Tom Eblen: Whatever happened to Lexington's 'Baby Strand'?

Herald-Leader columnistJuly 19, 2014 

Every family has a drawer of important papers and keepsakes. When Ann Riegl of Seattle was growing up, her family's drawer included a front-page clipping from The Lexington Herald of Aug. 25, 1945. It showed her mother holding "Baby Strand."

Edna Lester of Perryville was a nursing student at Good Samaritan Hospital when Lexington police brought in a 5-week-old baby boy. He was thin and sickly, but neatly dressed and wrapped in a blanket. Nurses nicknamed him Baby Strand.

The clipping said witnesses told police they found the child in the darkened Strand Theatre on Main Street after he started crying. They remembered having seen a young woman handling a bundle, then leaving the matinee.

"This is something she always kept," Riegl said of her mother's newspaper clipping. "We talked about it a few times, and she told about how the nurses doted on Baby Strand. I think she wondered about whatever happened to him."

Edna Lester Norris died in 2008. Among the things Riegl kept from her mother's keepsake drawer were the clipping and a print of the newspaper photograph.

"But those things don't do much good if they're just sitting in a drawer," Riegl said. "So I thought I would at least put this information out there in case Baby Strand, who would be 69 years old now, might be looking for it, or his family might be.

"It would be good to know if you were in that situation that while Baby Strand was abandoned, he wasn't discarded," she added. "He was left fully clothed in a place where he would be found, with an extra gown tucked into his little blanket."

I contacted Riegl after she created a Facebook page called "Baby Strand's Story." Wayne Johnson, a researcher at the Lexington Public Library, found more stories about the case in 1945 issues of the Herald and The Lexington Leader. At the Mercer County Public Library, I combed through Harrodsburg Herald microfilm from that year. Here is what we found:

Six days after Baby Strand was left in the theater, his mother was arrested in Mercer County. She was brought to Lexington, charged with child desertion and jailed after being granted a request to visit her child in the hospital.

The woman told police she grew up near Harrodsburg and that her parents were dead. She said she was engaged to the baby's father, a soldier from her hometown, but he had been shipped off to fight the Japanese before they could marry.

She had left Kentucky a year earlier to work in a munitions factory in Indiana, but got sick and had to quit her job before she gave birth. The child was malnourished, she said, because he wouldn't take formula.

Alone with an infant and little money, she got a bus ticket home. But when she arrived in Lexington, she discovered her luggage was lost. After several hours in the bus station that hot day, she took her baby to the air-conditioned Strand Theatre. Then, on an impulse, she walked out alone. Police identified her after her luggage arrived.

"I don't know why I abandoned my baby and I wish I hadn't done it," she told a Lexington Herald reporter. "I haven't been well since he was born and haven't been able to work. I didn't have much money and I thought if I left him somebody might find him who would give him a good home."

She told the reporter that police had promised to find and contact the baby's father, who didn't know about his son's birth. "And I hope they'll let me have him back so I can take him home," she said of the child.

The woman was soon released to the custody of relatives. While she awaited a court hearing, Baby Strand stayed at Good Samaritan, where he gained weight and charmed the hospital staff. When the hearing date arrived in October, the prosecutor dismissed the charges and indicated that Baby Strand would be returned to his mother.

That's where the story seems to end. The Lexington and Danville papers had a lot of other news to report: World War II was ending and servicemen were coming home from battle. In Mercer County, many were returning from prisoner-of-war camps after having survived the infamous Bataan Death March.

A couple of things are worth noting about the press coverage of Baby Strand. Newspapers gave different last names for the mother. The Lexington papers called her Valley Collins, while the Harrodsburg Herald identified her as Valley Collier. Some of the reporting would now be considered unacceptably sexist. The mother is described as an "attractive 23-year-old blonde ... unwed mother. Her hair was curled, her nails polished." The father's name was never reported.

Many questions remain. Did the child go back to his mother? Did the father survive the war? Did they marry? What became of Baby Strand?

When I called Riegl back to tell her what we found, she wondered if her mother might have unknowingly crossed paths with Baby Strand again. Thomas and Edna Norris moved to Harrodsburg in 1952. He was principal of Harrodsburg High School and she was a public health nurse. They left for Sedalia, Mo., in 1958.

"I hope if someone is looking, or wants to be found, this will help them," Riegl said. "I hope Baby Strand has had a long and happy life."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415.Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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