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Story published: 04-16-2014 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

A lifetime of questions answered when Gene Hicks meets his brother and sisters for the first time

By Paula Walter

In June of 1965, Thomas Eugene Hicks, who goes by Gene, was serving in the military when he received orders for an assignment in another country.  Despite all of his government clearances, he was in need of a passport. Although he had the birth certificates of his wife and three children, he didn’t have one for himself. All his parents could produce was a certificate of birth from the hospital. What started out as a simple request to obtain a record of his birth turned into a mystery that took more than 40 years to solve.

Hicks contacted Richmond, Virginia to begin the process of obtaining his birth certificate.  When he called, he was informed there was no record of birth for a Thomas Eugene Hicks born in December of 1935. “Needless to say, I was mortified,” said Hicks.  The clerk searched by his mother’s maiden name and discovered a birth certificate issued for a Thomas E. Cunningham, born to Mary E. Cunningham. No father was listed. “Honey, they made a mistake at the hospital,” Mary Cunningham Hicks said to her son.  “They didn’t get the correct name.  Your father is Jim Hicks.” The birth certificate was eventually amended to include Jim Hicks as Gene’s father.

Although Hicks was born in West Virginia, he and his family had ties to Johnson County.  He first moved to Tennessee in 1943 and lived in Laurel Bloomery.  His grandparents had previously moved to the area in 1941.  “I actually called my grandparents Mom and Dad,” said Hicks. “I had two uncles and an aunt that were close in age.  We thought of each other as brothers and sisters.”  In 1949, the family moved to Mountain City when Hicks started high school.   He entered the service in 1952.

When Hicks would visit his parents over the years, he always hoped that they would bring up the subject of his birth certificate, but it never happened.  “I had a feeling at the back of my mind that I had a family somewhere and wondered if I had brothers and sisters I didn’t know about,” Hicks said.  “This was a secret my wife and I kept,” he added.  “All these years, I had this on my mind.”

In 1972, he retired and moved with his wife and children back to Mountain City.

In 1995, Hicks’ parents had returned to Mountain City.  As Hicks and his sister, Margaret, who was visiting in Mountain City, were reminiscing about their family, she let some important news out.  “It’s sad about Robert Bowles,” she said. “Margaret, who is Robert Bowles?” asked Hicks, who had no idea who she was talking about.  “Gene, don’t you know? That’s your real father,” she replied. Although Mary had shared with her two daughters the identity of Hicks’ father years ago, she had never talked with her son about it. Hicks asked his sister where she got that information. “From Mom (Mary),” she replied. “She told me and Sandy that he had died. Gene, I’m sorry. I just assumed you knew. Please don’t tell Mom and Dad I told you. “ According to Hicks, he assured her he would never tell and he never did. He recalled his Aunt Margaret had relayed a story where his biological father was planning on coming to Welch to get his son. “My dad loved me,” he said.

Hicks was 60 years old when he found out he indeed had another father other than Jim Hicks.  “You have a legacy you leave behind,” Hicks said.  “I had this feeling that I had some sisters and brothers. I wanted to find them and then I could tell them the entire story.”  According to Hicks, he spoke with an uncle who had explored the family genealogy. “He knew, and I knew he knew, but he didn’t tell me,” he said.

Hicks casually mentioned to one of his sons that he was interested in finding out if there was a Robert Bowles in McDowell County, West Virginia.  With a few clicks of a mouse, a list of 10 to 12 Robert Bowles was found.   According to Hicks, he randomly selected three addresses and sent off a letter to each one inquiring if anyone knew the Cunningham family on the premise that he was working on the family ancestry tree.  The only response was from someone who suggested he write a letter to the local newspaper.  “I let it go again a number of years, with it constantly being on my mind,” Hicks recalled.

Hicks spent a lot of time with his parents, thinking each time that he saw them they might tell him the actual story of his biological father, even on their death beds. He sat with his mother as she was dying at home. “I would go every day, holding her hand, hoping she would open her eyes and tell me,” he recalled, pausing as he took a deep breath.  “She never did.”

In June of 2011, Hicks enlisted the help of his daughter, Sherry Potter.   “I decided I wanted the kids to know,” he said.  “I told Sherry I wanted to tell her a story.  She was the first of the children to know.  I didn’t want anyone to know until they could find all the facts.”  

Armed with just the name of Robert Bowles, Sherry began to do her own investigating.  “Sherry was like Sherlock Holmes,” Hicks said, with a smile that lit up his eyes.  Potter began a search on ancestry.com and did a search on her father’s birthplace and a range of dates that covered several years.  Although she didn’t know it, the initial hit she found was James Robert Bowles, Senior, Hicks’ biological father. 

Ready to do a little digging, Potter spent time talking with her Aunt Margaret in an effort to obtain more information.  “It was a love story,” she said.  According to family information, Mary Cunningham and Robert Bowles were in love.  The parents of the couple didn’t approve and wouldn’t allow them to marry.  Mary was shunned by the town, and Robert was run out of town.

Potter turned her search back to ancestry.com and found that Bowles had lived and died in Lebanon, Virginia in 1967. She traveled to the newspaper office and obtained a copy of his obituary where it listed a son, James Robert Bowles, Jr. who lived in Mechanicsville, Virginia.

Armed with this information and a lot of luck, Potter contacted James R. Bowles listed in the yellow pages in Mechanicsville, Virginia and explained she was looking for the family of James R. Bowles from Welch, West Virginia.  “That was my father,” said Jimmy Bowles. As Sherry explained the reason for calling, he quickly gave her the number of his sister, who relayed she had always felt like there was someone else out there. “When his daughter called inquiring, at that time, there was another Bowles family and I thought she was confused,” said Bowles. “I came close to cutting our conversation off.”

After discussing health problems and describing her father, Potter and her newly found Aunt Sandy decided to meet. According to Potter, the hairs on their arms stood up as they compared pictures of Hicks and James Robert Bowles.  “I’ve got a brother,” said Sandy. According to Jimmy, Sandy called to inform him he has a brother. “I wish I had known you before,” Jimmy said of a conversation with Hicks. “I could have used your help.  Living with three sisters was the devil.”

With the help of his daughter and the internet, Gene Hicks has found a brother and three sisters.  In late August, Gene and his wife, Kate and Potter made a trip to Lebanon, Virginia to meet two of his sisters, Sandy and Connie. According to Sherry, as soon as her father stepped out of the car, the two sisters started crying.  There was no question that Hicks was their brother. “The first time we met was at my sister’s house,” said Jimmy, pausing for just a moment.  “I was standing over in the kitchen. When he came into the door, I didn’t see his face, I saw him walking.” According to Jimmy, Hicks not only looks like his father, but also has the same mannerisms. “When he sits down, he crosses his legs and holds his hands just like my dad,” he added.

The family has grown close as they visit one another and celebrate birthdays.  Two of Jimmy’s granddaughters are enjoying getting to know their newly found uncle and often write to him.  Hicks’ wife had become ill and was at a local hospital.  “One trip to the hospital, I walked in and my sister, Connie, was there, holding my wife’s hand,” he said.  The families have embraced each other and remain in contact on a regular basis. Hicks was also able to meet his sister, Etta, who lives in California in July, 2013.

As for Hicks, he is amazed that the family he never knew was living so close in Lebanon, Virginia for so many years.  “I didn’t know my father, but I can say he raised some wonderful children,” he said.