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Adopted at birth, Worthington man finds biological family

Tom Christian used the COVID-19 lockdown to begin searching for his biological parents. He discovered so much more.

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Tom Christian holds a portrait sequence showing his maternal great-grandfather Ernest DeKalb Williford (from left), paternal grandfather Jimmie Goins, biological father Mike Goins and a photo of himself as a child.

WORTHINGTON — While some people decided to learn a new language or develop a new hobby during the early days of the COVID-19 global pandemic, a rural Worthington man tracked down his biological parents.

Tom Christian grew up knowing that both he and his older brother, John, were adopted. His parents never made a secret of it, though when he’d ask them the occasional question about the people who gave him away, they always deflected.

“From everything that I knew, it was prearranged before my birth through the Catholic church,” he shared. “The only thing I think my mother ever let slip was that my birth parents were very young and possibly I was going to be born with a congenital birth defect.”

Tom’s mother chose him based on information about the parents, defying the Catholic nuns who encouraged her to look at other infants because there was a chance this one could be born with problems.

“According to Mom, she had her mind made up,” Tom shared, ever so grateful for that decision. “I kind of look at adoption as a lottery. Some folks end up in a not-great situation. I won the lottery. I had really great parents. We had everything we needed.”

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Tom was born in Tucson, Arizona, and that’s where his adoptive parents raised him. Over the years, he’d considered searching for his biological parents. With Arizona being a sealed record state — and adoptions through the Catholic church adding another level of secrecy — he believed there was never any hope of finding answers.

He also never felt as though something was missing from his life.

“As far as I was concerned, my adopted parents were my real parents,” he shared.

Yet there was curiosity. For instance, standing in line at the bank, he’d look in the faces of those around him and wonder, “Could he be my dad?”

“I didn’t have that familiarity of looking at someone and seeing myself in their face,” he said. “I would look at my friends and you could just see the mother in the daughter.”

As he aged and doctors asked for his medical history, there was again a nagging thought that he should try to find his biological connections.

Boredom in the pandemic

Early last spring, when District 518 was in full distance learning mode and teachers and paras worked from home, Tom — who works with special education students at the high school — quickly became bored. It was boredom, and cheapness (a 50% off special in his email inbox from ancestry.com) that prompted the 57-year-old to take a DNA test. About six weeks later, he received the results.

His ethnicity was 41% English and Welsh, 45% Irish and Scottish, smaller amounts of Norwegian and German, and 1% Cameroon/Congo/Bantu from West Africa.

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“I thought that was interesting,” Tom shared. “None of the other stuff surprised me.”

Those who take the test can opt in to share their DNA results with others in the ancestry.com database. Tom did that, so his results also showed five or six people that were a significant relationship to him — possibly a grandparent, aunt or uncle, half sibling or first cousin.

“At that point, I thought that’s interesting — obviously there’s some people here I’m related to.” Still, he wasn’t moved to act with the information. Concerned about privacy, he didn’t want to reach out to people who might not want to be contacted.

Weeks later, all the while mulling over the information, Tom logged back into his account and discovered a private message that “had been there a while.”

A woman wanted to know if Tom was related to the Goins side of the family.

“I messaged back and said I’d love to tell you, but I don’t know. I was adopted.”

Tom gave the woman his personal email address, as he wasn’t checking his ancestry account regularly.

“About three days later I got an email from her,” he shared. “Her email started with, ‘OK, if you don’t want to know any of this, stop reading now, but everybody deserves to know where they came from.’”

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She went on to say that she was Tom’s half-sister, Robin. They shared the same biological father, Mike Goins.

“It was like an information dump — it was just so overwhelming,” Tom recalled of the early May email. “It wasn’t just a few details, it was — you have seven half-siblings.

“That was a little bit of a shock because growing up I was the baby of the family,” he added.

Tom also learned his biological parents were still living, though they never married. Both deaf, they met while attending high school at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and the Blind in Tucson.

“In their senior year, they became an item,” Tom said. “Nature took over and I came to be.

“Later on, the pieces clicked in my mind — my (biological) parents were very young, and also the possible birth defect or the congenital thing I was potentially to be born with.”

Tom had no birth defect.

Making connections

After reading through Robin’s email, Tom needed time to process the information. He put some questions together, and Robin was “very understanding and patient.”

Even then, Tom had trouble making an emotional connection to the discovery.

“I was really happy to have the information, but I was emotionally distancing myself from it,” he said.

It wasn’t until Tom asked Robin if she’d told the other half-siblings about finding him that Robin said, “We always knew that we had an older brother out there that was put up for adoption.”

Tom learned he had been thought of not only by his biological father, but by his half-siblings, every time the family gathered for a holiday or celebration. Mike would always wonder what became of his first-born.

“That was the thing that broke through the emotional barrier I’d put up,” Tom shared. “Here it was, all along I was being counted in — someone was saying, ‘I would love to find my son someday.’

“Then it became much more personal,” he added.

Tom has now spoken with his biological father several times — he calls him “Pop” — and his two half-sisters, along with most of his five half-brothers. They are spread out across the U.S., including three in Arizona, two in Ohio, one in Michigan and one in Oklahoma.

Talking with Pop

Tom had never before talked with a deaf person, so connecting with his biological father was a new experience. They used a special video conferencing system and a translator, who interpreted Mike’s sign language and relayed the words to Tom.

“I had some sweet, middle-aged lady from who knows where saying, ‘Hi son, how are you doing?’” Tom recalled. “It took a little getting used to. You’re having these very personal, emotional conversations for the first time and someone else is translating for you.”

During that first phone call, Tom had a lot of questions. At the top of the list was Mike’s relationship with Tom’s biological mother, Martha.

Mike shared that he’d asked Martha to marry him; he wanted to do the right thing. Her family, however, nixed the idea. After Tom was born in Tucson, Martha returned to Texas, and Mike was on a quest to find and raise his baby.

Mike told of how he drove to Texas to ask Martha where his child was, not knowing when he arrived that it was her wedding day. Mike was escorted off the property by local law enforcement who threatened to put him in jail if he didn’t leave.

He had no other option but to give up the search.

The two, however, remained in contact over the years through high school reunions. And so, when Mike and Tom found each other, Mike called Martha to tell her of their son.

The news upset her, and Tom doesn’t know if she’ll ever want to have a conversation with him.

“I completely understand that,” he admitted. Tom asked Mike to relay a simple message to Martha the next time they talked: “Thank you for giving me life.”

“They might have chosen another option and I wouldn’t be here to say thank you,” Tom said. “I’ve had a wonderful life because of it.”

For Christmas, Mike mailed Tom a book on American sign language, and Tom is learning the alphabet and specific words. Tom’s gift to Mike was a hand-made, leather-bound photo album containing a pictorial history of Tom’s life. He spent two months going through photos from his childhood to present day to compile the album.

“It was like 300 photos with little captions,” Tom shared. “I left the last 20 pages blank so that he could fill those in after we meet each other in person.”

A family gathering

That meeting is planned May 30 in Tucson, and it won’t just be Tom and Mike. Nearly all of Mike’s eight children will attend, as well as two of Mike’s sisters. Tom’s wife, Stephanie, daughters Sherri and Cadence and son Cruz will also be there.

“It’s going to be this crazy free-for-all that I’m going to meet all of these people at one time,” Tom shared.

While the COVID-19 pandemic delayed their meeting, Tom used the time to get to know not only his biological father and half-siblings, but quite a bit more about his paternal family tree.

Robin has traced the Goins side of the family back seven or eight generations, and through that information, Tom connected to another relative’s family tree that traces back to his 11th great-grandfather, John Gowen (the last name spelling is also documented as Gaeween, and was changed a couple of generations later to Goins).

Gowen arrived at the Jamestown Colony in 1620 from Angola, Africa, becoming one of the first indentured slaves at the colony.

“There’s that 1% Cameroon, Congo, Bantu,” Tom remarked. The history and documentation continues to open up an “amazing story” in his family tree.

What Tom has learned thus far is that Gowen was to be exported with other inland Angolans to Central and South America and used for plantation labor. He was aboard the San Juan Batista, a Portuguese slave ship bound for the Gulf of Mexico, when they were attacked by pirates. The slaves were captured, loaded onto the pirate ships and transported to the Jamestown Colony.

While indentured servants, Gowen and another Angolan slave, Margaret Cornish, coupled and had a son, Michael Gowen. Michael grew up and married a Caucasian plantation owner.

There is so much interesting history in the family lineage that Tom has been encouraged to write a book about it. As he ponders that idea, he is working to solidify his family connection to John Gowen.

“I’ve taken another DNA test that’s only for males and will trace the patrilineage from father to grandfather (and down the line),” Tom said. “They have a specific group that researches the Goins family.”

The side note

As noted earlier, Tom was the youngest of two adopted children. Last July, during a visit with his older brother, Tom shared the story of finding his biological father.

“John told me they all got DNA tests for Christmas (from ancestry.com), but he didn’t recall seeing anyone he was related to,” Tom shared.

When John returned home to Arizona, he logged into his account and discovered he, too, had a message that had been “sitting there fermenting for probably a couple of months.”

The message came from a man whose 11-year-old daughter had completed the DNA analysis, and whose results showed a strong family match.

“I wonder if you could be my brother that was put up for adoption in 1962,” the message to John read.

Through additional research, the two discovered they are full biological brothers. John’s parents were married at the time of his birth, but still working toward their master’s degrees and careers. They weren’t ready to be parents, so they gave John up for adoption. Years later, they had another son — the one who connected with John.

“He didn’t find out he had an older brother that was put up for adoption until he was about 17 years old,” Tom shared. “His younger brother tried to find him at various points, including having a private investigator going to the courthouse and being denied access to any of the records.”

Late last summer, John and his biological brother met for the first time and spent about a week together in Wilmington, North Carolina.

“He and his brother look so similar,” Tom shared. “I’m very happy for him. It’s kind of neat that that hatched off of my experience.”

Up until last summer, Tom and John only had each other left. Their dad died in 1994, and their mom a decade later. Now, they both have extended families, with new adventures awaiting them.

“We really are in this age where I think we’re going to experience a lot more of this — where people who have formerly been barred from finding out anything from the courts, a lot of people are now able to leapfrog over the barriers by doing these simple DNA tests in the comfort of their own home,” Tom shared. “Unfortunately, there will also be those who find out that they are not who they thought they were — that they were adopted.”

The Christians moved to rural Worthington in 2012. He has one daughter, Sherri, and two grandchildren in Arizona, and he and Stephanie have two children, Cadence, 16, and Cruz, their adopted son, age 12.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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