father until, at the age of 57, he tracked him down. By then his father was 88 and had lived a life so adventurous that, as I wrote at the time, it should be a movie or a country song. His was a tale of abandonment, foster homes, surviving the Depression, running away with the circus and the Army as an underage teen, dodging bombs at Pearl Harbor, fathering at least 10 children with five wives and becoming a pro wrestler known, aptly, as Wild Bill Cole.
Stevens, a former Utahn who lives in the Midwest, contacted me to see if I would be interested in telling the story of finding his father. “There are other people out there going through the same thing,” he said. “I hope this helps someone.”
It did. It helped his own sister, who he didn’t know existed.
Debbie Terrell is a 58-year-old Salt Lake schoolteacher with a husband and three children. Urged by her family, she occasionally searched the Internet to find the father she had never met, but it was futile and for the last 20 years she pretty much gave up the search.
During a visit to her mother’s home in St. George last month, she was again encouraged to resume her search. It would be good for you, her mother told her. On a whim one night, after dabbling with Facebook, she Googled “William Carlisle Cole wrestler.” At the very top of the results was the Deseret News story about Randy Stevens, published Sept. 2, 2013.
As she read the story she was dumbfounded. The photos of Wild Bill Cole looked like the same man in the only three photos she had of her father. The story said Cole was from Ogden. She had been told her family originally came from Ogden, and she recognized other clues throughout the story. “I kept thinking, oh, my gosh, this is my story!” she says. Then she came to the third to last paragraph of the story, which described Stevens' attempts to mine information from his father’s memory, concluding with this sentence: “Randy mines an occasional nugget, such as learning that he has another sister; she was born nine months after his own birth.”
“When I read that, I wondered, do they mean me?” says Terrell. She wasn’t certain what to do next, but her family urged her to pursue the lead. She wrote an email to me:
Hi Mr. Robinson, I read an article today that you wrote for the Deseret News. Your article includes a picture of the same man that's in a photo my mother gave me of my birth father that was taken back in 1955. I think I am the, "sister, born nine months after" Randy Stevens, as mentioned in the third to last paragraph in your article. My birth name is Debbie Ardell Cole. William Cole, as listed on my birth certificate, was 31 years old when I was born. That would make him 88 years old just like "Wild Bill" in your article I'm writing today to ask if (you will) forward this message to Randy Stevens.
After I forwarded Terrell’s information to Stevens, they exchanged numerous emails before Terrell mustered the courage to talk to him. They wound up talking on the phone so long — sometimes until as later as 1 a.m. — that she used up her cellphone minutes. It was confirmed — they are half-siblings and the progeny of Wild Bill by different mothers, but she is not the sister described in the story. She was not born nine months after Stevens; she was born the next day.
“She is my twin sister born by a different mother,” says Stevens. He was born June 22, 1955, in Ogden after his parents had separated in 1954 (his father never even knew of his conception). Terrell was born one day later in Salt Lake City to another woman whom William Cole had married while apparently maintaining a relationship with Stevens’ mother. He left the second marriage before Terrell was born and soon married a third woman, fathering another daughter nine months later. Shortly after finding his father, Stevens saw a post on Ancestry.com from a woman named Polly Brown, who was looking for her father, a man named Wild Bill Cole. She was the missing sister who was referenced in the story.
It’s complicated. By the time Stevens and Terrell put their family tree together, they realized they both have 15 siblings, 10 of them in common. They have spent hours on the phone filling in the years. Terrell has communicated with three of her siblings, and she and Stevens hope to arrange a visit.
“It’s been a lot all at once,” says Terrell. “There’s a lot to catch up on. They are wonderful people. They are really warm and welcoming and very intelligent.”
As for Wild Bill, the man at the top of this crazy family tree, Stevens brought him to live in his home for several months after finding him, but the old man’s declining health necessitated a move to a care center. Communication is difficult for him because of his health.
Says Stevens, “It is amazing to me how you can develop a loving relationship in one phone call, but as Debbie said, she sees our pictures and says there is something very familiar when she sees us.”
Says Terrell, “I never in a million years thought this day would happen. I’m embracing the joy of this more than I embrace the sorrow of lost time.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org