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Gazette reporter learns incredible, awful story of biological grandfather

Gazette reporter Steven Cook with his father at Thacher Park in 2010; inset, Al Barron.
Gazette reporter Steven Cook with his father at Thacher Park in 2010; inset, Al Barron.

Categories: Life & Arts

Hours after my father’s unexpected passing in 2014, I found myself with my grandmother having a conversation that I’d never had before – how my dad came to be.

My father, Steven Cook, Sr., had never known his biological dad. He got his last name – Cook – from his adoptive father. I got my first name – and last – from him.

He also never knew, or at least accepted, what his mother told him about his biological father. But, as she told it to me, it rang true.

As the account went, my grandmother met my dad’s father, a man from East Texas named Al Barron, at a restaurant in late-1940s Des Moines, Iowa. She was an 18-year-old waitress, he a cab driver in the area and he would often be the driver to take her home.

Pretty soon, my dad was on his way. Also pretty soon, she found out he was married and that ended that. I was fascinated, so much so that I had to text my wife, who was then flying out to be with us. (I also archived those texts to ensure, after our mourning, that I remembered what she’d told me.)

“She last heard from him when my dad was about 1,” I wrote to my wife, concluding the account. “He stopped by and gave her mother some toys for him. When my grandmother heard she threw all the toys out.”

“What a story,” the screen-capture recorded my wife as responding.

What a story, indeed. As I’ve come to learn, the story of my biological grandfather is a far bigger what-a-story than anyone could have imagined and, on this Father’s Day, it’s the story of a father in only the broadest of definitions.

Thanks to information from AncestryDNA, sleuthing and other leads, the full story of my biological grandfather is only now becoming fully known.

My father is now believed to be the third of more than a dozen children brought into the world with Al Barron’s help, spanning at least five states, two countries and more than three decades. The full number of his offspring is still uncertain.

The search for another Al Barron child, based on an account of a woman showing up on a Minnesota doorstep claiming he’d fathered a child with her, prompted the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper to pick up the incredible story last Friday. 

“Dad who fathered kids around the country has offspring tracking ‘Johnny Appleseed’ ” the headline read.

London’s Daily Mail then caught wind of the story, rewrote it and added its own headline take: “Is this America’s biggest player?”

DNA test

Those stories prompted me to write this. The Schenectady area has been my home for the past 18 years, ever since The Gazette offered me a job out of college. It’s where I’ve worked, married and where we’re now raising a son of our own.

But I grew up in Iowa and Iowa is where my story and my father’s began.

Before I knew anything beyond those basic stories of my grandmother, came the DNA test – and the email.

My wife and I signed up for one of those AncestryDNA tests for Christmas 2016, with the promise of ethnicity maps, basically what regions did our DNA come from. Weeks later, we got our results. Interesting.

But, like others, Ancestry also offered a list of potential relatives based on matching DNA. I remember glancing at the list and briefly wondering if the trail of my dad’s biological father was in there somewhere. 

Then I moved on. 

Until a couple months later. I happened to catch an Ancestry email. I’d seen others, but dismissed them as spam. But I happened to look further at this one. It was a message from a user.

It was a follow up on an earlier email that I’d missed. 

“I see from our DNA profiles that we are closely related,” the woman wrote. “I have recently found that Alton W Barron is my father … Do you know if you have a relationship to Barrons or Ritches?”

The woman, Connie Hoye, of Kansas City, also added she’d found five other half-brothers and sisters through the site. (The Star-Tribune quoted her in its story last week.)

I read it – and nothing registered. The name my grandmother told me had long since faded from my consciousness.

I then dug out those screenshots – Al Barron, Alton Barron. 

I emailed back. The name matched. The DNA matched. My father had to be her half-brother. Another one found. My father, I also told her, had  unfortunately passed away three years earlier.

Over the next few days, I spoke with her and a couple other of my new aunts and uncles, as I’ve come to call them. 

I told them about my father – the half-sibling they never knew – and they told me about themselves. 

My father had a list of ailments that plagued him through his 64 years. I remember one of my first questions being: Had any of the other half-siblings suffered similar issues? The answer, I learned, was no.

They also told me what they had uncovered about the man who gave so many women children – and sometimes toys, too – and then moved on.

News articles

As they spoke, their accounts were often backed up with newspaper articles. This story of my biological grandfather became even more astonishing as the conversations and articles continued.

There was the article from a Louisiana paper in 1959, “Man With Three Wives Is Booked.”

The article began referring to Barron as “the tall, handsome construction worker.” Though his job had changed, his M.O. hadn’t. The occupation of his third wife, according to the article, was a familiar one – a waitress.

There was the article later from an Idaho newspaper, which referred to him as A.W. Barron. (He went by several names, related and unrelated to his real name) That article marked a black bear he’d killed, then supposedly an Idaho record. I remember my wife’s near-disbelief when she heard Al Barron’s story had grown to include that one.

For one story, I didn’t need a newspaper to confirm it. I had my grandmother. 

The story I eventually heard was how Al Barron’s first wife tracked him down in his cab one night in Iowa and found him with a woman with red hair. The wife responded by banging on the windows. The Star-Tribune included that account in their article.

Though a little different with perspective and the nearly seven decades that had elapsed since the events, I’d heard that story before. That red-haired woman was my grandmother – that’s how she found out the Al Barron she knew was a married man.

Violent ending

Then came the end of Al Barron’s story. That story also made the papers.

His end was an awful one, one to go alongside just about every other awful choice he made in his life. 

This choice, though, was made by another person – the estranged husband of the latest woman he was seeing at the time. 

A.W. Barron, this story read, died in a flurry of six gunshots fired by the man at 3:15 a.m. on Nov. 14, 1979, in Sandpoint, Idaho.

Days earlier, 1,500 miles east and completely unknown to him, I had just celebrated my first birthday.

Another thread also emerged from my conversations with my new aunts and uncles, stories of strong women who persevered through hardship and adversity to raise Al Barron’s children on their own or with actual fathers that came into their children’s lives later.

My new uncle Michael Banks eulogized his mother on Facebook last year after her passing as one of the best mothers in the world.

Then I got to thinking about my grandmother, who’s now 87 and still lives in Iowa. While Al Barron showed up that one time with toys, my grandmother gave my father life – in more ways than one.

By 1974, those health problems my father had had progressed to the point where he needed a kidney. His donor was her.

Months after his successful transplant, my father met my mother.

Reckless choices

As for how I feel about all this, I get the luxury of seeing it through the distance of time. I grew up in a stable household with two parents who loved me. Our son, Thacher, who himself will celebrate his first birthday soon, will do the same.

But Al Barron, with the many awful and reckless choices he made throughout his life – choices repeated too many times by others on a smaller scale – undeniably left a trail of altered and difficult lives in his wake. 

After my mother passed in 2011, my dad ultimately made his way back to Des Moines from my childhood home near Iowa City. He spent his final months there living in an apartment by himself amid the familiar surroundings of his youth.

Meanwhile, completely unknown to my dad, other children of Al Barron, including Michael Banks, went on living their lives elsewhere in the Des Moines area oblivious of their half-brother’s presence.

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