Becoming a young adult during the Second World War was a challenge for any teen alive during that turbulent time. Richard Mihalek was one such person who was sent from the city to live with his grandparents on a farm in Wisconsin after his aunt suddenly died.
Mihalek took time to adjust to his new life with his maternal grandparents but was always left feeling empty that he had no idea who his father was. This was because his mother had fallen pregnant with him out of wedlock and in those days that type of thing was frowned upon. Years later and a devoted grandson would come through with all the answers.
As a young girl, barely into her teens, Mihalek’s mother arrived in Ohio in 1925. She found work as a live-in maid at the age of 17 with a wealthy Cleveland family. But during that time, she met a man and gave birth to Richard when she was just 18 years old. That’s all Mihalek knew about his roots for decades, but that lack of knowledge always troubled and bothered him.
Mihalek knew little about his roots and nothing about his father. His mother, Julia Mihalek, was the secretive type and her life was shrouded in mystery. What he does know is that his mother was forced to move to Cleveland with relatives after she finished school in Wisconsin. In those days, men and woman alike worked the land if they weren’t skilled at a profession.
Mihalek explained that his mother would “divulge nothing” when it came to Richard’s father. As Mihalek explained, according to a Park Rapids report: “As a live-in maid, my mother wasn’t allowed to have children living with her,” he explained. “She was close to her aunt and uncle in Cleveland, who had no children, so it was my great aunt who raised me. She’s the only mom I really knew.”
While Mihalek was raised for the most part by his aunt and uncle, he recalls spending quality time with his mother and saw her regularly. “I knew her as the woman who came over and bought me double-dip ice cream cones,” Mihalek said. But everything was about to change after tragedy struck suddenly one day.
When Mihalek returned home from school one day, he could sense that something wasn’t right. His aunt had suffered a massive stroke earlier in the day, and she died suddenly that same night. It was when Mihalek was in the third grade, as he explained: “I came home for lunch at noon, and my aunt had stroked out. … She died that night.”
Due to the sudden death, the extended family made plans for Mihalek to go and live on a farm with his mother’s parents. “They asked me if I wanted to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm in Wisconsin,” he recalls. “I said yes – but I didn’t understand that it was permanent. It worked out fine – after a number of years.” But it would take this city boy a while to get used to farm life.
As well as needing to be a fast learner, Mihalek recalls that at the age of just nine he was required to help out a lot around the farm. “Everybody had to do some of the chores, so I had to be a very fast learner,” he explained. “Pretty soon, I had my own two cows to milk, a horse to harness, I had to do hay work like the rest. We had no tractors or electricity or running water. In Cleveland, we had comforts like running water, and I could even go to the movies for a nickel.”
Due to his mother having Mihalek out of wedlock, his grandmother never related to the young boy well. “My grandma had a hard time with it,” said Mihalek. “I could feel that all the time.” Meanwhile, his mother, who was 800 miles away, would come to visit once a year during the summer, and that’s the only contact Mihalek had with her. “She would come out each summer for a week or so,” he said.
Going to War
Fortunately for Mihalek, he was able to finish high school and was then drafted to go and fight in World War II. He made a safe return from the war and settled in Wisconsin where he paved a path to a successful career as a high school teacher. “When a job in Ashland opened up,” Mihalek said, “I decided, ‘I’m going home to the trees, the deer and the outdoors.’ And that’s where I finished my life career.”
By all accounts, Mihalek came from a cold family who didn’t display acts of affection very often. Soon enough, despite the void he felt, Mihalek married and became a father. “There was a void in my life before,” he said. “I discovered hugs.” But Mihalek was about to discover a whole lot more in years to come, thanks to some savvy work by his grandson years later.
When Mihalek’s grandson, Nathan Bitzer started looking into his family’s genealogy, he did so as he wanted to help his grandfather to answer questions that had eluded him for so many years. “I was working in the oil fields of North Dakota at the time,” explained Bitzer. “Instead of watching ‘The Sopranos’ in my downtime, I wanted to do something productive. I decided to try to do some online genealogy. I picked up a subscription to Ancestry.com and started researching daily.”
As Bitzer explained: “I knew he had done genealogy research on his mom’s side. … His mother’s parents were immigrants from Slovakia. Grandpa had traveled to Slovakia five or six times – first when it was a Soviet bloc country and later as an independent nation, to visit the gravesites of ancestors and meet relatives.” However, little-to-nothing was known about Mihalek’s father’s side of the family.
Due to advances in DNA technology, anyone these days can get a good snapshot of their ancestry via various websites that can trace DNA. “You know, they’re doing a lot of things with DNA now,” Bitzer told his grandfather. “That might give us a clue. Maybe we can figure it out.” Mihalek was intrigued, so Bitzer purchased a DNA kit from Ancestry.com for Father’s Day.
Bitzer was confused by the results from Ancestry.com after an additional “Y test” was carried out on his grandfather to ascertain male descendants. Matches seemed to be popping up in eastern Tennessee, but “We have no connection to eastern Tennessee,” Bitzer said. But that second test revealed three matches with the last name Bewley.
After many hours of hard work and a good amount of cash, Bitzer said he thought he had narrowed down his grandfather’s father to two men. “I didn’t know if it would show anything, but I did get three matches with the name Bewley,” said Bitzer. “I was pretty confident that this was his father’s last name.” Then, after checking a Cleveland telephone directory from 1926, Bitzer narrowed it down to one man.
As Bitzer explained: “All the names lined up to two brothers who were alive at the time my grandfather was born and who were within ten years of my grandma’s age,” he said. “So I looked in a Cleveland directory from 1926 – and there was Ralph D. Bewley. He was in the directory that one year only – the next year he was gone. My grandpa was born at the end of 1926.” By this stage, Bitzer was confident that he had found the right man.
As he wanted to be sure he had located the right match, Bitzer turned to DNA Detectives, a Facebook group for genetic genealogy. “Someone suggested that I try to approach the younger generation, people around my age,” Bitzer said. “They said to just tell them what I found – not that I know it as a fact. And then hopefully we could confirm it through DNA.” The match was confirmed and Mihalek, at the age of 91, had finally found his father.
It may have been 91 years in the making, but Mihalek was thrilled to able to meet his father after all those years. He traveled just under 1,000 miles from his home in Washburn, Wisconsin, to stand at the grave of his late father, Ralph Bewley in Hamblen Memory Gardens in Morristown, Tennessee. Mihalek was moved as he approached his father’s grave.
Here I Am
As Mihalek walked towards the graveside, he extended his arms as far as he could. “Here I am,” he said to the stone in the ground. “And here you are.” While no one should have to meet their father for the first time at a graveyard, Mihalek felt grateful for the chance to meet him at all. “After 90 years or so, you pretty much think, ‘Well, that’s the end of that,’” Mihalek said.
While the reunion of sorts was a touching and important one for Mihalek, his daughter Barbara noted that his past is still shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. “Maybe when we get to heaven we’ll find out the whole story,” Barbara said. “There’s just so much mystery involved.”