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A mystery solved, and a family found

Sometimes, blood can be thicker than an ocean.

About a dozen years ago, a Lexington woman was talking to her father, who was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, when he started saying something about "the divorce."

No, Victoria Noble told him, you didn't get divorced, mother's not here because she died. Remember?

But William David Donworth persisted. He had been married to another woman, he said, when he was a radio operator on a ship in the British Mercantile Marine during World War II. And he had a son.

Victoria was baffled. She knew her parents had immigrated from England before she was born. But hadn't she always been an only child? Surely her father, in his dementia, was confusing reality with something he had seen on television.

Four thousand miles away, in Southampton near the Isle of Wight, Bill Donworth grew up knowing little about his father except that he had been on a ship, and that they shared the same name.

His mother almost never talked about him, but Bill understood her to say that, after they divorced and his father left, he moved to another part of England.

When Bill's job as a carpenter and cabinet maker took him to a new town, he would look through the local telephone directory. If he found Donworths he would, with some guilt for the vandalism, tear out the page and take it with him.

One year, around Christmas, he called all the numbers he had collected, saying he was looking for a Donworth with connections in the Southampton area. No luck.

Then, through an unlikely convergence of yearning on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and with the considerable help of their children and the Internet, Victoria and Bill found themselves talking on the telephone on Dec. 23, 2008. Victoria learned that she also had a sister, Julie Donworth Meys. Her father had, for some unknown reason, failed to mention her in that fateful conversation 12 years ago, a conversation that she now realizes was not delusion, but confession.

Fitting in

Last weekend — just 19 days after the phone call — the three siblings met in person at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Since then, they and their spouses have been holed up against the Kentucky cold at the Nobles' house on Strawberry Lane in south Lexington, talking and trading stories past midnight every night.

There's been no talk of "half-brother" or "half-sister." They are fully family.

"Growing up, my parents were older, and from England, so I really didn't fit in to what my friends had," Victoria said. "It's nice to fit in."

"It was almost like we were two forces, coming at each other," Bill said.

Internet connection

William David Donworth died six years ago this month at age 85. His obituary noted that he was a retired employee of General Signal Corp. in Cincinnati. It mentioned the Mercantile Marine, and repeated a story he had often told: While working as a ship radio operator in 1937, he had communicated by Morse code with the Hindenburg during its ill-fated flight from Germany to New Jersey.

Victoria was listed as his only survivor.

The story about a previous family stuck with her. Research into British Mercantile Marine records showed that he had money taken out of his pay for a "dependent," also named William David Donworth.

Victoria didn't know it, but her son David, who had been close to his grandfather, had decided to check out the story himself. His effort started a decade ago, when he was a young teen.

David, now 23 and a recent University of Kentucky graduate, arrived in England last month to visit an old friend of his mother's side of the family.

Because of his long interest in learning more about his grandfather, David logged onto a British search engine, www.192.com, paid the equivalent of $10 and entered "William David Donworth."

He got four hits. They all turned out to be the same person, in Southampton.

"After 10 years of looking, that only took about 20 minutes," David said.

He got a telephone number and dialed. His call was a shocker, but not entirely out of the blue.

First words

About six months ago in England, Bill's daughter, Clare, started working with her auntie Julie on a family history.

She searched for William David Donworth on the Internet and came up with the obituary that had appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Clare's brother, also named David, called the Versailles nursing home that had been mentioned in the obit. He was told that if the family sent a letter to the home, it would be passed along to Victoria.

Clare began writing — struggling to write — the letter.

"I am hoping you are aware that you have relations here in Southampton, England, through the first marriage of your father in the early 1940s," she wrote.

Victoria might not be aware of any of this, the letter said, and might not want to make contact. Clare asked only for a photograph of William David Donworth, because her family had none.

On Dec. 23 the letter was unfinished. It ended with a paragraph that said only "I." Clare and Julie didn't want to send a letter like that during the Christmas holidays. And then David Noble called.

The phone was answered by Bill's wife, Pat.

"He said, 'I do believe your husband and my mother are brother and sister.' An electric chill went through me. I said, 'We're composing a letter to Victoria.' He realized he hadn't mentioned Victoria."

David soon found himself in Southampton surrounded by newfound relatives.

They showed him the unfinished letter. As he was reading it, a photo album was pulled out. The people in some of the photographs were unidentified. He quickly recognized a snapshot of his grandfather — an exact duplicate was in a frame back in Lexington.

There were several trans-Atlantic calls, first David to his mother, who was in the supermarket when her cell phone brought the news.

Then Bill and Victoria, the long-lost siblings, were on the phone. He's the one who told her she also has a sister, Julie. Considering all they had to say, the call didn't last very long.

"I'm not great at talking on the telephone," Bill said. "When the call ended, that's when I realized we had to come here."

'We might just keep you'

There were e-mails and more calls between Lexington and Southampton before Delta Flight 37 from London's Gatwick Airport arrived in Northern Kentucky last weekend.

David Noble, now dubbed "The American Ambassador" by the English branch of the family, was there to help pick them out after they passed through customs.

But both Victoria and her husband, Roy, immediately recognized Bill because he looks so much like his father. Julie also carries a strong family resemblance.

Both sides admitted later that, until the moment of the face-to-face meeting, there was a lingering fear of rejection.

"I thought we might come up the (airport) escalator, then turn around and go right back down," Bill said.

Those thoughts quickly dissolved into hugs and laughter.

"We might just keep you," Victoria said. "We might not let you go back."

"We might not leave," Bill said.

So close

Since then, it's been nearly non-stop catching up. Bill is 67, Julie is 63, and Victoria, the former only child transformed into a baby sister, is 50. There's a lot of ground to cover.

Victoria told Bill and Julie that their father went to England to look for them once, but couldn't find them. They were living with a family named Miller then, Bill said, so his search for Donworths would have been fruitless.

Bill and Julie have seen more photos of their father. They have heard his voice on a cassette tape and seen him on a Christmas video.

They also have seen the telegraph he used on the British ship all those decades ago.

They have heard the stories that families pass down: Their father was in Paris — or was it Marseilles? — as the Germans entered the city during World War II and swastikas started going up. He was in Hiroshima, Japan, after the war, and brought back a piece of glass, since lost, from a melted liquor store window.

They marvel at coincidences and near misses.

Just last year, Bill's son David came to the states and played golf at Myrtle Beach, S.C.

While he was there, Victoria, Roy and their David were just down the coast on Hilton Head.

It turned out that David Noble's Dec. 23 call was perfectly timed. After Dec. 26 — Boxing Day — Bill and Pat would have been away for 10 days. And they spend most of the year not in Southampton, where he called, but on the Isle of Wight.

Victoria mentioned that her father's nickname for her was "Pudding." Bill has always called Clare "Pud."

Victoria has told her English relations that January is not the prettiest time to visit Lexington. It's OK this time because they want to talk instead of see the sights, but they have promised to come back. The Nobles are planning to go to Southampton in April.

Sitting around a dining room table last week, the siblings said there has not been a moment of unhappiness or hard feelings.

"It's like we've known Victoria all our lives," Bill said. "She's niceness with a big 'N.'"

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