I almost dropped the phone. My wife heard the one-sided conversation and started to cry. I did my best not to get too excited. When I hung up the phone, we just sat there and looked at each other. She hugged me and said this is a dream come true. —Nathan "Skip" Dopp
Preface: This is the story of two brothers who met for the first time when they were old men, with wrinkles and gray hair and grown children of their own. Against all odds, after decades of not knowing of the other’s existence, followed by years of searching, they found each other. Before that, they were part of a deep secret their mother carried with her like an iron weight for 63 years.
In the end, their story is a testament of forgiveness, faith and the irresistible yearning for family connections.
Clara Judd Hill passed away in December at the age of 89. Fortunately, thanks to her courageous decision to unburden herself of her secret, she lived to see the union of her sons, meet her long lost son for the first time since birth and experience the peace and happiness it brought to her and so many other family members.
Nathan “Skip” Dopp was 62 years old when he received a phone call from a stranger named Steve Orgill, who told him, “I think I’m your brother.”
Steve Orgill was raised an only child by Clara Judd, a single mother who moved with her baby from Utah to California to start a new life. She worked a full-time job to support her son and did her best to bring him up right.
“My mother made sure I was taught well and went to church,” says Steve. “She had a strong desire to do good and instilled it in me.”
For much of the boy’s childhood, it was just the two of them, mother and son. He rarely saw his father, but later, when Steve was serving a mission for the LDS Church, his father reached out to him, sending frequent letters of encouragement.
To provide a father figure for her son, Clara married when Steve was 10, but it was a difficult marriage and short-lived. Then it was the two of them again until Steve left home to attend BYU.
Steve studied zoology and business administration, but wound up becoming a general contractor (he is co-owner of Judd Construction in Draper). He married Pamela Meyers. They raised six children and brought Steve's mother to live with them.
Meanwhile, Nathan Dopp — “Skip” to everybody — was one of five children adopted by Nathan and Charlotte Dopp and raised in Logan. After finishing school, Skip taught welding and machine shop courses at Bridgerland Applied Technology College before moving into the school’s administration. He married Sandra Small and they raised three children.
His parents told him early on that he and his siblings were adopted. Skip was naturally curious about his birth parents, but his adoptive parents knew little about them except that his mother was from the Grantsville area.
“All my life I wondered what my mother was like and whether she was still alive,” says Skip.
About 20 years ago he searched for his parents on the Internet but failed to uncover any information. He contacted LDS social services, but he was told that birth records were closed. He went online and found a website that would indicate if someone was looking for him. He struck out again, but the website allowed him to register his name for anyone who might search for him in the future. Little did he know it would pay off many years later.
“In the back of my mind it’s always been there,” says Skip. “As my children have grown up, they have always wondered and have encouraged me to find my birth parents. I had given up. I figured my parents were deceased and it wouldn’t do much good to search.”
Steve of course was unaware of this. For decades, Clara held fast to her secret: She had borne two children with Steve's father, not just one — another son born four years before Steve.
Steve's family tree is complicated. It’s more of a jungle or, according to one observer, a thicket than a tree, with twists and bends in the branches and odd prolific bursts of growth with little symmetry. “A wonderful mess,” one family member called it. Robert (not his real name) sits at the top of the tree, then three women on the next branch — two of them his wives (not at the same time) — and then on the branches below them there are 15 children, and then, beyond that, there are more twists and turns in the branches, but we’ll get to that later.
Robert fathered four children with his first wife. During that marriage, he fathered Nathan (Skip) and Steve with Clara; after he was divorced from his first wife, he fathered nine children with his second wife.
Clara had met Robert after she returned from an LDS Church mission in 1947. She suffered from panic attacks and fainting spells, and Robert, who owned a repair shop in Grantsville, was a source of comfort to her before he became something more.
“He was helpful to her,” says Steve. “Then unfortunate things happened.”
The relationship between Robert and Clara of course would have been scandalous in that day, especially in the small-town, Mormon culture that defined rural Utah. When Clara became pregnant with her first son, she moved to Salt Lake City to escape the embarrassment of her hometown. When the baby was born, she put him up for adoption through the LDS Church's family services. When she became pregnant again, she couldn’t bear another painful parting with a child. She kept her second son, and a year later moved to California to distance herself from the events in Utah.
She took a job at the Alameda County Health Department and worked there more than 30 years. She raised her son in the Mormon Church and was active in church service. She was considered everyone’s favorite aunt in the family, and she was a revered youth leader in her church service. The girls and boys she taught and guided in church attended her funeral and remembered her with great affection.
“Eighty percent of my childhood memories revolve around the church,” says Steve. “She made sure we went to church every Sunday and that I did good. Being an only child of a single mom, you can get into a lot of trouble, but I had no desire to do anything wrong. She was a very good mother.”
Clara proved unlucky in love again when she took a husband who proved to be abusive and manic. He died a decade later. Clara wouldn’t marry again until she was 79 years old.
Her secret grew old with her. Decades passed. Steve's oldest half-brothers knew about the existence of Clara’s first child, but no one talked about it. When another half-brother learned of it, he went straight to Steve and asked him, “Do you know all the circumstances about your family?” Steve mistakenly thought he was referring to his out-of-wedlock birth, and when he answered yes, he dropped the matter.
Steve and Skip might never have learned about one another if Clara hadn’t decided late in life that it was time to share her secret. In January 2011, at the age of 88, she told Steve, who by then was 58, “There’s something I’ve got to tell you.” She revealed the birth of Skip and his adoption.
“Why didn’t you tell me?" Steve asked.
“It’s a part of my life I am trying to forget,” she explained. “I’ve been embarrassed by it.”
“I never would have thought less of you,” Steve said. “We could’ve found him. Do you mind if I try to find him?”
Clara consented and Steve began his search immediately with what scant information his mother could provide — largely, that his brother had been born in LDS Hospital between June and September of 1948. He searched the Internet but came up empty.
It wasn’t the first time Steve had made such a quest. Steve’s first wife ran away after just seven weeks of marriage, pregnant with their first child, and never returned. Later, he married Pamela in what was a second marriage for both of them. They brought four children to the marriage and produced two of their own.
When the youngest of those children, Judd, was 8 years old, he told his father he wanted to find his half-brother from Steve’s first marriage. Judd tracked him down in Las Vegas, and three days later Steve met his oldest son — 13 years old by then — for the first time. That crazy family tree sprouted more branches and was about to sprout more.
Now Steve was searching for his lost brother, and once again it was Judd who led the way. In July 2011, while attending a funeral, Steve struck up a conversation with his other siblings about their missing brother. “We have to find him,” they concluded. This began a remarkable five-day quest.
The next day, a Friday, Steve told Judd about the existence of his missing full brother. Judd, a 27-year-old medical student who lives in Orem, quizzed his father about dates and places. That night Judd returned to his home and discussed it with his wife. She had placed a baby for adoption and knew the pain that such a decision can bring.
“I knew if we were going to find my father’s brother, it had better be soon,” says Judd. “We were worried that with my grandma reaching the later years of her life, combined with how complicated finding someone with such little information can be, that it'd be very likely there wouldn't be enough time to bring any closure or peace to the situation.”
But in just two or three minutes on the Internet, Judd found the post created by Skip Dopp years earlier. Dopp seemed to fit the markers: Born in LDS Hospital in 1948 and put up for adoption through LDS Family Services.
“It was a pretty big revelation for the family,” says Judd. “This had been kept under wraps my whole life. There was so much curiosity. It was exciting.”
Unable to find any further information about Dopp, Judd began to search for Dopp’s relatives, which led him to a Facebook page belonging to Dopp’s daughter Lori. An hour after arriving home, he called his father. “Dad, I think I’ve found him." He told him about Lori’s Facebook page.
“Does she look like an Orgill?” Steve asked him.
“She could,” said Judd.
Steve went online to look for himself. “She looks like an Orgill,” he said.
Steve was working in his garage the next morning when Judd called again. He had resumed his search as soon as he woke up. “Dad, I have his number.”
Steve called the number provided by Judd. “Is this Nathan Dopp?” he began.
“Uh, yeah.” Skip Dopp was wary. Nobody called him Nathan except telemarketers.
“Is this the Nathan Dopp who was adopted and is looking for his birth parents?”
“I’m looking for a brother my mom adopted out between June and September 1948 from LDS Hospital.”
“I was born July 26, 1948, at LDS,” Skip replied.
Skip continued. “Where is your mother from?”
“Grantsville," Steve replied.
“My adopted parents told me my birth mother was from Tooele County.”
Then Steve made the leap. “I think I’m your brother.”
As Skip recalls, “I almost dropped the phone. My wife heard the one-sided conversation and started to cry. I did my best not to get too excited. When I hung up the phone, we just sat there and looked at each other. She hugged me and said this is a dream come true.”
Steve asked Skip to post photos of himself on his daughter’s Facebook page and then invite him to be a friend so they could compare photos for family resemblances.
On Saturday afternoon, Judd emailed photos of Skip to his father that had been posted on Facebook. Steve was on the golf course when the email arrived. Scrolling through the photos on his iPhone, he was stunned. “As I look at them I see that he looks exactly like Joel (his half-brother) and my dad,” recalls Steve. Skip saw the same similarities after looking at photos of his father. Later, Skip and Steve compared notes and the excitement grew.
“There’s a good chance this might be it,” said Skip.
Skip and Steve decided to petition the state health department in Salt Lake City. The law enables state agencies to release information about adopted kids and their birth families if there is mutual consent. Steve emailed a form to Skip on Monday, but the latter couldn’t wait. The next day Skip, Sandra and Lori drove from Logan to Salt Lake City to provide the necessary information in person. He called Steve and explained what he had done.
“I’m in town,” he said. “I’d like to meet you.”
He drove to Steve’s office in Draper. Skip was waiting in a conference room when Steve appeared at the top of the stairs. They stood there a moment, smiling and staring at each other, and then they came together and embraced and cried.
“The minute I looked at him, I knew we were related,” says Steve.
After a combined 120 years of living, Steve Orgill and Skip Dopp had found each other. With one phone call, Skip gained a brother and 13 half-brothers and sisters.
Later, Lori would tell Skip, “Your mannerisms are the same. The way you move and sit.”
Normally, the health department requires more than a month to pull records from its archives to verify such biological connections, but after Skip made his request the woman behind the counter told him, “If your mother submits her request, I will personally find it in the archives and you won’t have to wait.”
The next morning Steve drove his mother to the health department in Salt Lake City to complete the paperwork. The woman at the department asked them to wait and then she disappeared into the back room to search the archives. She returned an hour later crying.
“It’s a match,” she said.
After Steve and Clara left, the woman called Skip. “She was crying," says Skip. "I said, ‘I hope this is good news.’ She said, ‘Your birth mother was just in here, and it’s confirmed that she is your mother.’ I had a good cry, too.”
He called Steve, who told him, “Your mother would really like to meet you.” On Saturday, Skip and his family drove to Draper to meet Clara at Steve’s home, where other family members had gathered for the occasion. “I was so nervous," he says. “It seems like it was forever getting there.” When the door opened, Skip could see his mother sitting on a chair in the front room.
“Mom,” Steve said, “this is your son, Skip.”
There were tears all around as the family looked on. Skip hugged her as she sat in her chair. He knelt by her and they stared into each others' eyes for several moments. Finally, she grabbed his nose and wiggled it. "Yep, that’s my nose," she said.
Says Skip, “My heart was so full. I can’t remember a time in my life other than when I got married that I felt that way. She just couldn’t believe she had found me.”
They hugged and held hands. Skip’s wife Sandra showed her photos of Skip as a boy. Skip presented a lengthy letter to his mother that he had written to tell her the story of his life.
Says Steve, “Skip was so good and gentle with her. Mom was really frightened to meet him for fear of what he would be like (toward her). After she put him up for adoption she was distraught. It had bothered her over the years. She said, ‘I always would think about him and never thought I’d meet him until after this life.’ The next day, she said, ‘Was I dreaming or did he really come visit me? Is he going to come again?’ She was like a little kid.”
At subsequent reunions, family members found themselves gawking at their newly found brother. One sister stared at him from across a room. Later, Skip told Steve, “All she did was stare at me.” The reason, Steve explained, is that he looks so much like her brother and father.
Skip’s biological family has embraced him, including him in church functions, funerals, weddings and other family gatherings. “If my wife and I could pick who we would want to be our family, we couldn’t have done any better,” says Skip. “They’re wonderful. They’ve just taken me in I will be eternally grateful to Steve for the courage he had to make that call to me.”
Steve, Skip and their families have met frequently and vacationed together. The brothers meet or talk on the phone frequently. They have been surprised to find so many similarities, just small things that must have traveled through their DNA. Both were contractors early in their lives. Both like automobiles and drag raced in their teens. Both have been described by others as quiet types who don’t like crowds and aren’t much for banter or conversation. Both are prone to streaks of orneriness and easy frustration.
As if to complete the happy ending, Clara met Charlotte — Skip's adoptive mother — for the first time, in the LDS Bountiful Temple a few weeks after meeting Skip. After embracing, Clara thanked Charlotte for raising a good son and Charlotte thanked her for the opportunity.
For Clara, finding Skip and bringing her family together was the last piece of the puzzle in the completion of her life. Approaching her 79th birthday, she had finally found a good man in Joe Hill, a widower who sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and was a stake patriarch in the church. They had met decades earlier in the mission field — because of a shortage of missionaries during World War II, they actually were mission companions, a rarity in church history. They were married in 2001 and enjoyed nine years together before Joe died.
“It’s obvious that our family tree does not look like a tree,” said one family member at Clara’s funeral. “It is a thicket, but I assure you that love exists in that thicket. And I’m so grateful for all of my brothers and sisters and family members. Not all of Heavenly Father's children come to earth through a typical family or stay in a typical family. And this is part of our test to understand each other as God’s children (and) to love each other.”
As for Steve, the only child, he now has 21 brothers and sisters in that thicket — counting half-siblings and step-siblings — not to mention three step-children and three biological children.
“This happened so quickly,” says Steve. “It’s miraculous, the way Judd found him immediately. We all believe there was help from the other side and that Joe and especially my father were involved. After my dad — and mom — spent a lifetime seeking forgiveness from God and from all involved, we felt he was part of our finding Skip. It’s been a miraculous thing. The way Skip describes it, "it’s like we’ve known each other all along. This has brought so much happiness to our family."
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: [email protected].