At 16, Dean Davis learned he wasn’t who he thought he was. That’s when his dad sat him down at their kitchen table in Spokane Valley and told him he was not in fact his biological father.
Davis, a well-known Spokane photographer and current chairman of the Spokane Arts Commission, remembers feeling immense relief at the news.
“It’s not that I had a terrible childhood, it’s just that he and I never got along,” he said.
Of course, he had questions. Lots of them. But answers were in short supply.
He grew up in an Air Force family with an older brother and a younger sister. His parents had an often troubled relationship and have since divorced.
In 1965, his father was sent to Germany ahead of the family. His mom went to Virginia to stay with her brother. Her brother had an Army buddy that she liked. They had a brief relationship and then the soldier was sent to Vietnam, not knowing a child had been conceived. When she joined her husband in Germany, she was four months pregnant with Davis.
After the revelation, Davis said, “I started looking. I started asking. I wanted to know what he (my father) looks like, how he behaves, his mannerisms, his health history.”
But his mother could only tell him three things. The man’s name was Jeff or Geoff Walker. She thought he was from upstate New York, and he drove truck in the Army.
In the days before the internet, this was far too little information to find any relevant leads.
Though he never stopped wondering and never stopped asking, Davis got on with his life. He joined the Army Reserves at 17, and after graduating from University High School, he went full-time, eventually becoming a Dutch translator while stationed in Europe.
When he returned to Spokane, he studied photography at Spokane Falls Community College.
“I picked up a camera in high school,” he recalled. “I have every photo I have ever taken.”
But photography would have to wait. Davis took a job at Fort Spokane Brewery and in less than a year, became part owner.
He married Judy Judy Heggem-Davis in 1994, and after seven years at the brewery, a golfing buddy lured him away from the restaurant to become partner in a photography business.
Nineteen years ago, Davis opened his own studio in the historic Commission Building in downtown Spokane.
His photography and art career took off, but always there was that nagging sense of something missing.
He wanted to find his father.
One last shot
“Over the past 35 years, I’d go through spurts where I looked for him,” Davis said. “I did many Internet searches, but finally got to the point where I really thought I wasn’t going to find him. There was just no more information to get from my mom or my uncle. I didn’t even know if I was spelling his name right.”
But in December while watching “Antiques Roadshow,” he saw an advertisement for a DNA kit from Ancestry.com.
He ordered one and on March 25, he got an email notifying him that his sample was done. The notification came with an offer to connect him with other people registered on the site, who had the same genetic makeup.
Davis signed up for the 14-day free trial.
He got an email saying he had 450 potential third, fourth and fifth cousins, but at the top one person was listed as first cousin. His name? Holden Walker.
“I thought holy (expletive) that’s the name I’ve been looking for,” Davis recalled. “I immediately emailed him and said I’ve been looking for someone named Jeff/Geoff Walker. I think he’s my biological dad.”
The next day, Davis received a reply.
“Wow! This is not what I expected when I joined Ancestry.com. This could be a big surprise for somebody.”
Davis was asked several questions and then got this stunning message.
“First of all this isn’t Holden. Holden is 11-years-old. This is his mom. I gave him an ancestry kit for Christmas. I’m married to Dan Walker. He has two brothers. Geoffrey is his dad. We’re going to call him tonight.”
Tears filled Davis’ eyes as he remembered that email. After 35 years of searching he wondered if this was it. Had he found his father?
He connected with Dan and his wife, Nikki, on Facebook. He could see photos of Dan’s brothers Chad and Eric and their families. He watched their videos. He searched their faces – especially Geoff’s.
“You create stories in your head about how things will turn out,” said Davis. “I thought I’d find him too late and only get to read his obituary. Never once did the thought cross my mind that he could have a family.”
Then came the news. Nikki and Dan had talked to Geoff. All the details matched.
“They said his mind was blown. That he told his wife right away.”
Exactly one week after that first contact, a call came from Camden, New York.
“Dean, this is Geoff Walker.”
They talked for 45 minutes and Davis was relieved to learn Geoff, 73, was in good health.
“It’s hard to have that kind of conversation on the phone,” Davis said. “I wanted to hop on the plane immediately and see him face-to-face.”
More conversations followed.
“I said I’m having a hard time figuring out what to call you. He said, ‘Dad. Call me Dad.’ He apologized to me for any challenges I might have had growing up. I told him I love my life – that I’ve turned out OK, that I wouldn’t change anything.”
On April 27, Davis got a message from Walker. It read “Happy Birthday, son.”
“Thirty seconds later I got a video from Chad telling his four daughters about me. Everyone was laughing and yelling.”
Davis leaned back in a chair at his downtown studio and looked at the photos on his phone.
He’d found his father and so much more.
It didn’t take Davis long to plan a trip to meet his new family. He told his mom and his stepfather that he’d found his dad and both told him that they are happy for him.
On June 8, he flew to Pennsylvania for a five-day visit. Dan and Nikki Walker teach at a private boarding school and offered to host the meeting.
“He (Dad) was waiting for me when I arrived. I went to my brother’s house and they were all standing there, waiting for me.”
There were hugs, tears and lots of laughter and conversation.
“It just felt like the most natural thing,” Davis said.
Chad was able to be there, but Eric had just returned to his home in Buffalo from a business trip and couldn’t make it.
Davis isn’t worried. Another trip is planned shortly after Labor Day.
The school hosted a reception for him and invited him to come back and do an art show.
“Everyone was so warm and welcoming.”
Especially his father.
“It’s like a puzzle with missing pieces has been sitting on the table all these years,” Davis said. “You couldn’t see the whole picture.”
“It feels like a big gap has been filled in,” he said. “Those missing pieces are more beautiful than I could have imagined.”
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