Seventy years after being put up for adoption, Joan Pairitz found her biological family with a card left on a gravestone.
About 15 years ago, Joan Pairitz of Andover decided to find out who her father was.
In May, 1942, Joan was given up for adoption to a loving family in St. Paul. As was the habit in those times, her biological parents’ identities was kept a secret.
“One day my adopted mother gathered my adopted brothers and sisters together, and said she wanted us to go find our birth mothers,” Joan said.
It was a tough decision, but Joan finally gave her son Tim a homework assignment — find out who she really was.
Tim’s first call was to the Catholic Charities organization, which keeps information on thousands of adopted children.
“Catholic Charities wasn’t even sure when my grandfather died,” said Tim. “All they knew was that he was from Renville County, and had died in a car accident on a trip to California.”
That was it, the only clue Joan had about who her parents were.
Tim started his research by looking up the obituary sections of Renville County newspapers in the nine months before his mother was born.
Finally, in a Renville county paper from October, 1941, Tim found what he was looking for — a story about Miloyd “Mike” Wohnoutka, from near the Bechyn area.
Mike was on his way to get work in the Lockheed aircraft factory in California when he was killed in a collision with a truck hauling produce near Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Oct. 23, 1941.
When Tim found out the story, he called his mom and informed her her birth last name was Wohnoutka.
“‘Wohnoutka?’ I said,” said Joan.
“That’s good! it’s not a common name,” Tim said. “It will be easier to find out more information that way.”
It turned out to be considerably less helpful than it first appeared. Years later, Joan said drily, “In this part of the state, Wohnoutka is as common as Smith.”
However, based on finding out who her father was, Joan was able to learn who her mother was. It turned out Mike Wohnoutka’s fiance, Ione Jansen, was supposed to join him as soon as he was settled in California.
What no one knew back then was that Ione was pregnant. The child, Joan, was born May 8, 1942, and quietly given up for adoption.
Ione later went on to marry Lloyd Lightfoot, and settle in Olivia, where she raised a family.
About six years ago, Joan visited her father’s grave at St. Mary’s Church in Bechyn.
“Standing by my father’s grave... I can’t describe it,” she said. “I thought, ‘I have a heritage now.’
“I talked to my mother once,” said Joan. “When I called her, she said, “No one knows about you. Please don’t upset the apple cart.’
“On every birthday, as I got older and older, I would think, ‘Does my mother remember me?’” Joan said. “When I turned 70 and my mother turned 90, I decided if I was going to upset any apple carts I’d better do it quickly.”
Joan tracked down Ione, her biological mother, in a Renville County nursing home. She walked into the room, and saw her mother for the first and only time.
“She was unconscious when I visited,” Joan said. “I put my hand on hers, and saw her eyelids flutter. That was all. Ten days later she died.”
After Ione died, Joan found something totally unexpected in her mother’s wallet: a tiny, black-and-white photo of Joan as a baby.
“She gave me up in May, 1942, and the photo was taken in July, when I was about two months old,” said Joan. “I don’t know how she got it. But my mother loved me.”
On May 11, the day after visiting her mother, Joan visited her father’s grave in Bechyn for the second time. She left six red roses on Mike’s grave, along with a card signed by Joan and her children.
“I thought no one would ever see it,” she said. “It was sort of like buying a lottery ticket.”
As it happened, Joan’s cousin Janet Olson of Redwood Falls visited the graves in Bechyn later that same day.
“I saw a plastic bag with roses and a note on (Mike’s) stone,” said Janice. “I opened up the note and it read, ‘To our Dad, Grandpa, and Greatgrandpa, with love.’
“I never knew that my Uncle Mike had a child, so that was a big surprise. I took the note and looked in the phone book, but could not find the name anywhere.
“I would say my Uncle Mike had something to do with this because I don’t go out to the cemetery often, and he geared me in that direction that day.”
A bit of Internet detective work later, and Janice called Joan in Andover, leaving a message on the answering machine.
“When I called back that evening, Joan answered the phone, and was so happy someone would talk to her,” Janice said.
“She could learn about her dad’s side of the family. This was my first cousin after 70 years, that none of us in the family knew anything about her existence.”
“Janice called me two weeks after my visit. I found my mother’s family and my father’s family in a week,” Joan said.
On Aug. 12, Joan Pairitz visited the Czech Heritage Festival in Bechyn, and spent the whole day being floored.
“I’ve got a whole new family now. This whole summer has been overwhelming. I’ve gotten many, many phone calls from first cousins I didn’t know I had.
“I went downstairs and saw everyone, and saw a boy who looks like my grandson....”