Abandoned at birth, he wonders: Did you save him?
Tim Smith knows more about his past now than he did a month ago, which means he knows as much as the whole world did 40 years ago.
Now he has questions, and a quest. The answers may be impossible to find, and the search might be nearly as difficult. But it can’t hurt to try, so he’s asking here:
Are you Tim Smith’s mother, the anonymous and mysterious woman who gave birth to him? Or are you one of the three men who saved his life, after his mother or someone close to her nearly ended it by dumping him in a donation bin?
It’s the second part, he says, that’s most important to him. Now that he finally knows where he came from, or at least where he was found, he wants to meet you and shake your hand and offer his appreciation.
Smith, 40, lives in a pristine house in Hazel Park with his fiancee and their adorable 18-month-old daughter. He’s been in reasonably successful bands. He owns a recording studio and a one-man fireplace repair company.
“If it wasn’t for them,” he says — for the three men on a truck — “I wouldn’t have done any of this stuff.”
So thank you, Dave Harris and Pat Sipple and Lehr Barkenquest Sr. Thank you for making these past four decades possible.
The date was Nov. 23, 1976, two days before Thanksgiving. “It was ungodly cold,” Barkenquest told The Detroit News the next day, with a low of 27 and a jagged wind whipping snow squalls through the air.
In the parking lot of the Southgate Kmart, the three men set to work emptying a Salvation Army drop box, one of those metal sheds with a hinged opening like an oversized mailbox. Harris was in the cargo area of the cube van, with the other two handing him clothes and blankets and the odd piece of furniture. Then, behind him, he heard a squeal, or at least a faint trace of one.
“I thought it was a kitten or a cat,” he said. Sipple jumped in to help him find it, and when they heard the sound again, they plucked out a plain brown shopping bag and gave it to Barkenquest.
“I opened it,” Barkenquest said, “and this baby was staring right at me. It was tiny, and it was trying to cry.”
It was Tim Smith.
He wasn’t called that yet, of course. At Wyandotte General Hospital, they decided he was a fighter and they called him Joey Lewis, after the boxer and one of the doctors who treated him.
He weighed 4 pounds, 11 ounces. He had blond hair and blue eyes. He had mildly frostbitten feet. He was doubled over in the bag, wrapped in a blanket, and the theory was that the other discards piled atop had kept him warm enough to survive.
He made the local papers, naturally, and then the wire services picked up the tale. The whole planet heard his story — and finally, this past Memorial Day, so did he.
There was a family gathering at Alice Smith’s little condo in Northville. She’s his real mother, the one who fostered, adopted and raised him, not the one who dropped him through a slot.
“Mom,” he asked, “can we go in the kitchen and have a talk?”
Just like that, his past opened up. A little, anyway.
The reality is, a lot of it has slammed shut.
Finding a family
The Kmart on Eureka Road in Southgate moved to a new location on Fort Street as a Super Kmart and was replaced by a Kroger. The Super Kmart closed three years ago, and now Kroger is moving to the Fort Street address as a Kroger Marketplace.
Sometimes time marches on, and sometimes it drives a bulldozer.
The Southgate detective who investigated the abandonment of the premature baby was John Henry, who started with the police department so long ago he wore badge No. 8. He retired in 1978 and died in 2005, says badge No. 82, department director Jeffrey Smith.
Most of Henry’s contemporaries are also gone, Smith says, and so are police reports on all but the most major crimes from the 1970s.
“Back then, times were different,” he says. There were no useful clues about who abandoned the baby, and since the child survived, “they may not have looked real hard.”
“It’s a neat story,” says Jeffrey Smith of Tim Smith. “A happy ending story.”
A happy middle, anyway.
The happy beginning for Tim Smith started with his adoptive parents, Alice and James. Though they already had five daughters, including four from her first marriage, they made room for 36 foster infants over the years. By design, most stayed only briefly, but Alice has their pictures in an album and still remembers most of their names.
She learned about the baby called Joey Lewis when her husband, a truck dispatcher, brought a copy of The News home from work. “God, why didn’t you give me that boy?” she remembers saying. “I’d have loved him so much.”
Then Catholic Social Services called. Tim had dealt with more health problems than the sunny newspaper articles mentioned — frostbitten hands and nose, infected umbilical cord — and after he spent a month in the hospital, he needed a place to land. A year later, the Smiths petitioned for adoption.
James, a talented athlete, had always wanted a boy to share his love for sports. He eventually found that in younger brother Michael, also fostered and adopted, four years later. Timothy James Ryan Smith preferred music.
He played drums with a group called Zug Izland and sang with 2 Phat & The Family Funktion, which put out five albums. Now he records other people’s music and trains other engineers at his Soundscape Studio & School for the Recording Arts in Royal Oak.
“We weren’t musical,” Alice Smith says, referring to herself and her late husband, but it’s been part of her son for as long as he can remember.
Sometimes over the years, he’d wonder where it came from — but he never really asked.
Answers lead to questions
He’d known he was adopted since he was 7 years old. The few times he seemed curious about details, his mom told him the adoption agency didn’t provide any.
“It wasn’t a lie,” he says with a soft smile. “She just left out the other 95 percent of the story.”
He says he didn’t want to hurt her feelings by pressing too hard. She says she was willing to tell what she could, and even put it in a letter a few years ago, fearing she might die and leave the story untold. He said he didn’t care to read it.
Then Alice, 77, found herself chatting not long ago with Tim’s fiancee, photographer and musician Chris Feijoo. The conversation turned to adoption, and something one of Tim’s sisters had murmured about how he’d been left in a dumpster.
No, no, Alice said. Not a dumpster; that seemed insulting.
She laid out the real story — the drop-box, and how years ago, two psychologists had given her opposite answers about whether he should know. She told how Tim’s official birthday came to be Nov. 20, even though he was probably one day old when he was found on the 23rd: a probate judge joked that someday he could collect Social Security two days early.
“Don’t tell Tim,” Alice told Feijoo, but how could she not?
Then came the conversation on Memorial Day, and now, after 40 years, come the questions only his birth mother could answer and the thank-yous it’s probably too late to deliver.
Saviors leave mysteries
The Salvation Army checked records in Detroit and at headquarters in Chicago, but couldn’t find anything on three employees who loaded trucks when Gerald Ford was president.
Pat Sipple shows up in some clippings as Ron Sipple, which surely doesn’t help. Dave Harris was 58, which would make him 98 or 99 now.
Lehr Barkenquest Sr. died at 76 in 1988, and there’s a sad irony to it. The man who found an abandoned infant died alone in a subsidized room in Toledo, undiscovered for three or four days.
Lehr Barkenquest Jr., 82, is a retired priest, recovering from a stroke at a Sisters of St. Francis facility in Ohio. He says his dad was a big man, 6-foot-4, a bit of a drifter, and not much of a talker. With Lehr Jr. posted mostly at schools in New York, they rarely saw one another, and he only heard about the baby once.
Jan Barkenquest Bragg, 81, says her father moved west in the late 1950s, then appeared at her door in Bradenton, Florida, not long after the rescue at the drop-box. He told her how they wrapped the baby in a coat and set it on the floor of the truck beneath a heat vent while they waited for an ambulance.
“My dad was an alcoholic,” she says, but a generous one. When he cashed a Social Security check, he’d cook a big meal when she arrived home from work. “The rest went to his drinking.”
Her dad moved on after a few months, she says. If he spoke about the baby, or wondered what became of him, she wasn’t there to hear it.
“But you tell Tim good luck,” she says. “I wish him the best.”
Who is the mother?
Tim has had asthma his entire life. Alice always assumed it was because of the ordeal in the Kmart parking lot.
Not likely, says Kurtis Kieleszewski, a family medicine physician with McLaren Macomb. It’s probably hereditary, one of the many things bestowed by the woman Smith suddenly finds himself trying to understand.
“She had to make the decision quickly,” he has decided. “I don’t think I could keep a baby for four days and then say, ‘I’m not into it.’ ”
She might have been Canadian; the blanket he was swaddled in turned out to have been made in England. Southgate is a long way from the Ambassador Bridge, but it was 1976, and maybe she was sent across the river to give birth in secret and in shame.
Surely, she delivered outside a hospital; otherwise someone would have recognized a baby so small. Maybe her boyfriend or her father said he would take the baby someplace safe, and she has reassured herself for 40 years that he is thriving.
And what of the three rescuers? Was the morning as pivotal for them as it finally is for him? Did they speak of it often, or did the impact fade away with the headlines? Did they scan the crowd at a baseball game and wonder if he was there? Do their families ask the same thing?
“If that was me that found a baby,” Smith says, “I’d be thinking about him every day of my life.”
Let it be known, he says, that he’s fine. He has a fiancee who loves him and toddler named Selena with a musician’s innate sense of rhythm.
But he also has questions, if there’s anyone out there to ask.
Michigan’s Safe Delivery of Newborns Act, in place since 2001, allows parents to safely and anonymously deliver a child no more than 72 hours old to an on-duty staffer at any hospital, police station or fire department. A parent may also dial 911 or call the safe delivery hotline at (866) 733-7733.