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Finding family - Ronan woman's long quest for biological parents yields surprising results
Finding family - Ronan woman's long quest for biological parents yields surprising results

RONAN - Dixie Tibbetts was a teenager when she started searching for her biological parents.

The first time she went looking, she ran away from home to do it.

By the time she was in her 20s, Tibbetts had moved to Ashtabula, the Ohio town on Lake Erie where she'd been born, to continue her search. For a year and a half, she lived less than three miles from her birth mother without ever knowing it.

She ran into more brick walls than she can count, but Tibbetts learned a few things as she searched over the years. Her biological mother had been 15 years old when Dixie was born, in 1966. The woman had been in and out of foster homes as a child.

But for Tibbetts everything else - a name, whether she had any siblings, her nationality - remained a secret hidden in court documents, adoption papers and a mother's memory.

"We were told early on they believed I was part Native," says Tibbetts, who took pride in it and studied up on Indian peoples.

Then, in 2006, Linda Bellini and the Adoption Network of Cleveland took up Tibbetts' cause. After more than 25 years of her own personal search, it took the nonprofit agency just two days to connect Tibbetts to people who might be able to help fill in some of the blanks in her life.

They gave her the name of a man now living in Oregon they believed might be Tibbetts' father.

Nervous, Dixie Tibbetts picked up the phone and dialed his number.

Lois and Thomas Karhu, the people who adopted Dixie when she was 4 months old and raised her, didn't keep it a secret from her. When she was about 10 or 12 years old, they told her about the adoption.

"I always knew," says Tibbetts, a checker at Super 1 Foods in Polson. "My brother was adopted also. My parents knew who my brother's biological parents were, but they didn't know mine."

Her brother has never been interested in meeting his biological parents.

"But I always wanted to know about mine," Tibbetts says. "I had wondered about it when my mom told me, but I didn't really want to find out until I was 15."

That's when Thomas Karhu died. The loss of the only father she had ever known spurred her interest in finding out about the father she had never met.

The family was living in Glendale, Ariz., at the time, and Dixie ran away from home on her first ill-fated attempt to locate her biological parents.

"I turned around pretty quick," Tibbetts says. "I only made it to Flagstaff, and I didn't learn anything."

Now, more than a quarter-century later, she had a phone number with an Oregon prefix, and a name to go with it.

The man who answered the phone, Ted, was very nice. No, he said, he wasn't Dixie's father.

But he knew who Dixie's mother was. Ted told her he was the father of Dixie's half-sister, Kim. Would she like to talk to her?

By this point in her search, Tibbetts was in her early 40s and had read enough about adopted kids and their searches to know you had to be prepared for anything - and rejection was just one of them.

Tibbetts left her number with Ted - who had just been reunited with his biological daughter a few years earlier - and asked him to call Kim Wos and explain the situation. She knew there was a chance Kim would not want to talk to her, and she wanted to give her an easy out if that was the case.

She hung up the phone, her mind racing to process this new information - I have a sister! - and wondering if she'd ever hear from Kim.

Tibbetts was all of 10 minutes into this when Kim Wos called back. Over the next few minutes, Tibbetts learned things about herself she had never known.

A sister? She had three!

And a brother, too!

And they believe there might be a sixth sibling somewhere out there in the world as well!

Part Indian? No, she was Italian.

And yes, their mother still lived in Ashtabula.

But not all the news was exciting.

Kim provided an address for their mother, Kathy, and Tibbetts wrote a couple of letters. One was sent back unopened.

The other got a reply, with a picture, "and it kind of broke loose from there," Tibbetts says.

"Our mother has had virtually no contact with any of us," she goes on. "I've spoken to her on the phone, and she's a character. Very rude. She has issues. She's called when she's been drinking, and I've told her call anytime, but not when you've been drinking."

Her biological mother thinks Dixie's father may have been a man who was killed in a motorcycle accident a couple years after the birth without ever knowing he may have fathered a daughter. But she's not sure.

"I thanked her for having me," Tibbetts says. "I did hear stories of her also having abortions, and I could have been one of them. I thanked her for adopting me out, because I'm very blessed with the mom I have. Lois is my real mom, and she's backed me the whole way through this."

Kim, a waitress, lives in Kingsville, Ohio, a suburb of Ashtabula, and Tibbetts made plans last fall to meet her sister for the first time.

She traveled to Chicago on Amtrak, but the planned reunion didn't take place right away.

"If I'd stayed on the train I wouldn't have gotten in for another eight hours, until 2 or 3 in the morning," Tibbetts says. "But Kim's husband said he'd drive her to Chicago to pick me up, and we could visit the whole way back."

Instead, Kim's employer wouldn't give her the day off, and husband Jim showed up in Chicago alone.

"I thought, 'This'll probably be a real quiet ride back,' " Tibbetts says. "But we got along like we'd known each other for years."

They got into Ashtabula at about 1 in the morning.

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"Kim jumped in my arms, and we stayed up 'till 4 or 5 in the morning talking," Tibbetts says.

Over the next two weeks the sisters became virtual best friends.

"It's so strange, we have so many of the same habits," Tibbetts says. "I do this pinkie thing, where my little finger is always sticking out, and she does it, too. I'm a coffee fanatic, and she is, too. Our hair does the same thing. It got to the point where we'd say, 'Do you do this? Do you do this?' "

Tibbetts also met their brother Marty Fisher, who also lives in Kingsville, and his family. She's spoken to their other two sisters, Angie and Karen, who live in Texas and Arizona, on the phone.

Marty and Karen share the same dad; otherwise, Kathy's five children were fathered by four different men.

Tibbetts is the oldest.

While she was in Ohio, Dixie and Kim drove into Ashtabula, and drove by their mother's residence.

"We saw her on the porch," Tibbetts says.

But they didn't stop.

"Didn't want to," Tibbetts says. "We were all lucky - we think she drank through all her pregnancies. She did call me one time when she wasn't drunk and she seemed like a very nice person, but when she's been drinking Š I guess the Italian comes out."

Tibbetts herself has two grown children, Blair and Brandon, three grandchildren, and two stepsons with her husband Wade.

And her family has been extended from the mother and brother she grew up with to include another brother, three sisters and new nieces and nephews.

Just meeting Kim, who has since visited Tibbetts in Ronan, made the 25 years of searching more than worthwhile, according to Tibbetts.

"I could not have cloned, picked or chosen a better sister in my life," Tibbetts says.

"Anybody who was adopted and goes looking for their birth parents has got to be prepared for anything," she goes on. "You can create bad memories, or a lot of good can come out if it. You've got to be prepared, leave doors open, and if you need to close them, then close them."

She's happy with the siblings she's discovered. She wonders if a sixth child will pop into her life the way she popped into the lives of Kim, Marty, Karen and Angie.

And she's not searching anymore for a biological father who may or may not be alive.

Dixie Tibbetts has the answers she wanted, the answers she needed. Not all of them were pleasant.

But they are now a part of her life.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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