Constable: A family reunion more than 60 years in the making
As summer winds down, families often try to squeeze in a reunion so that everybody can get caught up on all the family doings. For 64-year-old Shirley Wojcicki of Wauconda, those loose ends are tricky because many of her relatives just recently found out she existed.
"It's been wonderful," Wojcicki says of this month's reunion in Wauconda with her half-brother and a much larger reunion with her newfound family in Pennsylvania.
"I'm so glad she did find them," says Mary Havell, 83, Wojcicki's mother. "I never thought it would happen."
The story of Wojcicki's search for her biological father and the family he would go on to father begins in 1953, when Wojcicki's mother, a Korean War widow, met soldier Richard Albert "Al" Sheredy at the Granite City Army Depot north of St. Louis.
They went to dances, were especially good at waltzes, and fell in love, remembers Havell, who now lives in Genoa. When she became pregnant with Sheredy's child, decisions had to be made. He was confident that his strict Catholic parents, who knew nothing of Havell, wouldn't approve of his marriage to a Pentecostal Christian. While Sheredy was getting his discharge papers in Missouri, their baby was born. Sheredy came back to Granite City, named the baby Shirley Ann, and spent a week doting on his daughter and her mom. But he was scheduled to return to his family home in Pennsylvania.
"He begged me to marry him before he left," remembers Havell. She told him instead to talk with his parents and figure out if he wanted to keep his old life with his family in Pennsylvania or live as a new dad in Illinois. That's the last she saw of Sheredy.
"He sent me two letters, each with $20," Havell says, noting that almost paid the $50 hospital bill. "He never came back. I was crushed. I thought the world of him."
She went on to meet a wonderful man, Don Havell, she says. They married, had another daughter and a son, lived in Schaumburg and were married for 54 years until his death in 2008. Sheredy, too, went on to marry, have five more children and be married for 59 years until his wife died in 2017. Wojcicki tracked down her father in Pennsylvania when she was 19. He brought along his son Mike, who was too young to remember her.
"Looking at Al was like looking in a mirror," says Wojcicki, who says she has the "Sheredy nose" and same gap in her teeth.
Sheredy never told his children about Wojcicki, but he told Wojcicki about his wife and kids.
"So many nights, I lay awake, wondering where they are, who they are," Wojcicki says.
"I didn't know a thing. Not a clue," says Mike Sheredy, 49, who lives in Cherry Tree, Pennsylvania. He learned of his father's first daughter after one of his siblings, in the wake of their mother's death, found a 1996 letter from Wojcicki to his mother, coincidentally also named Shirley Ann. He tracked down Wojcicki's son on Facebook, and they set up a meeting.
"Giving her a hug, it just seemed like we fit like a puzzle," Sheredy says of his new sister. "There was nothing awkward."
Wojcicki visited her biological father in a nursing home 11 weeks before he died and showed him the photographs of him with her mother and her. "I said, 'I'm that little girl,' and he grabbed my hand and kissed me," Wojcicki says.
She was part of a giant Sheredy family reunion a couple of weeks ago. Mike Sheredy, his wife, Beth, and their three children visited Wojcicki, her husband Ross Gemmill and Havell last week in Wauconda.
"It makes me feel real good to see him," says Havell, adding that she harbors no bad feelings against the man who left her and her baby.
"I never held a grudge, thanks to her," Wojcicki says of her mom, adding that Don Havell, who adopted her, was a "great father."
Mike Sheredy has questions he wished he could have asked his dad, but he says he understands how people whose lives were caught up in the Korean War made the decisions they thought were best. "I didn't know the situation back then," Mike Sheredy says, noting that if his father had returned to Wojcicki and her mom, he and his siblings "wouldn't be here."
Wojcicki and her husband are going to Pennsylvania in November for a hunting trip with a couple of her half siblings. They're making plans for more family outings.
"We're very blessed," Wojcicki says. "We're making up for lost time."