July 23, 2009 in City

After 70 years, brothers find each other online

Shawn Vestal I Shawnv@Spokesman.Com, (509) 459-5431
 
Video: 70 years later, brothers reunite
Dan Pelle photo

John Mellinger, left, and Dan Newburn saw their family resemblance right away. Now 70 and 71, they were separated when Mellinger was 9 months old and Newburn was 20 months old.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

For nearly 30 years, John Mellinger Jr. knew that he had a brother. He just didn’t know who – or where – he was. Then, in the space of two weeks, that changed. First came the e-mail, Mellinger said, from “a fella named Dan Newburn. It says, ‘John, I think I might be your older brother.’ ”

They became friends on Facebook. They started talking daily using the Internet phone service Skype. They noted the family resemblance, the similar noses. They sorted out the family history.

Finally, on Wednesday, Mellinger and Newburn met face to face in Mellinger’s Spokane home – a reunion some 70 years in the making.

“How very cool,” Newburn said as he walked up to embrace his brother on the front step of Mellinger’s north Spokane home. “Hi, little brother.”

It was the first time the brothers were together since 1939, when, at 9 months and 20 months old, they were placed in the Children’s Home Society in Boise by their teenage mother. Later adopted by separate families, the brothers’ lives diverged.

Mellinger, 70, worked for years as a police officer in Baltimore, then changed course and moved back to the Northwest, where he ran a barbershop in Hillyard until his retirement.

Newburn, 71, worked as a pastor, journalist and photographer in Las Vegas, where he still keeps busy with various projects.

The men plan to spend the next couple of days together, visiting, going out to dinner and catching up.

“I’m excited, but I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” Mellinger said, telling Newburn, “I recognize you and accept you as my brother, but it hasn’t really snapped in.”

Newburn said that for most of his life, he wasn’t overly curious about his biological roots – unlike Mellinger, who tried to investigate his background in 1980 with limited success. But now that Newburn has found Mellinger, along with a half-brother and two half-sisters, he said it has enriched his life.

“All of a sudden, I had a sense of being connected like I never had before,” he said. “I found a kinship.”

A dead end

The men’s mother was 17 when she had Newburn; their father was 32. He was a salesman and she was a waitress, and their marriage was brief, Newburn said. Their dad left them, though many of the details are murky.

“It sounded like our father, when he drank, he was a mean drunk,” Newburn said. “I felt like she didn’t want to put us in harm’s way.”

The boys went into the Children’s Home Society, a Boise orphanage that has become a children’s services agency.

Mellinger was adopted by a Boise family. His father was an administrator with the Social Security Administration, and the family moved to Baltimore in 1954. He had known he was adopted since he was 9. In his 40s, he decided to seek out information about his birth parents, driven partly by the desire to know more about his medical history.

When Mellinger approached the Children’s Home Society, he found the names of his parents, but nothing about a brother. Later, he found an aunt in Pocatello, Idaho, who told him he had a brother. But when he went back to the home society, they would tell him nothing.

He left a note in his file, saying if anyone inquired about him, they could get in touch with him.

“So I let that go,” he said.

Facebook friends

Newburn, meanwhile, had spent his childhood with a family in southern Idaho, later moving to California, where they lived in Los Angeles and Vista.

He hadn’t been particularly driven to learn about his birth parents, he said. Like Mellinger, he’d had a happy experience with his adoptive family, and curiosity about his medical history pressed him to investigate his past.

That was two weeks ago. He called an official with the Idaho state records office, and soon was connected with the Children’s Home Society. Within a day, he heard back.

“She said, ‘I’ve opened your file. You have a brother named John Forrest Mellinger Jr. who’s been trying to get ahold of you,’ ” Newburn said.

Newburn got online and searched for Mellinger, whose Facebook account popped up. Newburn also has an account on the social networking site, so he sent his brother a message and a friend request.

Back in Spokane, Mellinger found an e-mail alerting him to the request.

“I went on Facebook and saw his picture, and oh, boy, there was no doubt about it,” Mellinger said. “He was my brother.”

Finally face to face

For a couple of guys in their 70s, the brothers are pretty tech-savvy. They immediately began talking daily over the Internet, planning their face-to-face reunion. While Newburn was flying into Spokane Wednesday morning, Mellinger checked the progress of his flight.

When the plane landed, Mellinger sent him a text message: “Welcome to Spokane.”

Mellinger and his wife, Linda, were waiting on the concrete front step of their home when Newburn pulled up in a rental car with his wife, Liz. The two men embraced and then went inside, where they sat down and began chatting about their lives.

“I’m absolutely convinced this was a God thing,” Newburn said. “In three days I found out I had … a younger brother, I talked to him, saw him on the Internet. It was just kind of like – wow.”

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