Pamela Edwards, 62, a native of Grand Rapids, has limited memories of her father John William Edwards. She was around 2-yrs. old when her father left the family and never returned. John, a traveling railway man, met Pam’s mother Agnes Kenjalo of Goodland while she was working at Bruno’s Truck Stop in Swan River. Described as tall, handsome and a keen dresser, John was instantly smitten by a cute young waitress 14-yrs. his junior. Aggie and John married in a Justice of the Peace wedding on October 15, 1942. John came and went with railroad, construction, and varied jobs – many took him out of state. Aggie settled their home in Grand Rapids and over the next 15-years the Edwards family grew as children George, Dale, Alan, Gary and Pam were born.
Pam’s history of her father came from the vivid memories her brother Dale kept of each time their father returned home. Memories filled with details of a serious man who dressed smartly and was strict, intelligent and strong — professing to have been a boxer out East. There was no mention of parents or siblings. John was vocal about union organizing within labor fields. Chicago was a steady base for him. John’s erratic comings and goings, often arriving during the night, the children soon realized their lives were different from the others in their neighborhood. Aggie suggested local jobs – John resisted. In an artfully hand-written letter to Aggie stating he felt he had failed them – John left the area as mysteriously as he came, never to be heard from again.
The family was sad and learned to adjust, always wondering what ever happened to Dad? Aggie, stoic and steadfast, worked hard to support the family. The children credit her for her strength and love in their upbringing. Aggie passed away in 2008 – she never remarried, her heart remained loyal to her beloved “Johnny.”
Ancestry.com came out with autosomal DNA kit testing in 2013. The saliva test kits allow people to explore their family genealogy through their DNA. The tested sample provides the participant with a breakdown of their ethnic roots. It also aids people in locating missing family and assisting in historical roadblocks often found in family trees.
Pam Edwards took an Ancestry.com DNA kit and to her surprise discovered the door that would help her in the journey to find her father, his family and John’s final resting place. From a 2nd cousin match and several early census reports – the biggest surprise came with the discovery of her father’s actual birth name: John William Richards, born July 6, 1909, one of 11 siblings in the family of Edward and Helen Richards of Niagara Falls.
Pam’s friend assisted her in contacting a cousin with the help of the Niagara Town historian and her parent’s wedding photo. Verification was made; John was indeed a part of the Richards clan of Niagara. Further proof was authenticated when Pam’s newfound uncle, Calvin Richards, 90, agreed to take a DNA test, which confirmed he was her biological uncle.
Pam learned that her father had left the Richards home as a young man in his early 20’s. John had been a good student, a gifted athlete and yes, a boxer. The Great Depression had hit and many men in the 1930s left their families to seek work in other places.
Other than a few postcards sent to his sister Helen, John lost communication with his Niagara family and the Richards never heard from him again. John’s mother Helen was broken-hearted and his brother Jim missed him terribly – so much that Jim saved all his possessions: report cards, exercise journals, award certificates, team photos, a trophy, his writings, etc. The neighborhood children were upset, too, as John held a reverence in the children’s eyes. He was the athlete, the boxer, the one meant to go far.
No one knows where the 1930’s took John but by the early 1940’s, his job with the railway took him into Minnesota, to the arms of a fiery young farm girl. He had a new name, John William Edwards. “Edwards” most surely came as a nod to his father, Edward Richards, a career fireman with the Niagara Falls Fire Dept.
Pam also learned the deep history of her Richards clan. More astounding is that she had two uncles living: Uncle Jim, 99 and Uncle Cal, 90 wanted to meet her. Over the next six months, the Richards’ and Edwards’ (Pam and Dale) began to share emails and conversations with their Uncle Cal and their first cousins. Many photos were exchanged as well as old genealogical records of the Richards early settlement in Massachusetts as founding families in Needham/Dedham. A bonus was the discovery by Pam’s friend, which helped both families find their root line to the Mayflower, through Pam’s 10-times grandfather, Edward Fuller.
Pam received a box of her dad’s memorabilia nearly a century old. The Edwards children learned about their dad’s early years and walked through his experiences via his writings, photos, and journals. With more information, Pam was also able to secure her father’s death certificate and burial information. He died in Chicago in 1985 from illness and was buried by Cook County, with no known next of kin.
Pam left for her journey of a lifetime to Niagara Falls just prior to Father’s Day weekend. In her car she had a yellow memorial wreath that read “Dad” on its ribbon, which she would later lay on his grave during a stop on her trip home.
The Richards’ cousins welcomed her as if they had known one another for a lifetime. Upon meeting Uncle Cal and seeing the sweet smile of her Uncle Jim — a near doppleganger of her father John — Pam went to her knees and wept as she held the hand of the last living person who remembered her dad prior to his leaving Niagara. Uncle Jim looked at her and a tear rolled down his cheek. “You’re my niece,” he said, “don’t go now.” The emotions of two families who loved one man came together with embraces of assurance that the family was now whole again. For the next week Pam was shown the walks of life of her father, and provided the loving foundation of his family.
John William (Richards) Edwards was never forgotten. His daughter Pam’s journey to peace and to family serves as reminder that whatever the soul may bear in life, the chapter on forgiveness has no timetable.
Pam Edwards has this to say about her journey: “It is my fervent hope that this story will embolden others to open long-closed doors, face their fears and any attentive consequences, and thus move forward in peace and closure. I have, at last, found mine.”
Pamela J. Dowell is a writer from Cohasset, MN., who assisted Pam Edwards in her Ancestry.com search to find her family.