Wineka column: A brother appears out of nowhere

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 26, 2014

ROCK HILL — On Jan. 2 before he went to work at the Freightliner truck plant in Cleveland, James Sipes Jr. checked his Facebook page and noticed he had a friend request from Jeff Dorsey.
Sipes didn’t recognize the name but noticed they had a mutual friend in James’ sister Diana Flowe, who lives in Florida.
“I just kind of went ahead, accepted it and went on to work,” Sipes says.
When he returned home that afternoon, Sipes went back to his computer to investigate who his new Facebook friend from Lawndale in Cleveland County might be.
Sipes did a double-take when he noticed one of Dorsey’s more recent postings:
“Hello, my name is Jeff Dorsey. I’m looking for some help to locate my natural birth mother, Carolyn Frances Stephens. Her age is 65 to 67. Think she lived in the Gastonia area 1960 to 1965. I was born at Kings Mountain Hospital July 13, 1964.”
Sipes knew his mother’s maiden name was Carolyn Frances Stephens. He immediately sent Diana a text message, asking “Who is Jeffrey Wayne Dorsey?” and he added, half-joking, “Do we have a brother we don’t know about.”
Flowe shot back the answer that yes, believe it or not, Dorsey was their half brother, prompting Sipes to call his sister to find out more.
“It’s just so weird,” Sipes says today. “It doesn’t seem real.”
For the last four weekends, Sipes and Jeff Dorsey, his brother out of nowhere, have spent time together filling in some of the pieces in each other’s lives.
On Saturday afternoon, they were among 20 family members who gathered at the Golden Corral in Rock Hill, S.C., to keep building on a new chapter in everybody’s lives.
All of a sudden, there are new uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, in-laws and grandchildren to talk about because of this cosmic shift in family.
After an on-and-off search of many years, Dorsey tracked down his natural birth mother, whose name now is Carolyn Smith. She lives in Greenville.
Dorsey also found three siblings he never knew he had in James Sipes, Diana Flowe and Lisa Moon, also of Cleveland.
James, Lisa and Diana grew up together in the same household their mother established with husband James A. Sipes Sr.
All these years, they didn’t know Carolyn had given up for adoption another son, born about three years after James and before the girls.
“I’m not sure I’ve collected all my thoughts on it even yet,” Moon says. “It was exciting but a big surprise.”
The family history is a little complicated, so hang on.
James, Jeff, Lisa and Diana all have the same mother in Carolyn. But James and Jeff have different fathers — men Carolyn never married. She gave birth to James when she was 16, and for the first four or five years of his life, James lived with his grandparents in Greenville.
Jeff was born when Carolyn was 19, and before she gave birth, she made arrangements to give Jeff up for adoption to his natural father’s sister and her husband — the Dorseys.
In fact, Carolyn lived with the Dorseys the last three months of her pregnancy, and “I actually named him what they wanted him to be named,” she says.
There was an error in transcribing Jeff’s birth date. He was born July 31, 1964, but he always celebrated his birthday as July 13, because that’s what his birth certificate said.
All these years after she gave Jeff up, Carolyn says, July 31 was a bad day for her, because she thought of the son she never knew.
“In my generation,” she adds, “you could have a secret and lock it away.”
Jeff Dorsey says he didn’t find out he was adopted until he was 16.
Before then, he had clues. Once when his medical chart and his adoptive mother’s information were together, he noticed a different name for his real mother.
When he asked about it, Dorsey was told someone else’s record had been mixed in by mistake. The documents disappeared.
Even when his adoption was confirmed by the Dorseys, they did not want him to know his birth parents.
One reason was, as Dorsey finally learned in 1996, was that his real father was also his uncle (his adoptive mother’s brother).
Other bits and pieces slipped out. When he drank too much alcohol, Dorsey’s adoptive father would give him a few other details. This is how Dorsey learned once that he had an older brother named Jamie.
That became confusing in Dorsey’s family detective work, because Jamie Stephens, his brother, had changed his name to James A. Sipes Jr.
By 1996-97, Dorsey started searching birth records at various county courthouses, but his family often sent him in the wrong direction, hoping he would become discouraged and quit.
He later started online searches, but because of name changes due to marriages, he hit dead ends.
Betty Aldridge Phillips of Belmont saw one of his Facebook posts seeking information and decided to help.
Dorsey also spread the news of his search among various trading post websites, and he started to receive back bits of information.
“I knew it would get around to a lot of people,” Dorsey says of the salvage item community.
He tracked down his birth certificate in Cleveland County and his adoptive birth certificate in Raleigh.
Meanwhile, Phillips started sending him concrete names for his mother, brother and sisters.
“It was hard to grasp at first,” Dorsey says.
The big break came New Year’s night when Dorsey contacted Diana Flowe on Facebook by making a friend request.
Diana says her first reaction was, “Who is this?”
She inspected his Facebook page, scrolled down and saw her mother’s name and Dorsey’s search for her.
“Of course, I’m shocked,” Diana recalls.
First, Diana and Jeff traded Facebook messages, then text messages. Soon they were talking on the telephone. Diana also had started sending text messages to her sister, Lisa Moon, who in turn was communicating with their mother.
Lisa asked Carolyn, “Do we have a brother I don’t know about?” Carolyn, realizing Jeff had initiated the search, eventually confirmed for the girls they did have another brother.
“I don’t really think she ever thought this would happen or was prepared for it,” Lisa says.
At one point, Diana asked Lisa to dig out and inspect her own birth certificate.
Lisa, who always thought of herself as the second or middle child of the family, saw the birth certificate mentioned her mother as having two live births before her.
She had never noticed it before.
Dorsey said his initial conversations with his sisters lasted from about 11:30 p.m. until 2:30 a.m.
Carolyn Smith and Dorsey would have a long telephone chat the night of Jan. 2. She worked Jan. 3, then traveled more than four hours from Greenville the next day to visit in person with her long lost son.
They spent five hours together.
Both Jeff and Carolyn understood why Carolyn had stayed out of his life all these years.
Her other children grasped her reasoning, too. “She didn’t know if he knew he was adopted,” Lisa says. “She said, ‘I didn’t want to turn his world upside down.’
“I understand why she made those decisions. I can understand why she made those choices. My only question — it makes me wonder what course our lives would have taken if we all four had grown up together.”
The day after Carolyn and Jeff spent time together at his Lawndale home, Dorsey met Lisa and James for the first time at the Texas Roadhouse in Hickory.
“It was kind of weird, first walking up,” Sipes recalls. “There’s my brother, and two days ago, I didn’t have one.”
Lisa says everyone noticed a lot of likenesses, especially among the brothers.
“We both look at each other and say, ‘I don’t see it,’ ” James laughs.
At age 20, Carolyn Stephens married James A. Sipes Sr., and they had daughters, Lisa and Diana. When James was about 6 years old, he started living with his mother and stepfather.
A high school dropout, Carolyn earned her GED and went to nursing school at Rowan Technical College when she was 25. By 28, she was a registered nurse and ever since has worked — sometimes as a director of nursing — at hospitals, assisted living centers and nursing homes.
She divorced James Sipes Sr. after 30 years, married again, but her second husband died after seven years of marriage.
At 68, she’s single now, living in Greenville and still working.
Carolyn Smith says she can put up a good front to people to hide physical and emotional pain, and she did what she did because of the times.
“I grew up in an era when you didn’t have children out of wedlock,” she adds. “One was bad, two was really bad.”
Her own father periodically contacted the Dorseys to check on Jeff’s welfare, while Carolyn lived with her secret for almost 50 years.
“I thought about it many, many times,” she says.
Jeff Dorsey relishes his new family and getting to know them.
“He’s so happy now,” says Julie, his wife of eight years. “He says we have so much time to catch up on things.”
On the weekend of Jan. 11, Dorsey met his Uncle Gene and Aunt Bobbie Sipes at their China Grove home. Lisa and James were there, too.
Last weekend, Jeff visited James at his home in Cleveland, where they watched football and talked for hours.
The Rock Hill gathering came together as a chance for Jeff to meet Diana for the first time in person. It also allowed Jeff’s daughters, Michelle and Kim, and Julie’s son, Aaron, to meet everybody, as did the children of Lisa and Diana.
“I kind of felt I already knew him,” Diana says.
Carolyn Smith couldn’t help but smile as the little ones moved in and out of the tables and her family tried to determine some of the things they had in common with Jeff, such bad backs.
Yes, she had given Jeff up a long time ago, but Carolyn says deep down in her heart, “I never let him go.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or