CLEVELAND (AP) — Kevin Butler always knew he was adopted.
His dad, Dennis, would tell him, “Look at all those other kids. They’re so unlucky. Their parents had to take what they got. We got to go and pick the best one.”
Kevin’s life was fulfilled. He never dreamed of a reunion with his birth parents, as many adopted children do. He never wondered “Why?”
Still, when a new Ohio law went into effect in 2015, unsealing birth records for the 400,000 adoptees born between 1964 and 1996, he sent away for his birth certificate. To date, 14,000 adoptees have done the same.
“It was just $20. I wasn’t planning to do anything with it,” he said.
But when Kevin opened the envelope and read the document, he realized he knew his birth father.
For two years, Kevin struggled with how to tell him. It never seemed like the right time.
Kevin grew up in a big, loving family in Lakewood with three sisters, one adopted like him, and two brothers. Kisses and hugs still accompany every greeting. Every year on March 28, the day he became a Butler, his parents celebrated his “Anniversary Day.”
Kevin graduated from Miami University and Cleveland Marshall College of Law, which he attended at night while working in law firms by day. When he passed the bar, he took a job as a law clerk in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. He’s a lawyer, like his father.
Kevin got married, had a daughter, was elected twice to Lakewood City Council, and developed a legal specialty in municipal government. He became law director of Lakewood and later, Brooklyn.
He remembers the night he came home from a Lakewood City Council meeting and his wife, Catherine, told him an envelope addressed to him had arrived from the state.
She stood a few feet away, “respecting my privacy,” he said, as he sorted through the mail and found the envelope. Before he opened it, he asked her to come closer to be with him as he did.
He learned that his name at birth was not Kevin, but Donald. Donald John Anderson. He was born on Jan. 12, 1975, in St. Luke’s Hospital. Not St. John’s, as he’d always believed. And he learned that his birth parents had not asked to have their names concealed, an option provided birth parents when the law changed.
His birth mother, Janet Kay Anderson of Willoughby, was listed as 19. His birth father, 22.
His plan to do nothing with the information changed when he read his birth father’s name: Louis Christopher Frey.
Could that be L. Christopher Frey, who everyone called Chris Frey? The Euclid law director Butler had known professionally for years?
Could his birth father work in the same specialty of law, in the same appointed position, in a large Cleveland suburb?
Cleveland is small, but is it that small?
“I think I know him,’” Kevin said to Catherine.
“Of course, you do,” she answered.
“She had come to appreciate how everyone knows everyone in Cleveland,” Kevin said.
Chris Frey worked for years in the appellate division of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office and later as the law director in Euclid.
He met Janet Anderson when he was attending Cleveland State University and she was at Lakeland Community College in 1974. Both were working at Higbee’s. She manned the snack bar and he was in the stockroom.
“The rather embarrassing part,” Jan said, “is that it wasn’t long after we started dating that I got pregnant.”
It was scandalous. She had to tell her parents. He hid it from his family. Marriage wasn’t really an option.
“We were nowhere near committed to each other,” Jan said. “And, honestly, I felt completely inadequate. I didn’t feel I had anything to offer a baby, other than my love, and at that time, I didn’t think that was enough.”
“I think my parents were in shock,” she said.
And, they were ashamed. Unmarried and Catholic, she’d place the baby for adoption, but no one could know she was pregnant.
“So, I went away for the last four months of my pregnancy,” she said, sent to live with a family in University Heights until she delivered.
“You’re basically in hiding,” Jan explained. “The story was that I went to visit my aunt in Georgia, which I actually did. I went there for a week. But I supposedly then got a job in Georgia and stayed there.”
Chris visited her in University Heights and was with Jan when the baby — Donald, who would become Kevin — was born in January 1975. They never got to hold him. The baby stayed in the DePaul Infant Home, run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine on Woodland Avenue in Cleveland, until his adoption was complete several months later.
“I felt incredible grief and I wasn’t allowed to grieve. I had to pretend like nothing happened,” Jan said. “We didn’t speak of it except to each other.”
That brought Chris and Jan closer.
“We had each other and, you know, we grew up really fast,” she said.
Months later, while walking through the Great Lakes Mall, they spied an engagement ring in a jewelry store. No one popped the question, they just bought the ring, and by May 1976, they were married. In June 1977, the first of six Frey children, daughter Mo, was born.
Chris continued to attend night school, working at Higbee’s by day. He graduated from Cleveland Marshall College of Law and became a lawyer. Jan went to school to become a nurse.
As their careers flourished and their family grew, they never told their kids about their first born, who, unbeknownst to them, was living with his own large family in Lakewood.
Law directors in Northeast Ohio communities meet once a month at the offices of the Cleveland Bar Association downtown. Kevin Butler was a regular at those meetings and so was Chris Frey.
And he was the same Louis Christopher Frey listed on Kevin’s birth certificate. It was hard for Kevin to get his head around the fact that he’d known his birth father for years. And when he looked at him, it made sense: “I look a lot like him.”
He wanted to tell Chris, but how?
“Every time I went to a law directors’ meeting, I would carry that original birth certificate in my pocket, just in case I could work up the courage to tell him,” said Kevin. “Sometimes he wasn’t there and sometimes I wasn’t able to make it and sometimes he might’ve been driving other people, so it just never seemed to be the right time.”
Kevin agonized about it for more than two years, only he and his wife and one of his sisters knowing.
During that time, Kevin and Chris’s paths crossed in strange ways. Like when Chris’s youngest daughter, Marie, passed the bar exam, and he called Kevin because he knew Lakewood was hiring an assistant prosecutor.
“He asked if I could give her a look,” said Kevin. “I said sure. Then I didn’t give her a look.”
Knowing what he knew, but what Frey didn’t, he couldn’t hire Marie. That would be nepotism.
“And if I brought her in just to give her an interview and later I revealed myself to be her brother, she’d find that to be awfully creepy,” he said. “So I just sort of flaked out and didn’t do anything.”
Chris admits he was put off by the snub from a fellow law director. Still, he didn’t say anything to Kevin.
But the incident nudged Butler to quit stalling.
“Our worlds were going to keep colliding. And I got this feeling that if he died of a heart attack or I died of a heart attack, I would feel awful for not having first told him,” Butler said.
So one morning in September, 2017, Kevin tucked his birth certificate into his pocket and headed to the law directors’ meeting. He was determined to tell Chris, even if the timing didn’t feel perfect.
Near the end of the meeting, he tapped Chris on the shoulder and asked him to step into the hallway. Chris, puzzled, followed him. Kevin walked to a secluded spot around the corner from the meeting room and said, matter-of-factly: “I have been thinking about how to say this for two years and I haven’t figured out how, so I am just going to show you this.”
He showed Chris the birth certificate.
“I saw my name on it and I knew what it was right away,” said Chris. “I hugged him, and I told him his mother has been waiting for this day since he was born. And then, he had to leave, and I felt like I was under the foundation of the Bar Association and trying to keep it from squashing me.”
It wasn’t a storybook reunion. They agreed to talk again soon, and Kevin left his birth father in the hallway, reeling from the news.
“With all due regard for Kevin,” Chris said, chuckling, “Figuring out how to approach this couldn’t have been an easy thing for him, but I probably would have picked a different time and place.”
That night, Chris had to find a way to tell his wife. They had a political fundraiser to attend, and that clearly wasn’t the time or place. Once they were home, Jan was in the kitchen and Chris was pacing through the living room and dining room.
“I knew something was up. Finally, he said, ‘I have to tell you something.’ And my immediate thought was, ‘I know he’s not sick and he’s not going to divorce me. What is it?’ ” she said.
“He came into the kitchen with me and said, ‘I met our son today.’ ”
Their son? Met him? It sunk in. He was talking about their firstborn.
“I’m pretty sure I quit breathing because nothing would come out of my mouth,” she said.
Chris told her, “His name is Kevin and he’s the law director of the city of Lakewood.”
That blew her away. He wasn’t just a lawyer, but also a law director? And they’d worked with each other?
Jan Googled Kevin, found his photos and was struck by how much he resembled her husband. Chris told her Kevin was open to meeting her. “Tomorrow?” she asked.
But it would be several more days. And in the meantime, the Freys had to tell their children. So they gathered them at their home on a Sunday, five in person and one on the phone, and delivered the news.
The children were stunned and likely relieved because the call for a meeting led to troubling speculation. Chris and Jan apologized for never telling them. Their kids told them they understood, and they started looking up their brother on social media.
Kevin arranged to meet Chris and Jan, but he was insistent that he didn’t want to insert himself in their lives. He’d known for a long time they were happily married with six kids and a great life.
“I didn’t want to mess that up,” he said.
Two days later, Kevin arrived on the Frey doorstep with a loaf of pumpkin-apple bread he had baked. “I mean, what do you bring to the first meeting with your parents?” he asked.
“Chris just stepped aside, and I walked up to my mother and gave her a hug. I was still holding on to the idea that I was meeting them, but I could still be distant to them, like their West Side cousin, but a lot changed in that hug,” he said.
Jan whispered in his ear: “They wouldn’t let me hold you in the hospital. I’ve waited 42 years for this moment.”
Kevin met his six full brothers and sisters on the Frey side a week later at brunch. “You feel a little bit like a circus sideshow when you walk into the room,” he said. All eyes were on him.
He came prepared. The oldest, Mo, already had called him and they’d met for coffee and a long talk. She’d brought with her a family photo from a recent wedding, labeled with everyone’s name.
He arrived at the restaurant with Catherine and their daughter, Agnes, who was 7 at the time. She discovered cousins her age and became fast friends.
He discovered an instant kinship. He needled younger brother Dave, who resembles him, about how he’d be losing his hair and gaining some gut in the not-too-distant future. The youngest brother, Tim, was pleased to discover that he was still the tallest in a family not known for its height.
They all had a quick and easy camaraderie and they posed for pictures together.
“One of the sisters (Lauren) put her hand on my back and gave me a little squeeze as we posed for that picture and I always remember that moment,” he said. “Like, ‘You are a part of us.’ ”
Kevin, whose adoptive mother died in 2011, still hadn’t told his father, and he was worried about how Dennis might take the news.
“I needed to tell him. I also needed to convince him that I loved him, and I wasn’t searching for a new father. He is a wonderful father,” Kevin said.
At a visit to Clifton Beach a few days after he’d met his birth family, Kevin told his dad about sending away for the birth certificate, about discovering who his birth parents were, about meeting them.
He told his dad, who worked in the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s office before going into private practice as a defense lawyer, that his birth father was a guy he might know, who had worked in the prosecutor’s office while Dennis was a defense lawyer. His dad didn’t know him personally but knew of him.
“The next time you see them, I want you to thank them for the gift of my son,” Dennis said.
The way Kevin dealt with it all made Dennis Butler proud.
“He handled it with such honesty and such openness,” he said.
Kevin has lunch frequently with Jan, and he and his wife and daughter get together often for dinner on the weekends with Chris and Jan. Twice they’ve accompanied the whole Frey clan on their annual vacation in Vermont. They plan on doing it again next year.
Chris’s mother, Kevin’s grandmother, Elizabeth, is 97. Chris told her, finally, about the pregnancy and the adoption and the reunion.
“We were teenagers again,” Jan said.
She “was great about it,” Chris said. It made him wonder whether she would have been great about it back then, about whether he had to carry the secret all this time.
Jan has done a lot of thinking in the two years since she’s had Kevin back in her life. Should she have kept him? Was it the right decision to place him for adoption? Those are questions she’ll always wrestle with. But she considers herself blessed that Kevin found them.
“In the end,” said Chris, “we’re just darn lucky to have a second chance.”