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Doug Clark: Hug from father to son waited a lifetime

The father and child reunion took place Jan. 7 inside a modest apartment in Independence, Missouri.

Richard A. Hodge, 72, a retired Spokane photographer, had come to finally meet the man who had dropped out of his life when he was a baby – 99-year-old Richard L. Hodge.

“The last time I saw you, I wanted to give you a hug,” said the old man during the reunion, “but your mother wouldn’t let me.”

“I have one for you now,” the son answered.

“So I hugged him,” he recalls. “I got to touch the hand that gave me life.”

This tale of two Richards is as tragic as it is heartwarming. It’s really about how stubbornness and petty jealousies kept a father and son estranged for seven decades.

Spokane’s Hodge wanted to share his amazing story with me. So on Friday, I met him and his wife, Judi, at their favorite haunt, the iconic Donut Parade at Hamilton and Illinois.

“Didn’t miss a day in 37 years,” said Hodge of his Donut Parade habit.

Until last year, that is. Hodge cut back to “a couple times a week” when his diabetes got worse. He laughed. “The doctor thought it was time to cut out the donuts.”

But not before he helped owner Roy Reno invent the “Flatliner,” a bacon-topped maple bar with a sausage in the middle.

“Now you can see why the doctor told him to stop coming,” wisecracked Judi.

Hodge said his family story begins in the days of World War II.

Richard L. Hodge was one of thousands of airmen stationed in the Spokane area. He met a local girl named Dorothy. They hit it off. She got pregnant.

The couple married the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 6, 1941. Marriage meant that Dorothy would receive the monthly allotment given to military wives.

Hodge, a gunner on B-17 airplanes, was shipped off to Europe to blast away at the Germans.

“I tried, but I don’t think I hit any,” he said humorously during a phone call.

Surviving the war, Hodge returned to Dorothy and his namesake son in 1945. The relationship didn’t last more than a few months.

“It was a formal marriage,” said the son. “I don’t think there was any passion involved, so they split the sheets.”

Hodge senior told me he made one last attempt to visit his boy.

“I was going to give him $40, but she (Dorothy) wouldn’t let me see him,” he said. “It made me so mad. I left and never went back.”

Hodge said his mom, who died in 2006, never talked about his father. “I never knew him at all. The only thing he ever gave me was his name.”

And the younger Hodge was OK with that until about 20 years ago, when he got an itch to find out more about his family tree.

He didn’t have much to go on besides his parents’ marriage license and the name of his dad’s brother, who lived somewhere in Iowa.

A search produced three possible candidates. Hodge mailed letters. One recipient wrote back saying he wasn’t the guy.

Hodge would later learn that the letter writer was, indeed, a relative who had, in turn, contacted Richard’s father in Independence.

Enter the next roadblock: senior’s wife, Erma.

“She didn’t want anyone to know he had been married before,” said the son.

“She was really strict about it,” agreed the father.

About seven years ago, however, Richard wrote his son a letter. He explained the situation and that he was respecting his wife’s wishes.

Back in Spokane, the still-hopeful Hodge began sending his dad birthday and Christmas cards. He would later learn that Erma had been throwing the envelopes away whenever they arrived.

“I think it was absolutely wicked of her,” said the son, who sighed, “All these years wasted.”

Added Judi, “I can’t see why a woman would deny a father his child.”

“It’s her loss,” quipped Hodge. “She would’ve liked me.”

Tommy Hodge, 57, is a good-humored guy, the child of Richard and Erma. Thoroughly excited to discover he has a new half brother, he explained his mother’s behavior this way:

“Back in the old days divorce wasn’t anything that was very acceptable. She didn’t want anybody to know. She was just that way.”

Erma died last March. She was 88.

Almost immediately, the elder Hodge set out to contact his long lost son.

“He was very adamant about finding him,” said Tommy of his dad.

“I could tell it was something he wanted to do before he died.”

And so plans for an epic reunion were made.

“I was a little apprehensive,” said Spokane Hodge, who spent four days with his dad. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

He had nothing to fear. Hodge senior talked freely about his military service and filled in many of the gaps about his personal life.

“It’s actually kind of interesting,” said the son with a dry chuckle. “Hearing my mother’s side of the story all these years, she’s always been a saint. Now it seems she’s not so saintly.”

Hodge got along famously with his newfound siblings Tommy and Jerry. Plans are in the works to go back next October to celebrate Richard’s 100th birthday.

In fragile health, Hodge Sr. shares his apartment with a full-time caregiver.

“Mentally he’s doing good, but physically he’s worn out,” said Tommy.

And what does the father think of this reunion with his child?

“It was quite a deal,” he said softly. “I was ready to cry I was so happy.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.