& Ralph Overholt, c. 1949
When I began my great quest on the Internet, I hoped to be able to find my long-lost (to me) relatives. Little did I know how successful I would be! For instance, last April, I received an e-mail from Joan Overholt, the widow of my father's brother -- the uncle my siblings and I had never met -- the brother whose face or figure appeared in a few old photographs taken in their youth or during World War II. In her first short query, Joan mentioned her daughter, Brenda, whom (she was pretty sure) was my first cousin. Subsequent e-mails flew in both directions, and I discovered a very healthy branch of kinfolk, many of whom I fervently hope to meet one day in person.
My new-found Aunt Joan sent along a scanned photo of my dad and Uncle Ralph -- a perfect match for the one my mother has put away somewhere -- a photo I remember being prominently displayed in our (many) Air Force homes as we kids grew up. The original is nicely tinted, the way those old studio photographs were done, giving the subjects that silken, beige-colored skin and rosy background. The scan did not reproduce the colors well, so I added a few tweaks in my Adobe PhotoDeluxe program, ending up with the following (still too much green!) version. Based upon Aunt Joan's account, this photo was taken at Hamilton Air Force Base in California, perhaps in 1949 (which is the year I was born).
The young man on the left is Arthur (a name he never used) Frederic John Overholt (1924-1985), with his younger brother, Ralph Edward Overholt (1927-1990). Both had full military careers -- my dad began as a soldier in the Army and then joined the Air Force, retiring as a high-ranking Master Sergeant. Ralph had a 20-year career in the Army, then retired to become an engineer at AT & T, ending up as Component Standardization Engineer for the whole network. Sometime during this AT&T career, he patented a wire spring relay.
It would have been so good for us to be able to talk to our Uncle Ralph before he died, mainly about his and my father's youth. It appears Ralph had no knowledge about how their mother, Esther May Willis, died. He believed she was a singer, but Aunt Joan didn't know the story about Esther Willis appearing in George White's Scandals. Both Aunt Joan and my own mother say that following Esther's death, the brothers were put into a Pittsburgh orphanage named for St. Joseph. Judging from the results of my Internet research, the institution may have been St. Joseph's German Orphan Asylum (also known as St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum, established 1849, closed 1938) or St. Joseph's Protectory for Homeless Boys (established 1893, closed 1950-56). More research needs to be done to discover which St. Joseph's they were in.
Since George Frederick Overholt (1892-1966), a veteran showman, was always "on the road," a close relationship never blossomed between him and his sons. While Aunt Joan made no mention of the Gallagher family fostering them, she did write, "I have the same picture of them [Fred and Ralph] sitting with their Easter baskets. I also have a picture of them with Aunt Dude (Agnes Riffle's sister, I believe). She took care of them for a while. Ralph . . . didn't see much of his father."
Uncle Ralph had been married and divorced at least once before -- to a Canadian -- before his marriage to Joan. I believe my grandfather was married three different times, himself, but he died single, alone in his rooms at the Fort Pitt Hotel, here in Pittsburgh. When my grandfather died, my siblings and I were living with my mother in a "cracker box" apartment a short drive outside the back gate of Seymour Johnson AFB, Goldsboro, NC. My parents were legally separated at the time, with my father stationed somewhere in the Northeast, where he eventually married and divorced a second time. As for me and my siblings, we have all been married and divorced at least once -- two brothers have been divorced twice. It appears that fractured families are handed down to succeeding generations, just as are our genes. Small wonder that one of us is trying to tie up loose ends, locate lost relatives and put our family into better genealogical order.
The last time I set eyes on my father, I was in the Base Hospital at Seymour Johnson AFB. I was sixteen years old and recovering from a serious surgical procedure -- my right cervical ribs (the one I wasn't supposed to have, plus the one that was supposed to be there) had been removed. The procedure was supposed to save my right arm, since the "extra rib" had been blocking the normal blood flow. Following the surgery, Pop arrived (from New Hampshire, I believe) and visited me twice. The visits were brief, for I was unable to sustain a real conversation, and then he was gone. Years later, when I returned to Pittsburgh, I spoke to him a few times by telephone, but the conversations were short. In those days, he was living alone in an apartment in Massachusetts, having been divorced a second time, and that is where he died. Such seems to be the way of many fractured families, that there was always so much we needed to know from our fathers, but they were never around to tell us.
Fortunately, the Internet allowed me to locate my Uncle Ralph's family, although he, too, is gone. Said Aunt Joan, "He raised all of my [five] children and he loved Brenda very much. The last thing he said before he died was, 'Take care of Brenda.' Of course, he didn't have to say that. I love all of my children more than anything else in the world. Ralph died when Brenda was 19 and in college." While I never got to know Uncle Ralph personally, my cousin Brenda (who is 22 years younger) and I still have a chance to become friends, even if it is only by e-mail. I was happy to learn Brenda is married and has two sons of her own. Additionally, since Aunt Joan's other grown children have had marriages and families, together they all add some very interesting branches to the Extended Overholt Family Tree.