Bill Popp thought he knew his family. Popp is president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation. And his family is a close-knit, longtime Alaska clan who talk and text and gather often at Bill’s house in east Anchorage. But last year, everything Bill thought he knew about his family changed. And all it took was one random Google search. Anchorage Daily News columnist Julia O’Malley has the first story in a three part series.
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One Sunday last March, Bill and his wife Nicole, were having a conversation with his daughter over Skype. Someone said his mother, Mary Lou, had a birthday coming up. How old was she going to be? Nicole said 75. Bill, in the mood to tease his wife, disagreed. He guessed seventy-seven even though he knew Nicole was right. Nicole got frustrated. She typed Bill’s mother’s birthday and her maiden name, “Mary Louise Heuermann” into Google.
“The next thing I know Nicole comes up with laptop and say you need to look at this. Look at it, adoption dot com posting of a birth mother looking for a daughter that had been given up for adoption at birth. And the Birth mothers name was our mother’s name. Mary Louise Heuermann. That was a bit of a shock,” Popp said.
Her birth date was the same as his mother’s. The baby had been born in Wyoming. That’s where his mother grew up. The birth father’s name, John Lockhart, was Bill father’s name. The listing said the baby had been born on April 23, 1961, two years after Bill was born.
Bill couldn’t process it.
“This made zero sense,” he said.
Bill never knew his biological father. His parents divorced shortly after his birth and his mother married Ken Popp years later. Ken adopted Bill when Bill was 10. His father agreed to give up his parental rights at that time. Bill says his biological father didn’t want to pay child support.
“My life, my world as I know it, is I have a younger brother and a younger sister. The brother is 10 years younger, the sister is 12 years younger and there’s nobody in between,” Popp said.
Bill clicked a link on the Adoption.com listing. It brought up a phone number in Vilseck, Germany. Bill’s younger sister, Kristin, had been stationed there years before with her husband who was in the Army. Bill dug up her phone number from that time. It matched the number on the listing. There was also an e-mail address. Bill decided to send a message. Maybe, he thought, it was all some kind of joke.
“BP: So I sent an e-mail to the link saying, ‘Hi my name is Bill Popp,’ or words to that effect. ‘I think I’m a relative and would you please contact me.’ JO: can you tell me how you were feeling at this time? Feeling anything? BP: denial. Shock. What the hell? None of it was connecting.”
Later that day, Bill had plans to meet with his family, including his sister, at the West High swimming pool for his nephew’s birthday party. When he got there, he pulled his younger brother, Jeff, aside and told him what he’d found. Jeff was dumbfounded. Kristin arrived late, just as the cake was being served. Bill cornered her.
“I catch Kristen’s eye and say, let’s go over and talk. And I ask her, is there something I need to know? And she nods her head yes,” Popp said.
Kristin and Bill met later at Bill’s house, and Kristin let go of a secret she’d been guarding for 26 years. She says she was 13 or 14 years old when she was watching television with Mary Lou. It was a talk show, maybe Montel Williams. The subject: mothers who gave up children for adoption.
“We’re watching this program and eventually I started thinking out loud and I was like, why would you do it? Nobody can make you give up your child. And at that point mom just sort of burst into tears and just lost it. And I’m looking at her, what the hells going on? And that’s when she spilled the beans and she was, I had to. It was like we were in the moment, she was obviously emotional with watching this TV program and me voicing what was in my head. I don’t think she ever intended to tell me, it was not intentional, it just came out and once it came out she couldn’t take it back,” Kristin said.
After that, Mary Lou told Kristin a story she’d been keeping secret since she was in her mid-20s. She made Kristin promise never to tell. Kristin didn’t. For decades.
Several years later, in 2002, Mary Lou agreed that Kristin could create the Adoption.com post.
“Literally, I probably had my first computer for a week and I was on the adoption websites looking, it was my first opportunity to start searching in any kind of serious way. So literally we got our first computer when we moved to Germany, got our computer, hooked it up and within a week took the information and started going to the different adoption websites out there to see what I could see, what I could find. If Brandy was looking. JO: So you thought about it a lot? K: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.”
Nearly a decade passed. Kristin almost forgot about it. Then she got the email from her brother Bill.
After telling Bill what she knew, Kristin called their mother. The next day, through tears at Bill’s kitchen table, Mary Lou revealed the family secret
This story is a collaboration between the Anchorage Daily News and APRN.