MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (WISN, AP) — More than 90 years ago, Richard Mihalek was born to single mother, who worked as a live-in maid in Cleveland, Ohio.
Over the ensuing decades, Mihalek, an only child, lived a remarkable life. Raised by extended family first in Cleveland, later in Wisconsin, he became a World War II veteran, a chemistry teacher, a father and eventually a grandfather.
In all those years, Mihalek never learned the identity of his father.
Then, his grandson took a DNA test and, after 90 years, the biggest secret of Mihalek’s life was a mystery no more.
Last week, Richard Mihalek, who turns 92 in December, found himself in a Hamblen County cemetery, face to face with his father’s headstone.
There Mihalek reached both hands to the ground where his father was buried in 1988.
“Here I am,” he said.
In 1926, Ralph Bewley went to the pre-Great Depression industrial northeast looking for work. He settled in Cleveland, where he met Mihalek’s mother. The details of their relationship are lost to time, but the consensus is that Bewley returned to Morristown never knowing he’d fathered a son.
Back home, he fell in love with and married Lona Creech, who had a son of her own, and together they had another eight children. In all, Richard Mihalek had nine brothers and sisters as ignorant of his existence as he was of theirs.
Mihalek said he always had questions about his father, but the topic was taboo.
“It wasn’t even spoken much because of the old feelings about having anyone out of wedlock,” he explained. “You just don’t talk about it. Nobody explained anything to me, nobody gave me any idea. I lived kind of a blank. I always had questions and nobody had answers.”
The idea of trying to find his father on his own was too overwhelming.
“I wouldn’t have known where to start, there were no leads,” he said.
There were leads right there in his blood, but it would take about nine decades for the technology to allow those leads to be developed.
A similar interest in genealogy inspired a pair of cousins, who never knew the other existed, one a grandson, the other a great-grandson of Ralph Bewley, to send in their DNA to Ancestry.com. The results proved surprising.
Mihalek’s grandson Nathan found he matched with Jonathon Bewley. Nathan’s mother, Barbara, was a stronger match with Jonathon. Here’s where the detective work came in, eventually attaching Ralph Bewley to Cleveland, Ohio in 1926.
Another DNA test “lit up like a Christmas tree” and suddenly Richard Mihalek, who’d been an only child for more than 90 years, had five living brothers and sisters.
“It puts you into a state of shock, after 90 years,” Mihalek said. “I was like half a loaf of bread and I didn’t know what I was supposed to be. You can call it a miracle. How do you explain that? It’s beyond normal comprehension. If it wasn’t for technology . it took 90 years.”
There was plenty of shock to go around.
“When I first found out, I thought ‘I can’t believe it. I’m not so sure,'” said Betty Bewley Jones. “Until we got the DNA and I called him and he called me. I felt like I really knew him before he got here. It was so exciting. He’s a wonderful, wonderful brother. We’re so lucky to have him. It’s so interesting to find him and he’s in good shape, probably better shape than us, still drives and he’s very intelligent and gets around so good. The Lord’s really blessed him.”
“I wish we could have met years ago.”
Once the families were convinced, a video call was set up in July with Richard speaking from Northern Wisconsin, right on Lake Superior, to his family in East Tennessee.
It was at that point the idea of a visit came to be.
Mihalek, joined by his daughter Barbara, arrived at the Knoxville airport last week to an emotional gathering of family members anxious to meet their big brother.
“We were so excited at the airport when we saw him, there were some tears shed and more have been shed since he’s been here,” Betty said.
But, in many ways, Richard’s arrival has done more than bring a new branch to the Bewley family tree, done more than introduce the Bewley’s to a long lost brother. He’s also brought a piece of their Ralph back to them.
“He looks just my Daddy, more than any of us, he looks more like Daddy,” said Patsy Bewley Johnson Walker, the baby of the family. “He walks like Daddy, stands like Daddy, sits like Daddy.”
“He looks so much like our Dad,” Betty added. “It’s just like hugging our Dad.”
For his part, after decades of not knowing, Mihalek finally knew that his father hadn’t abandoned him.
“If Daddy had known, Daddy would have searched the world over to find him,” Patsy said.
While in Morristown, Mihalek met with his five living brothers and sisters and was part of an extended family gathering, as many as 80 people, at the Golden Corral.
“It’s been a marvelous experience,” Barbara said. “This family is absolutely fantastic. We couldn’t have been more blessed to connect.”
And all involved hope those marvelous experiences continue as the relatives begin making up for lost time.
There are tentative plans for some of the Bewleys to make a trip north for a visit.
“I think I could get on that airplane and go see him,” Patsy said. “I’ve never rode one in my life but I think I could to go see him.”