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Vietnam vet finally meets birth family

Howard Rice left his siblings Janet Groner LouAnn WilsRobert Brey pose for their first-ever family portrait.

Howard Rice, left, and his siblings Janet Groner, LouAnn Wilson and Robert Brey pose for their first-ever family portrait.

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Updated: November 8, 2013 6:23AM

YORKVILLE — It was a family reunion like no other. More than a dozen excited cousins and half-siblings all gathered at the home of Janet Groner Sunday to welcome 64-year-old Aurora resident Howard Rice, the family member they didn’t know existed a month ago.

“I’ve been trying to find out if I had any family for over a year,” Rice said as he sat with four of his five living brothers and sisters in Groner’s back yard. “I went to the Aurora Historical Society, the [Kane County] clerk’s office and a genealogist. I even petitioned a judge to open my adoption files. To suddenly find all these relatives living so close to me is just amazing.”

The Vietnam veteran knew from a young age that he’d been adopted at birth. He even owned a couple of letters that his birth mother had written to his adoptive parents, telling them where she lived but asking them not to contact her. He recognized the address, because it was only a few blocks from where he’d lived with his adoptive parents. And he knew he had a half-sister, because one of the letters mentioned her by name.

After months of effort, Rice tracked down Groner, the half-sister mentioned in the letter. In August, he came to her Yorkville home and introduced himself.

“He visited me out of the blue and said that we might be related,” Groner recalled. “I knew right away that he was, because he looks a lot like my mother’s brothers.” Recognizing her mother’s handwriting in the letters confirmed the relationship, she added.

When Rice was born in 1949, Groner, her younger brother and her recently-divorced mother, Dorothy Pigney Cannon, were living with her maternal grandmother in Aurora, she said. As a 10-year-old, she’d had no idea that her mother was pregnant. “We were pretty naïve back then,” she commented. “People didn’t talk about pregnancy to children, especially unwed pregnancy.” A months-long trip out of town that Pigney took when Groner was young could have coincided with Rice’s birth, she added.

The letters Cannon wrote to Beatrice Rice, Howard’s adoptive mother, a few months after the adoption revealed that financial problems forced her to give up a baby she would rather have raised herself, Rice and his siblings agreed. “I work every day but my money doesn’t go far,” she confided early in 1950. “Lots of luck with your son. I hope he grows up to be a fine boy.”

While neither Groner nor her other half-siblings knew that their mother had put a baby up for adoption, their grandmother, Hazel Pigney, did know, Groner noted. “After she died, I found in my grandmother’s diary clippings from the Beacon about Howie’s birth and adoption,” she said. “I’ve always wondered why she never told any of us about him.”

Rice grew up across town from his half-siblings, even attending East Aurora High School with two of them ­— Randy Brey and, briefly, Robert Brey. Though he has no memories of interacting with his brothers as classmates, he does remember the house on Talma Street where his mother, grandmother and siblings grew up.

“As a kid, I went by that house a million times,” he recalled. “I had no idea at the time that my own birth family lived there. I always thought that if I ever did find them, they’d be in California or someplace like that. To find that most of them are local is fantastic.”

Groner and Robert Brey live in Yorkville, while half-sister LouAnn Wilson lives in Sandwich. Rice also now knows at least a dozen cousins, nieces and nephews who live in the greater Chicago area.

Rice’s 27-year-old daughter, Ashley Rice of Geneva, spent much of Sunday afternoon looking at old family photos with her newfound aunts and uncles. “Since I was 16 I’ve been looking online to find out if my dad and I had any family,” she said. “Every holiday it’s just been me and Dad. Now we have lots of people to share the holidays with.”

Rice’s new family is looking forward to sharing Thanksgiving and Christmas with him and his daughter — not to mention attending his upcoming wedding to fiancée Lyn Hamper, who helped him start his genealogical research.

“We’re thrilled to death,” Groner declared. “It’s like Christmas came early this year. We’re all welcoming him into the family.”

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