Published Nov. 14, 2003
HUNTINGTON -- Listening to stories and looking at pictures. That's all Patty Smith can do to learn about the father she never knew.
Jim "Jimo" Adams started at offensive guard for the Marshall football team. On the afternoon of Nov. 14, 1970 the Thundering Herd lost to East Carolina, 17-14, in Greenville, N.C. That rainy night, the plane bringing the team, fans and staff home crashed into a hillside short of the runway at Tri-State Airport. All 75 aboard perished.
One week later -- on the day Adams was laid to rest in Mansfield, Ohio -- Patty Smith was born in Charleston.
On July 10, 2002, after an exhaustive search through adoption registry sites, newspaper obituaries and yearbooks, Smith found the answer to a question that had torn at her for years. Adams was her father.
Smith lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband, Paul Roberts, and works as a speech language pathologist in Washington, D.C.
Andy and Vicki Smith adopted the infant in December 1970. They lived in Charleston until she was 2. The Smith family (including a sister, Jenny) has also lived in Delaware, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. Today, they reside in Williamsburg, Va.
"They've been great to me," Smith said. "As long as I can remember, I've known (she was adopted). I make no distinction. One father brought me into this world, the other took me through it."
At Marshall, Adams was a member of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. Bob Wilhelm of Huntington pledged with Adams.
"He was a super guy," Wilhelm said. "He was down to earth and would do anything for you. That team was on the verge of turning it around." Marshall finished 3-6 in 1970 as the final game at Ohio University was canceled.
Adams was one of the five Pikes who played football and died in the crash. A memorial honoring the five is in front of the Fifth Avenue house.
When Smith was 19, she said she wanted to learn the identity of her biological parents. She said her parents talked to a family friend who is attorney in Charleston, but didn't do much after that.
"I was curious," she said. "Then I changed my mind. I wasn't ready."
When Smith turned 30, she got the urge to restart the probe. She again checked adoption registry sites and internet sites, but nothing came up.
"I kind of let go again," she said. "I'd check periodically. I tried many registries and never got anything."
Then last spring, as Smith put it, it was time to do something. "I want to start a family," she said. "I want to be free and go on with my own life."
Smith said she spoke with a social worker at an adoption agency in Charleston in June 2002. "I wasn't sure what I was walking into," she said. "I thought it could take years. It can go slow."
Workers at the adoption agency had information from the 1970s on file and found records of Smith on micro-film. They called her with the news. She was at a Starbucks Coffee shop when the call came.
"They told me my father died in the Marshall plane crash, that I was born a week later, the day they buried him," she said. "They said both parents were only children and that my mother was also a college student."
Due to legal ramifications, Smith said the agency could provide her with no names.
For Smith, this was a start. She narrowed the possibilities down to the 37 players who were on the plane. She made calls to Marshall to get a 1970 yearbook, the library to get newspaper obits and notes from the social worker. All the information arrived at her home the same day. That night, with the help of her sister, Jenny Commins, who did computer research, they had a name.
"I could assume it was Jim Adams, based on the information," she said. "I called the social worker back the next day. I said this is what I think, am I right? I got a yes. They asked me what I wanted to do.
"A huge wave of sadness came over me. That door finally had been closed."
A couple weeks later, Smith said she got up the nerve to write a letter to Jimo's parents. She included a picture, e-mail address, home address and phone number.
"They knew a baby was on the way," she said. "He had told his parents. Jim was a stand-up guy."
Smith said she mailed the letter on a Tuesday. Come Friday, she got an e-mail from Jimo's parents - Hysen (stepfather) and Georgene Selman. The e-mail read: "Patricia we received your letter Friday. Georgene's writing a letter about James. We'll send it when she gets done. We're happy you found out who your biological father is."
Smith later received an envelope from Jimo's parents full of information and pictures of him as well - baby pictures on up to right before his death.
"I've saved everything," Smith said, noting she has albums full of pictures. "We stay in contact."
Smith and Jimo's parents set a date for the first face-to-face meeting. It would be the weekend of Sept. 13, 2002. While there, Smith visited Jimo's gravesite. The families also went out to dinner.
"I had no idea what to expect," she said. "I was nervous. The worst moment was going through that door. They made me feel so welcome. I don't who it was bigger for, them or me. I felt at home. It was so surreal, like I was supposed to be there."
"I remember getting the letter," Hysen Selman said, recalling he and Georgene were in the car in the driveway whey they opened the mail. "I knew we had something out there. We didn't know if it was a boy or girl or if the baby lived. We had to e-mail her back."
Once Smith met Jimo's mom, Smith said she could see just how big a toll the loss of a son had taken on Georgene. She was disabled by two strokes which affected her speech and mobility.
"It was a Herculean effort for her to write e-mails," Smith said.
Smith, accompanied by her husband, cleared another hurdle on Nov. 14, 2002 when she attended the annual memorial service at Marshall Memorial Student Center. Smith wore a white jersey with Jimo's No. 51, which was given to her by Marshall coach Bobby Pruett, and had a picture of him in her hand. After the service, they made the short drive to Spring Hill Cemetery to where six individuals whose bodies could not be identified are buried.
"I was feeling it," Smith said of the emotions she experienced during the service. "That was as close to a funeral for him as I'll ever get."
Another memorial service is scheduled today at noon, but Smith said she probably won't make it to town this time.
Regardless, Smith said her family and Jimo's parents have bonded well in the time they've known one another.
"I think about him all the time," she said. "There's pictures of him all over the house. Me and his parents speak weekly. We go over quite often."
"Her actions remind me so much of Jimo," Selman said. "What he did, she does now. She's a very bright girl. We're very proud of her."
Smith was present when Hysen and Georgene Selman celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. Smith said Jimo's parents are big Ohio State and Cleveland Browns fans.
In Mansfield, Jimo's parents own the Wagon Wheel, a neighborhood bar/restaurant. Smith said there's one special picture that shows Jimo, two guys and two girls. Jimo has an arm around one girl. Smith found out the girl's name was Sue Saprano, who operates a newstand.
"Jim's parents told me to go see Sue (at the newstand)," Smith said. "When people come in, she tells them I'm Jimo's daughter and they start telling me stories about Jimo.
"I feel I'm still getting to know him. It's cool, too."