One phone call reunites two long-lost sisters
Every time Christy Clark answers the phone at the OSU Alumni Association, there’s a chance the person on the line is going to be looking for a lost classmate.
“We get calls from people all the time searching for former dorm mates or old flames,” Clark said. “But the call I got in January 2019 searching for a long-lost sister was definitely a first.
"Little did I know at the time, it would bring a whole new meaning to our motto,‘Connections for Life.'"
Deb Petty grew up in small-town Iowa with her mom, Dorothy Wilkes, and her grandparents. She went through her childhood believing these three people were all the family she had.
“I grew up thinking I was an only child,” Petty said.
She didn’t know that her mother had given birth to another child two years before Petty was born. The baby was given up for adoption to a family in Oklahoma City while Wilkes was accompanying the father on a trip.
Wilkes shared her story with Neatha Bentley and Lee McNutt, and the couple agreed they would adopt the child once she was born. Later that year, Wilkes made the trip back from Iowa to Oklahoma to give birth to Norma Smith. Smith grew up somewhat as an only child as well because her siblings were so much older than her.
“All of my parents’ (Bentley and McNutt) kids were either out of the home or leaving the home,” Smith said. “The sibling closest to me in age was my sister, who was 17 years older than me. She was more like another mother figure.”
Years passed as Petty and Smith experienced life without any contact, other than a brief meeting when they were children. Smith, 9 at the time, was taken by her adoptive mother to meet Wilkes. Petty, 7, spent time with Smith, but neither girl realized at the time the connection they shared.
“When you are 7 and 9, she is just a playmate,” Petty said. “I didn’t have any idea she was my sister. She certainly was not introduced to me as my sister.”
Smith has a similar recollection of the first time she met Petty, Wilkes and her grandparents. She wishes she could have known the truth about the interaction at the time.
“It is kind of sad we didn’t know,” Smith said. “When you are a little kid, you don’t think about that kind of stuff. Nobody told us.”
The second meeting between Petty and Smith would not come until more than 50 years later. The connection would be made with some help from Petty’s cousin and the Alumni Association.
After Wilkes died, Petty discovered some documents with some information about having another child.
“When I found the paperwork, I was so disappointed because no one told me before,” Petty said. “I had a sister, and I didn’t get to grow up with her.”
Unfortunately for Petty, there wasn’t much information for her to use to find her sister. But she didn’t know another individual was already doing research on her family.
Gary Borchardt grew up not knowing a lot about his father’s family. He found Petty through Ancestry.com and discovered she was actually his cousin. When the two began communicating, Petty shared with him the story of the sister she never knew.
“I wasn’t looking for any kind of thanks or recognition,” Borchardt said. “I wanted to help my cousin. I wanted to do something nice for someone. I wanted someone to find their family the way I had.”
Borchardt spent the next few years looking for anything he could find about Smith. He wasn’t having much luck until he stumbled upon a picture of Smith in OSU’s 1974 yearbook. He brought the information to Petty and got in contact with the Alumni Association.
“At first, I thought this was a routine request to find one of our graduates,” said Clark, a program assistant at the Alumni Association. “After I received Deb’s letter and baby photos, I realized this could be something special.
Clark forwarded the letter and photos to Smith, an active Alumni Association member who was living in Florida, with the hopes of helping Petty get in contact with her.
“I opened a letter from the Alumni Association and was confused when copies of my baby pictures started falling out,” Smith recalled.
“Then, I saw the letter from Deb. When I got that note, I reached out to Deb immediately. The same evening.”
At the time, Petty was still trying to comprehend the fact she had finally found the sister she was looking for since she discovered the informative documents.
“I think we were both kind of in awe we had actually found each other after all of these years,” Petty said. “What are the chances of that happening? In my opinion, I never thought it would.”
Petty reached back out to Clark at the Alumni Association to tell her the good news. Clark can still remember the joy she heard in Petty’s voice.
“She told me she was no longer an only child,” Clark said. “That brought tears to my eyes. It was an exciting and emotional moment for me as well.”
Smith and Petty have been in daily contact since the reconnection. Over Memorial Day weekend, Smith traveled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to meet Petty. Neither of the sisters were nervous about the first interaction with each other. Instead, they were filled with anticipation.
“I am just excited to hang out with my sister,” Smith said prior to the meeting. “I can’t wait to share memories and for her to tell me things about Mom (Wilkes) that I don’t know.”
“We have connected so well,” Petty said a few days before the meetup. “It has just kind of fallen into place like we have always known each other.”
The connection between the two sisters was strong immediately. They spent time realizing the similarities they each shared with each other and their mother. The similarities reached beyond personality traits and allowed the sisters to see a bit of their mother in one another.
“It was so funny because sometimes Deb would look at me and say, ‘You look so much like Mom,’” Smith said. “I think it shocks and surprises her, but I see the same things in her. She just doesn’t see them.”
As the weekend concluded, the sisters had a chance to reflect on what the time spent together meant to them. Petty no longer felt as though she was an only child, and Smith finally had the answers to questions that had been on her mind for years.
“The whole thing was just awesome for me,” Petty said. “I enjoyed every minute of it. It was so hard to see her get on the plane to go home.”
“It has given me a sense of belonging,” Smith said. “A better insight into myself.
It’s just been a really eye-opening experience.”
Petty and Smith have continued to talk every day since their Memorial Day weekend meetup and have plans to visit each other more in the future.