As soon as Bend resident Larry Kimmel was old enough to understand, his parents told him they adopted him.
Growing up with three siblings in a loving and supportive home, Kimmel never felt the urge to learn about his biological family.
That recently changed.
Kimmel, now 69, received an email in February from Katherine “Kay” Smalley, who lives in Kansas and was rooting around her family tree on Ancestry.com, an online genealogy site Kimmel had also recently joined.
“She wrote: ‘I’m not absolutely certain, but you’re either my nephew or my brother.’ I’m going, ‘What?’” Kimmel said with a laugh. “I was really surprised to get this email.”
Smalley, 83, a retired biology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas, explained that she and her 77-year-old sister, Susan Gilbey, who goes by Susie, were exploring their family tree when Kimmel popped up as a close family member.
“We couldn’t imagine who we were missing,” Gilbey said.
In a series of email exchanges, Smalley, Gilbey and Kimmel figured out the missing link must lie with John Francis Norton, the women’s late father.
With Kimmel’s help, they discovered Kimmel’s birth mother, Dellora Henrietta Schueth, and Norton worked at the Hanford Site nuclear facility in Washington in the late 1940s.
Schueth, 26 and single, worked as an administrative assistant.
Norton, in his early 40s and married with three children, worked as a civil engineer.
Kimmel learned his mother’s name by filing a records request in Washington for his pre-adoption documents.
His father’s name was listed as “unknown.”
The placement of Norton and Schueth at the nuclear facility at the same time confirmed the paternal siblings’ suspicion of an extramarital affair.
“I don’t know where else Larry would have come from,” Smalley said with a laugh.
“Welcome to the family, little brother,” Smalley wrote to Kimmel at the time.
Kimmel, who grew up the oldest to three siblings in his adoptive parents’ home, slid down the pecking order by a few notches.
“I went from being a big brother to a little brother overnight,” Kimmel said with a laugh.
The biggest revelation is that Kimmel is a grandson to John Warner Norton, who joined Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders on his way to becoming a legendary muralist whom the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright sometimes commissioned.
More than anything, Kimmel is glad to connect with his paternal family.
Certain consistencies flow through them, such as a creative streak. Kimmel, for instance, authored a children’s book, “Letter City and the Alphabet Winds,” in 1991.
“They’re all planning a reunion with a long-lost little brother. It’s a blessing. Truly,” Kimmel said. “ … To be so welcomed with open arms and love is very exciting to me. My family is very supportive.”
Only through further investigation would Kimmel learn exactly how he came to be — and how he became lost to his biological family for so long.
A short-lived connection
Kimmel’s family tree is tangled and knotty.
He might never have been able to trace it if not for a change in Washington laws regarding birth records and the mainstreaming of genetic testing.
What Kimmel has always known was that he was born on Aug. 2, 1949, in Colfax, Washington, a small rural town, and adopted nine days later.
For most of Kimmel’s life, his birth certificate showed the names of his adoptive parents.
His adoption day was celebrated by his parents and his three siblings — one of whom was adopted and unrelated to Kimmel.
His adoption day was celebrated as a second birthday until he was 11.
“And then that came to an end. My parents told me, ‘One birthday is enough’ — I remember that very well,” Kimmel said with a laugh. “I never really had any desire (to learn about my biological parents) because in my teens I thought it might hurt my adoptive parents, as if I wasn’t satisfied with them and I wanted to find out something else.”
Kimmel grew up in Spokane, Washington, before attending Gonzaga University.
He began a 40-year career in oil distribution soon after moving to Bend in 1974.
While he climbed the ladder to become the vice president of Bend Oil Company, he and his wife, Katie, raised two daughters and a son.
In recent years, their daughter Molly Kimmel, 38, and her boyfriend, Ryan Arthun, 42, encouraged Larry to reconsider his indifference toward his biological tree.
Arthun sent Kimmel a newspaper article that detailed how Washington had changed its statutes to allow anyone who was adopted to request their original birth certificate if they show identification.
Larry submitted paperwork in fall 2014.
When he received his biological birth certificate, he was surprised.
“My birth mother’s last name was highly unusual: Dellora Henrietta Schueth,” Larry said. “And my father was listed as ‘unknown.’”
Molly Kimmel and Arthun found Schueth’s obituary online, which listed her along with her husband and immediate family.
Larry wasn’t mentioned, but two daughters and a son were.
He also learned a crucial clue: Where his mother had worked.
Larry dug deeper to find a sister’s Connecticut address. He sent her a letter.
“I wrote: ‘You may or may not be my birth sister, but I wanted you to know that if in fact you are, that your mother was an unselfish, giving person.’”
Giving him up for adoption was the right thing to do, Larry explained, and his adoptive parents were wonderful.
The woman called Larry shortly before Christmas 2014.
They had an hour-long conversation about family. They were convinced they were biological half-siblings.
She and her two siblings never knew of the affair, let alone about Larry.
He learned he had two uncles, who were in their 90s. Larry and his sister traded photographs of immediate family.
He received two images of their mother — one near her high school graduation and another, dated 1946, three years before she would give birth to Larry.
She died in the early 1990s.
In early 2015, Larry’s sister called to say that she and her brothers had chosen to no longer acknowledge him or this premarital period of their mother’s life.
“That was the last conversation I had with my birth sister. The door was closed,” Larry said. “I was probably a little hurt, but I understood. (Learning this) was something that I never had a great desire to do in the first place.”
An affair nearly forgotten
Larry’s immediate family thought there was still more to learn about his family tree. Molly and Arthun gifted Larry and Katie an Ancestry DNA test for Christmas 2017.
Other family members, particularly his daughter, Amy, 43, and their son, Andrew, 41, were interestedl.
They wanted to know more about their genetic makeup.
“So, I took the spit test, and we sent it in,” Larry said.
The results told Larry he was mostly Irish and Welsh.
He thought that was the end of the genealogical road.
He was wrong.
By creating an Ancestry.com account, Larry popped up on the radar of others tracing their family trees.
Their correspondence and subsequent visit to Bend filled in some narrative gaps of their family, but not all.
After the birth and adoption, Larry’s mother returned to Hanford.
The Nortons left Eastern Washington in early 1949.
Jack Norton, Larry’s half-brother, was graduating from high schooland moving to Oakridge, Tennessee, where their father found work at another nuclear facility, Larry said.
Larry doesn’t think his biological father, John Francis Norton knew the affair produced a son.
“If he knew, he didn’t tell anybody,” Larry said.
Norton and his wife divorced several years later. Larry’s biological mother married three years later.
She remained silent about her first child.
“She kept this completely under wraps,” Kimmel said. “The man she married never knew; her children never knew.”
A late homecoming
The Kimmels remain in correspondence with Smalley and Gilbey, the latter of whom lives in Kennebunk, Maine.
When the sisters visited Kimmel in Bend, they marveled at their commonalities.
“The similarities were really pretty amazing,” said Katie, Kemmel’s wife. “They have similar interests in books, being outside and similar political views.”
Kimmel even looks like his father, who modeled his broad shoulders and dark features for one of John Warner Norton’s murals.
It is still housed in the council chambers at the St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse in Minnesota.
None of Kimmel’s living siblings, however, knew “Gramp” Norton, who died in 1934.
Their grandmother told many stories about him.
Norton’s murals still enliven the walls of the family’s summer cottage near Saugatuck, Michigan, where the clan are planning a family retreat next June.
Of course, the Kimmels and their children are invited.
They’ll also visit Chicago, where many of Norton’s murals adorn buildings’ interiors, such as the Chicago Board of Trade Building.
Larry sometimes has a hard time grasping the totality of this familial windfall.
“It’s hard to put in words. I was just astounded. I’d just gone from my father being unknown to having a complete family,” he said. “I went from having one door being shut to another one being swung wide open. I’ve been blessed.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org