By Scott Sullivan
Kay Smalley and Larry Kimmel share a famous grandfather, father and 68 years of not knowing they were half-siblings.
Last weekend they reunited with other family from faraway to visit, explore hike and more at Kay’s home on the Ox-Bow Lagoon in Saugatuck.
“I’m 83, Larry’s 69 and we never knew the other existed until last year,” said Smalley, a retired Emporia State University (Kansas) biology professor. She, like Kimmel, are grandchildren of acclaimed painter/muralist John Warner Norton and child of John Francis Norton,
John Warner (1876-1934) rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, after which he was commissioned by Frank Lloyd Wright among others to create murals for their buildings. The elder Norton was a key figure in developing Saugatuck’s Ox-Bow Art School.
John Francis, a traveling engineer involved developing atom bombs, including the Hiroshima one, apparently had what they then called a dalliance with Dellora Henrietta Schueth, a secretary at the Hanford Site nuclear facility in Washington state in the late 1940s.
“My birth mother gave me up,” said Kimmel, “and I was adopted at nine days old. The best thing she could have done.
“My foster parents were my parents, period. They were great and I had no interest in finding my genetic ones.”
He grew up in Spokane and worked for 40 years in oil distribution, retiring as vice president of Bend Oil Co. in the Oregon city that’s now his home. He and his wife Katie raised two daughters and a son.
Their by-then grown children urged Kimmel after all these years to reconsider his indifference towards his biological family. Kimmel learned his mother’s name by filing a records request in Washington state for his pre-adoption documents. His father’s name was listed there as “unknown.”
Larry’s daughter, Molly Kimmel, and her boyfriend, Ryan Arthun, found Schueth’s obituary online. It listed her, her husband, two daughters and a son, but not Larry. He learned an important clue from it nonetheless: where Schueth had worked at the time he was born.
“I contacted her family,” he said. “They did not want to meet me.”
Molly and Arthun, still curious, gave Larry and Katie an Ancestry.com DNA test for Christmas 2017.
“I took what they call the spit test, we sent it in and I learned I was mostly Irish and Welsh. That’s were I thought it would end.“
He was wrong. From the website database Smalley and her sister, Susie Gillbey, 77, now of Kennebunk, Maine, learned a person they never before had heard of, Larry Kimmel, was a close relative.
‘I’m not absolutely certain,” Smalley emailed Kimmel, “but you’re either my nephew or brother.”
Together the former strangers untangled more knots. “I don’t think our father knew his affair had produced a son,” Kimmel said.
When the families met for the first time in Bend last fall, family members marveled at the half-siblings’ similarities: interests in books, being outdoors, political views and more.
The families reconvened last weekend in Saugatuck after three days exploring John Norton Warner’s Chicago murals, each other’s company and the city.
When we met them Friday on Smalley’s deck overlooking the lagoon, family from Missoula, Mont., Maine, and Berkeley, Calif. — plus Bend and Saugatuck — talked as if they had known each other forever.
“I went from a door being closed and an unknown father to having a complete family,” Kimmel said. “I’ve been blessed.“