Jun. 5—Growing up in a wealthy family, Jerry DesMazes said he never wanted for anything. But knowing he was adopted, he always felt something was missing.
The St. George, Utah, man knew he had been born in Johnstown, and his father's name was Paul College. It wasn't until he was about 36 years old that he learned more.
"I always wanted to know: Where did I come from?" DesMazes, 55, said during a visit to Johnstown last month. "You feel like you are not part of something. I had amazing (adoptive) parents, but there is still something at your core that's missing."
DesMazes knew his father was a World War II veteran. Through an acquaintance who worked at the Veterans Administration in 2001, he found out Paul College died in 1999 at a Pittsburgh Veterans Administration Hospital.
A Freedom of Information Act request provided access to wealth of information through the VA records.
It included a letter, handwritten by College, asking for his benefits to be restored when his death was inaccurately reported.
There also was information about six other children who were also given up for adoption. The adoption agency only told his new parents about two biological brothers and one sister.
DesMazes posted some of his findings on the FamilyTree.org website, looking for relatives.
Making a connection
Meanwhile, in Windber, Marlene Baker had begun her own search for answers about her husband Robert's biological family. She knew his father's name was Paul College.
Robert Baker also felt the need to learn more, but had not begun any research.
"He didn't have the heart to look because he was afraid he wouldn't find anyone," Marlene Baker said. "I just took it on myself."
As she learned about the College family, Marlene Baker connected with Nancy Dickert, of Richland, through the website Adoption.com.
Dickert and Robert Baker met for the first time May 31, 2012, in a Richland Township restaurant. They instantly felt the connection.
"We just felt that you know that you know that you know," Robert Baker said during a 2012 interview with The Tribune-Democrat.
The two learned they share some surprising history. Although Baker, 61, was born in California, and Dickert, 60, was born in Johnstown, the two grew up less than three miles apart and attended the same schools.
They both graduated in 1978 from Greater Johnstown Vo-Tech. In the class of more than 500 students, Dickert only had a slight memory of Baker in school, and he did not remember her at all.
The two have become close as they continued to investigate their heritage.
A 2012 article in The Tribune-Democrat connected them with a cousin, whose late father also was adopted.
Eventually, Marlene Baker came across internet posts by DesMazes and was able to connect with his daughter on Facebook. That led to a 2018 phone call from Utah.
The three siblings have remained in communication, leading to DesMazes traveling to Johnstown. Robert and Marlene Baker and Nancy and Bill Dickert met him at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport on May 26.
During a whirlwind tour, the three siblings visited their father's grave in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, along with the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Johnstown Flood Museum and other sites.
Poring over the VA paperwork and artifacts Dickert and the Bakers collected over the years, they learned that Paul College had seven children, born between 1951 and 1965: Paul Thomas College Jr., Robert, Betty, Christine, Paul Timothy, John and Jerry.
When Betty was adopted by Paul and Edna Daughenbaugh in Johnstown, they gave her the name Nancy. DesMazes' parents changed the spelling on his first name.
It appears all seven also had the same mother, Alma Darr, who married Paul College Sr. in 1958.
The siblings have found information that Paul College Jr. died and that Christine College is living in California. Her address and information about the other brothers' lives remain a mystery, although DesMazes said his adoptive parents took him to visit Paul Timothy and John while they were in foster care in California.
DesMazes enjoyed his brief visit to Johnstown.
"I think it's beautiful," he said. "I love the green hills with the trees. It's very good to be here."
Knowing he had been born in Johnstown, DesMazes said he's felt a connection to the region. Growing up in California and Nevada, he was often told how much he looked like his adoptive grandfather.
"He was born in Johnstown," DesMazes said. "He was a painter. My biological father was a painter, born in Johnstown.
"What are the chances?"