Story By JOYANNA LOVE
“I used to sit around and imagine my dad finding me and coming and saying, ‘I’m his dad. I am here to take care of him, and then I’d belong.”
Freddy Smith essentially became an orphan at the age of 5 when his mother died in an auto accident. Smith had been born at Fort Benning, Georgia, but never knew his father.
His father did not know about him either.
“I was always told that he was killed in the Vietnam War” or something similar, Smith said.
He was living in Georgia with his mother, stepfather and sister when his mother died.
His stepfather moved Smith and his sister to Norfolk, Virginia where they lived for a few years.
One day, the stepfather took them to see their mother’s parents in Lawley, Alabama.
“He ate supper, and he said, ‘I’m going to go get some ice cream I will be back in a minute,’ and he never came back,” Smith said. “He kind of threw us out like a couple old hounds. That started my odyssey as a, I guess, an orphan or a foster kid.”
His grandparents died a couple years later.
“I go through the foster system up until I’m 18,” Smith said. “The Mcafees in Lawley actually raised me, and I still live on the farm to this day … I had a good foster mother in most ways.”
Even though his foster parents were good to him, Smith always felt like there was something missing.
“I grew up in Maplesville/ Lawley, went to Maplesville High School as a foster kid, and I don’t care what people say, especially back then, we’re thought way
less of,” Smith said. “I know there is so much more attention on trying to help foster children now. Social workers are better at what they do, but back then it wasn’t that way.”
Growing up, adults would often assume Smith was the trouble maker and get on his case even though he had not done anything.
Smith graduated from MHS in 1985 and completed his welding certificate from what was then called the Chilton County Trade School. Today, he is the
maintenance director for Chilton County Schools.
A desire to find his biological father led Smith to create accounts on 23 and Me, My Heritage, Ancestry.com and one other similar service about five years ago.
“I figured, ‘you never know maybe some of my kinfolks will pop up,” Smith said.
Prior to these technology resources, Smith said he had tried to do his own research “by making phone calls.”
“I decided five or six years ago that this (the genealogy services) was about the only shot I had,” Smith said.
He said with DNA tests, it is more than just “a shot in the dark.”
After three years of searching with little results, Smith was ready to give up, but his niece, who is a genealogist with a historical society and works for a sheriff ’s
department, assured him she could find him.
On his 53rd birthday, Smith received several notifications on his 23 and Me app.
His niece (the daughter of the sister that moved with him to Lawley) had been communicating with a woman in New Hampshire and narrowed who his father might be
down to three brothers.
He said the feeling as he read the messages was hard to describe.
“It’s not necessarily excitement, because you see that fear is there” that the person may not be receptive to being found.
Out of the three men, Arthur Pendexter was the only one that had been stationed at Fort Benning in the late 1960s.
“My mother worked at the base, and he was stationed there for a little while,” Smith said.
Photos of when each man was young were exchanged, and there did seem to be a resemblance.
“I sent him a 23 and Me DNA test, and it took a couple months, but when it came back, there it was,” Smith said. “I look on my 23 and Me app and where it has
my relatives, it says father. That was the first time I ever experienced that.”
Pendexter was 79 at the time. Smith said the man was shocked but receptive to meeting him.
“The whole bunch just seemed to be so tickled,” Smith said. “It was unbelievable.”
Pendexter got married later in life and has two sons close to the ages of Smith’s sons.
“A couple months after I found him, they came down and actually visited and stayed a week at the farm, and we kind of got to know each other,” Smith said. “…My two boys (Bobby and Alex) are really his only grandchildren, and he was really, really proud of that and … he told me he was proud of the man I became. He kept saying, ‘I just wish I had known. If I had known, I would have been there.’”
Smith assured Pendexter that he knew he would have been and has always believed it.
For spring break 2021, Smith and his wife Angie drove to Maine to visit with Pendexter and extended family.
“They are so nice and so accepting,” Freddy Smith said. “He was really accepting.”
He described finding his father as “I’ve got an answer that I have been looking for since I’ve been conscious.”
He plans on returning to Maine during the next spring break.
It was a long journey to finding his father, but Smith encourages those in similar situations to go ahead and give it a try because it is possible with today’s technology.