Dorothy Hill Dennis, missing from the Stith Family for almost 100 years, has found her birth father – my father – John F. Stith Sr.
Earlier this month I received an email from Jo Dennis, Dorothy’s daughter in law. It began:
“Hello. I’ve been researching my husband’s genealogy for years, trying to solve a mystery, and when I saw your blog story titled “What’s In A Name?” [This is the story.] I knew I had found a legitimate contact who might be able to help.”
From the story Jo Dennis told me I knew immediately that the half-sister who had been a Stith Family secret for most of my life had found us.
I was thrilled and I replied immediately, hitting “Send” at 2:57 a.m. Sunday, June 4, my 75th birthday.
“My name is William Foster Stith although I am known as “Pat Stith, ” I began. “My father’s name is John F. Stith Sr. of Birmingham, AL. I am one of Dorothy’s half brothers. Please give Dorothy my warmest regards.”
And then I told Jo about Dad and asked for more information.
At Dorothy’s request, Jo had been searching for Dad for years.
Her email said:
“In 1917, John F. Stith married Allie Amelie Brown (who is my husband’s grandmother) in Birmingham, Alabama. I have a copy of their marriage license, and it is also noted in the family Bible. For the next couple of years, the couple lived with Annie Stein Stith….according to the telephone books from those days.”
Annie Belle Stein Stith was Dad’s mother – my grandmother.
Jo told me that Dorothy, my half-sister, lives in Los Angeles.
“Dorothy will be 97 in September. Physically, she is in perfect health, hale and hearty, but she has pretty significant dementia now, though some family memories emerge, fleetingly, at unexpected times.”
* * *
I had discovered Allie Amelie Brown in an old courthouse record book in March of last year when my wife, Donna, and I went to Birmingham to attend the wedding of Jonathan and Casey Stith. Amelie Brown was a surprise to me; I had never heard of her. I have six older brothers and sisters; three are still alive. They hadn’t heard of her either.
In March 2016, when Donna and I went to the wedding, we went a day early so I could look for proof of Dad’s marriage to Mary Frances Riley, and the birth certificate of their daughter, Ann Riley Stith, a half sister none of the family had ever met. According to a “history” written by my oldest brother, John, 30 years or so ago, Ms. Riley was Dad’s first wife. My mother, Alice May Cameron, was his second. After my mother died of cancer in 1947 Vergie Mae Winn Gunn became his third wife, or so we thought.
I didn’t find evidence of Dad’s marriage to Ms. Riley. It’s possible that she doesn’t even exist.
But I did find documents showing that he had married Allie Amelie Brown in 1917, twice, on March 19 and again on Nov. 3. Someone had written “Don’t Publish” across the top of the first marriage certificate which, I was told, meant the marriage had been annulled. Apparently Amelie was underage, 17, 16, maybe even 15 years old, and did not have her parents permission to marry. Dad joined the Alabama National Guard on July 23, 1917 – there was a war going on – and the couple married again in November. He went overseas, to France, in the fall of 1918, landing on the day WWI ended, Nov. 11.
[I recognized Dad’s signature on the marriage certificates. And the final proof: I have a photograph of the couple. Someone had misspelled Amelie’s name, identifying the couple as “John and Amalie.” I thought she was a girlfriend.]
Jo wrote me: “Amelie was born on Nov. 21, 1900, and she died of cancer on July 24, 1973. Actually, some records say [Amelie was born in] 1899 and others 1901, so I’m not sure. Either way, she still wouldn’t be 18 by the date of her November 3rd marriage, so I’m still not sure what that second wedding was about.”
Their child, Dorothy, was born on Sept. 2, 1920, while Dad was serving a second hitch in the Army.
At some point, we don’t know when, Amelie and John were divorced, perhaps before Dorothy was born. Sometime between the end of 1920 and 1922 Amelie and the child, Dorothy, moved to California with Amelie’s mother, Eula Brown, and Amelie’s seven brothers and one sister.
Amelie met and married her second husband, Paul Clifford Hill, an attorney, in 1923 and he adopted Dorothy. Amelie and her second husband and their two children, Dorothy and Paul, lived in Los Angeles. When Paul retired they moved to Corona Del Mar, a beach community near Newport, California, Jo wrote. Amelie and Paul are buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.
About 10 years ago, then in her mid-80’s, Dorothy found a paper showing that she had been adopted and that her birth father was “John Stith.”
“Since she only knew Paul Hill as her father, she was stunned,” Jo wrote, and worried that she might have been illegitimate.
A few years later, in 2010, Jo went hunting for John Stith. She found him right away but the documents she saw online did not show he had ever been married to Allie Amelie Brown. Still, this John Stith was from Birmingham and the John Stith she looking for was from Birmingham.
Then came the breakthrough. Three or four years ago a relative of Allie Amelie Brown came to visit and brought a family Bible in which Amelie’s mother had recorded births, deaths, and marriages.
“She listed Allie’s [Amelie’s] marriage to John and later her marriage to Paul Hill,” Jo wrote. “Eureka! John Stith was real!”
“I went back to Ancestry.com in earnest and then was able to find the enlistment papers, marriage certificates, and telephone directory entries – Wow.”
So what was Dorothy like, this half-sister the Stiths knew nothing about?
Jo told me:
“Dorothy was an avid swimmer who competed in high school. She graduated from UCLA and after the war married my father in law, Harold James Dennis Sr. (Hal) and had three boys: My husband, Harold James Dennis Jr. (Denny), Craig Hill Dennis; and Kenneth Charles Dennis (Kenny).”
Denny is 70, Craig is 68 and Kenny is 64.
Jo told me:
“She was an extremely independent and hard-working woman who handled all of the accounting for her husband’s five companies, participated heartily in family skiing and sailing ventures, and along with her sons did virtually all of their own home upkeep, such as sanding, painting, floor refinishing, and gardening. Even now, she eschews any pastimes that her caregivers try to encourage and is always insisting that she needs to ‘work.’”
The work part sounds a lot like Dad.
According to my oldest surviving sister, Jane, who will be 90 in August, my father and mother never spoke of his earlier marriage[s].
Jane said John F. Stith Jr., my oldest brother, found out in 1942, when he was 16 years old, that my Dad had been married before he married my mother.
When the family moved from a house on Hoke Street in East Gadsden, Alabama, to a farm outside of town a teacher at John’s new school said he had seen our mother, she had black hair, and he told John he thought our mother had red hair.
When John got home from school he asked Mother about that, according to Jane, and Mother told him that his Dad had been married before, to a red head.
Jo told me: “…as long I knew Amelie she always had reddish hair, but of course it was dyed by then, so I’m not sure if it was her natural color or not. And the vintage photos that I have of her are black and white! Dorothy has always had auburn hair – reddish brown – but once again, she has dyed it for years.”
At least three of Dad’s and Mother’s seven children would be kept in the dark about another wife and child until Brother John wrote his family “history” in the mid-1980s, more than 40 years after he learned that Dad had been married before he married our Mother.
John identified Dad’s first wife as Mary Frances Riley and the child as Ann Riley Stith. Where did John get those names? I have no idea. Is there a fourth wife out there somewhere? And another half-sister?
Coming Friday: PIZ ZA! PIZ ZA! PIZ ZA! Paddling the Roanoke