ST. PAUL - Richard Mihalek had to wait more than 91 years to meet his father.
Just months after finally learning his dad’s identity, Mihalek traveled almost 1,000 miles from Washburn, Wis., to stand at the grave of Ralph Bewley in Hamblen Memory Gardens in Morristown, Tenn.
As other family members stood back, Mihalek stepped forward. He held his arms out.
“Here I am,” he said to the stone in the ground. “And here you are.”
No one should have to meet their father in a cemetery, but Mihalek felt thankful to meet him at all.
“After 90 years or so, you pretty much think, ‘Well, that’s the end of that,’ ” Mihalek said.
It wasn’t, though - thanks to his grandson in St. Paul, who began looking into some gaps in the family tree.
Nathan Bitzer, Mihalek’s grandson, didn’t initially set out to solve a family mystery back in 2015.
“I was working in the oil fields of North Dakota at the time,” said Bitzer. “Instead of watching ‘The Sopranos’ in my downtime, I wanted to do something productive. I decided to try to do some online genealogy. I picked up a subscription to Ancestry.com and started researching daily.”
Bitzer’s interest in genealogy was something he had in common with his grandpa.
“I knew he had done genealogy research on his mom’s side,” Bitzer said, “His mother’s parents were immigrants from Slovakia. Grandpa had traveled to Slovakia five or six times - first when it was a Soviet bloc country and later as an independent nation, to visit the gravesites of ancestors and meet relatives.”
As for his dad’s side …
“I knew from my mom that she never knew who her paternal grandfather was,” said Bitzer. “But I never officially approached my grandpa to ask him about it until a couple of years ago.”
Bitzer eventually brought it up in a conversation about digitizing his grandfather’s genealogy research. There was so much on Mihalek’s maternal side, but nothing at all for the paternal line.
“I approached him delicately at first,” Bitzer said. “I said, ‘Are you OK talking about this?’ He was.”
There wasn’t much to talk about. “I had no leads,” Mihalek said.
Here’s what Mihalek does know: “My mother, like so many, wouldn’t have had anything to do after finishing school in Wisconsin,” Mihalek said. “She would have had to leave the family farm and go somewhere for work. Eventually, my mother ended up in Cleveland because we had relatives there.”
He knows that his mother, Julia Mihalek, arrived in Ohio in 1925. He knows that she found work as a live-in maid for a well-to-do family in a suburb of Cleveland. And he knows that she was 18 when she gave birth to him Dec. 15, 1926.
He didn’t know much more than that for a long time.
“My mother would divulge nothing,” said Mihalek.
Julia was his mother, but another woman was his parent during those early years.
“As a live-in maid, my mother wasn’t allowed to have children living with her,” said Mihalek. “She was close to her aunt and uncle in Cleveland, who had no children, so it was my great aunt who raised me. She’s the only mom I really knew.”
Julia was still part of his life, though.
“I knew her as the woman who came over and bought me double-dip ice cream cones,” Mihalek said.
Everything changed when he was in the third grade.
“I came home for lunch at noon and my aunt had stroked out,” said Mihalek. “She died that night.”
The extended family made plans for the boy that he didn’t quite understand at first.
“They asked me if I wanted to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm in Wisconsin,” he said. “I said yes - but I didn’t understand that it was permanent. It worked out fine - after a number of years.”
It took the city boy awhile to transform into a farm boy.
“Imagine you come from the city, 9 years old, and go out to the farm,” Mihalek said. “Everybody had to do some of the chores, so I had to be a very fast learner. Pretty soon, I had my own two cows to milk, a horse to harness, I had to do hay work like the rest. We had no tractors or electricity or running water. In Cleveland, we had comforts like running water and I could even go to the movies for a nickel.”
But that wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was carrying the perceived stigma of his start in life.
“My grandma had a hard time with it,” said Mihalek. “I could feel that all the time.”
He felt differently with his grandfather.
“My grandpa was the closest I had to a dad,” he said. “But he was very busy and very poor - four of their kids were at home yet. I was older than some of my aunts and uncles.”
His mother was 800 miles away, but he still saw her once a year.
“She would come out each summer for a week or so,” he said.
Unlike his mother, Mihalek was able to finish high school and, because World War II was still being fought, he was drafted and served as the war was ending. Afterward, he chose to return to the place that now felt most like home - Wisconsin - and the G.I. Bill paved a path to college and a career as a high school teacher of the sciences.
“When a job in Ashland opened up,” Mihalek said, “I decided, ‘I’m going home to the trees, the deers and the outdoors.’ And that’s where I finished my life career.”
Mihalek also became a husband and a father, which he found healing.
“There was a void in my life before,” he said. “I discovered hugs.”
His mother, who married later in life, never did reveal more about the origins of her only child.
“Being a 1926 model,” Mihalek said of himself, “they just didn’t talk about that. The mores of the time meant my mother and my grandparents felt ashamed. … I did ask her, but I didn’t press it. I think she tried to put it out of her mind.”
It wasn’t only a father who was missing from the family tree - a grandpa was, too.
“We did ask our dad and our aunts and uncles quite a bit about it,” said Barbara Bitzer, one of Mihalek’s five children. “But no one seemed to know anything.”
By the time her son, Nathan Bitzer, began researching the family tree, technology made other lines of inquiry possible.
“You know, they’re doing a lot of things with DNA now,” Bitzer told his grandfather. “That might give us a clue. Maybe we can figure it out.”
Mihalek - who had taught biology and chemistry as a teacher - was intrigued.
“I bought him a DNA kit from Ancestry for Father’s Day in 2016,” Bitzer said.
The results were confusing.
“I’m a novice, so it was challenging to interpret,” said Bitzer. “I saw a pattern, but no rhyme or reason to it.”
There was one clear clue: Matches were popping up in eastern Tennessee.
“We have no connection to eastern Tennessee,” Bitzer said.
Not that they knew of, anyway.
To help make the search more linear, Bitzer asked his grandfather to take a second test from Family Tree DNA: “A ‘Y’ test,” he said. “It follows the male descendants. It follows the surname.”
This helped clear the path.
“I didn’t know if it would show anything, but I did get three matches with the name Bewley,” said Bitzer. “I was pretty confident that this was his father’s last name.”
By studying another family tree online, Bitzer narrowed the candidates to two men.
“All the names lined up to two brothers who were alive at the time my grandfather was born and who were within 10 years of my grandma’s age,” Bitzer said. “So I looked in a Cleveland directory from 1926 - and there was Ralph D. Bewley. He was in the directory that one year only - the next year he was gone. My grandpa was born at the end of 1926.
“When I got to that point, not quite a year from when my grandpa took the first test, I felt really confident,” he said. “I was almost certain that Ralph Bewley was going to be his father.”
Bewley would have been single and 21 years old when he lived in Cleveland in 1926. He died in Tennessee in 1988 at the age of 82, survived by a wife and nine children - or was it 10?
“When Nathan said, ‘I think I know who your father is,’ I thought, ‘Whoa!’ ” Mihalek said. “You know, when you’re 90 or 91 years old, you don’t get so shook up like when you were a kid. You try to keep it cool, not get all twisted up. But this one … my head isn’t all the way around it.’
Bitzer turned to DNA Detectives, a Facebook group for genetic genealogy.
“Someone suggested that I try to approach the younger generation, people around my age,” Bitzer said. “They said to just tell them what I found - not that I know it as a fact. And then hopefully we could confirm it through DNA.”
He did have some leads dating back to 1999. “I found an obituary for Ralph Bewley’s wife, Lona, with the names of their children,” he said.
Bitzer also found Jonathon Bewley, a grandson who is a pastor in Tennessee.
“Nathan sent me a Facebook message,” said Bewley. “I didn’t know him, so I overlooked it. Then he reached out to our church.”
Bewley figured it was a message that couldn’t wait.
“I went back to Facebook, opened the message and began to read,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, wow, this kind of sounds far-fetched.’ ”
But after reading the details of Bitzer’s genealogy journey, Bewley decided to do his own research.
“I had to see if my grandfather had spent a year in Ohio,” he said. “I just didn’t know if that was true. I didn’t tell anyone in the family I was looking for proof, but I did some asking around - and I found out that Grandpa did live in Ohio for a short time, when he was younger and looking for work. He had talked about how cold it was. He came back about a year later.
“At that point, I told Nathan that I would take a DNA test.”
The results were clear.
“Richard (Mihalek) was one of my strongest matches on Ancestry.com,” Bewley said.
It was time to tell his father - Jack Bewley, one of Ralph Bewley’s sons - what they had learned.
“When you tell someone who is 81 that they have a brother they never knew who is 91, it’s a bit of a shock,” Bewley said. “Once I told my father, it took a couple of days to process, but then he embraced it. From there, we began to tell other family members.”
No one knows how Julia and Ralph met. They do know that they were both young, they were both working in a big city away from home - and that he was a musician who played the guitar.
“Maybe when we get to heaven we’ll find out the whole story,” Barbara Bitzer said. “There’s just so much mystery involved.”
The Bewleys are sure of one thing, though.
“The type of individual my grandfather was, if he knew he had a son out there, he would have moved heaven and earth to reach out to him,” Bewley said. “That he never mentioned it to anyone, we came to the conclusion that this was a very brief encounter.”
Just like his son, Ralph Bewley had a tough start in life.
“His parents died at a young age, so he lived with family members and was bounced around as a child,” Jonathon Bewley said. “It’s so ironic, how they grew up the same way.”
After Ohio, Ralph Bewley bounced around again, working in the Kentucky coal mines before returning home to work at a furnace factory and tending his family farm in Russellville, Tenn. When he married his wife, Lona, he became a stepfather to her son, and they went on to have eight more children.
The Bewleys and their big brother finally met in October.
“When I got to Tennessee, the first thing they said was, ‘You look just like Daddy,’ ” Mihalek said.
He also learned something about his family. “They are the hugging-est people,” he said.
The siblings are staying in touch and their reunion will continue next year, when the Bewley clan plans to visit their brother in northern Wisconsin.
“God works in amazing ways,” said Jonathon Bewley. “Part of me feels the timing of this is not coincidental. I think the siblings were meant to find each other at this time in their lives, when they’re elderly and dealing with health problems. This has been a nice thing to happen to them at this time in their lives - it’s brought them some joy and happiness.”