My maternal grandmother, Christine Sears, gave birth to a baby boy on February 8, 1938. That boy, my uncle Jerry, was born with Down Syndrome. In my opinion, the single greatest thing my grandmother ever did was to keep him. Rather than giving her baby to the state or placing him in an institution, Christine kept him and raised him. Aside from a few years spent living in a group home in the 1960s, Jerry lived with his mother until he died, in the fall of 2000, at the age of 63.
I knew that Jerry had a different birth father than my mother and aunts but didn’t know anything about him except that his last name was Toler, because that was Jerry’s middle name: Gerald Toler Hill. In the early 1990s, I asked grandma to tell me about Jerry’s birth father.
Grandma told me a long and involved story about her relationship with Needham Toler that included a brief courtship, a marriage ceremony in his brother’s living room, him “running off” shortly after Jerry’s birth, a trip to the courthouse to arrange for a divorce so that she could marry Johnnie Hill a couple of years later, being told by the clerk that there was no marriage certificate on file, grandma’s assertion that she’d been duped by a “sham marriage,” and a description of Christine and Johnnie making a fire in which to burn the letters they’d received from past wives, husbands, and lovers as a means of starting fresh together.
Although I loved the imagery of the scenes she described, I didn’t really believe most of the story my grandmother told me. And because I am nosy by nature and love trying to figure out what really happened, I dug deeper.
I’m curious about Needham Toler because of his odd name and also because I wonder if Jerry in any way resembled him. From what I’ve seen, people with Down Syndrome seem to resemble each other more than they do the people in their immediate families. Here’s a photo of Jerry and my mother when he was about ten years old and she was probably five.
In 2002, when my mother and aunts and I made a trip to Thomaston, Georgia with grandma Christine to visit her youngest sister, Betty Jean Sears, I skibbled off on my own to the county courthouse to request a copy of Jerry’s birth certificate.
I’ve studied the document for clues. Grandma told me that she met Needham at the mill and the birth certificate validates that part of her story because it indicates that they worked in the Textile trade. They were young: she was 20 and he was 23. The birth certificate doesn’t give Jerry a name nor does it indicate his birth weight and size. The biggest clue the document offers that Needham was not present at the time of Jerry’s birth and that grandma probably didn’t know him that well is the place on the document that indicates the birthplace of the father: D.K. Rather than standing for an obscure county in Georgia, I believe the letters “D.K.” mean “Don’t Know.”
Mom tells me that grandma once told her that Needham was a college student who came to Thomaston to work in the mill for the summer so perhaps theirs was a summer romance. Jerry was born in February so the timing makes sense.
On March 05, 1942, when Jerry was four years old and Christine was pregnant with my mother, Needham Toler enlisted in the Army. His registration card indicates that he was living in North Carolina, worked for the Georgia Pine Turpentine Company, and was married to a woman named Nellie Dunn.
Other enlistment records show that he was 5’9”, weighed 147 pounds, and had completed high school.
Needham served in the Army Air Corps in the Heavy Bomber Division. I’ve located a photo of him from a newspaper archive from June of 1943. However, the caption lists only four names so I have no idea which one he is.
The caption reads:
On June 20, 1943 a B-24 Liberator crew made an emergency landing in Nacogdoches because they ran out of fuel. The plane was enroute from Idaho to Mississippi. The next day Major F.T. Knox landed another B-24 with supplies. (Daily Sentinel, June 21 & 22, 1943) This picture includes Walter Syroid, navigator from Akron, Ohio; James Brooks, radio operator from Washington D.C.; Milton Haaland, tail gunner from Great Falls, Montana; Needham Toler, engineer from Georgia.
Needham was sent overseas to fight in Europe. I believe he flew in a B-24 liberator named the Li’l Gypsy.
Records suggest that the plane developed mechanical problems over Germany on March 18, 1944, and was forced to crash-land in Switzerland. Needham and the rest of the crew were interned in Switzerland for the duration of the war.
Needham Toler died in June of 1954 at the age of 38. I haven’t managed to determine what caused his death, but I think he suffered an injury during the Korean War so perhaps that lead to his demise.
He left behind a widow, Nellie, and a son, which means that Jerry has a half-brother somewhere. I’ll let you know if I find him.
Offering: A promise not to look into your past, if you ask nicely.