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Searching for family: Long-lost son rediscovers family roots

Donald Ray Oliver Simmons spent most of his life longing to know more about a father he had never seen.
“It kind of felt like every time I’d see a strange guy, I’d wonder if he was my dad,” recalled Simmons who currently lives in Wayne, Nebraska. “I never did feel part of any of the big gatherings when I was little. I always knew there was something different. I felt it.”
Now, surrounded by more family than he had ever imagined during his first visit to his father’s home state, Simmons is overwhelmed.
“I am just amazed,” he said looking around the lobby of the Jonesborough AmericInn recently where cousins had gathered to meet with him.
Simmons said his quest began when he was just 7 or 8 years old.
“I found this in some papers (my parents) had,” he said, pulling out an old birth certificate. “I knew something was up.”
The birth certificate showed his birth name as “Donald Ray Oliver,” not “Donald Ray Simmons,” as he had thought, revealing that man he believed to be his biological father was, in fact, a stepfather.
“My mother didn’t tell me,” Simmons explained. “I was born in 1938, and I grew up in Iowa. My mother remarried, but they never legally changed my name.”
Simmons tried to move on — married, had a son, but could never quite forget.
“All his life, he has been looking for his father,” said Simmons’ wife, Trudy, looking at her husband with a sweet smile, remnants of a German accent still evident. “Thanks to our daughter-in-law Violet, he was able to find them.”
Violet, wife to the Simmons’ son, Gerald R. “Rick” Simmons, had a strong interest in genealogical research and one night called her father-in-law to ask if he would mind if she did a little investigating.
“I said ‘Lord, no,” Simmons said. “She’s really an expert getting into all this.”
That was in November 2014, Violet recalled.
“Within two days I had found his dad,” she said. “I started with finding the marriage certificate for Lois and John Floyd Oliver.”
From there, after a lot of emails and Internet searching, she had tracked his father to Tennessee.
After that, the phone calls began. “I wasn’t afraid to make a phone call,” she said matter-of-factly.
They discovered Rick Oliver, Simmons’ cousin and son of John Floyd Oliver’s brother.
“The first time I talked to you, you could hardly talk,” Oliver said laughing. “I could hear the grin over the phone.”
Oliver, along with newly found relatives Jackie and Dawn Peters, supplied more stories and a variety of old family portraits.
Simmons’ father, he discovered, had died in a railroad accident in 1960.
“Had I known where he lived and all of this, I would have been up here,” Simmons said. “Visiting little (cousin) Rick. I didn’t have the information.”
Though he has a sense of regret at the loss, he is still overwhelmed by the presence and welcome of his new family.
He’s been to Cades Cove, where Oliver ancestors settled, building cabins that are still being visited by park tourists. He toured Washington and Carter counties, where his family lived. And he’s stood over the graves of his father, as well as grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents.
“Gee whiz,” Simmons said, shaking his head. “After so long of looking, and finally I had good information of where and when and how and all this.
“I just didn’t know what to say. I was so amazed and so elated, I guess, that I found him. I have pictures of my great-great-grandmother I’m in love with.
“There is a picture of me when I graduated out of Officer Candidate School. I was a bit younger, and we really have the resemblance there,” he added with a big grin.
And there is an Oliver reunion next year in Cades Cove he’s planning to attend.
Simmons isn’t done searching, however.
“I have a niece,” he explained. In locating his family, he also discovered he has a half-brother, James Floyd Oliver. He died at age 31, but left a daughter, Beverly June Oliver. She graduated from Gate City in 1973, and he would love to find her. In the meantime he’s relishing his good fortune.
“I was here to see where my father lived and where he was buried and get back to my roots,” Simmons said. What he found, he said, was that sense of belonging for which he had been looking.