LAWTON, Okla. (AP) — Johnny McFatridge was born on Dec. 4, 1938, but it might be said that his life didn't actually begin until 11 days later, at around 9 p.m. on the blustery night of Dec. 15, when he was found abandoned, hungry and crying in a car parked on a street in the little town of Antlers.
The story of the "the foundling," as the tiny blue-eyed boy was referred to in newspapers at the time, might easily have turned out tragically. There was no note. There was nothing, in fact, left with the child to offer any clues as to how he came to be in such a dire condition. He was guessed to be about 10 days old and was "plainly undernourished," the Daily Oklahoman reported. Temperatures in Antlers around that time were falling to around 24 degrees at night, so his life might easily have ended in the dark on that street.
But rather than tragically, things turned out almost magically for the child. As it happened, Homer and Theo McFatridge and their three daughters, who lived next door to the family of J.C. Hullender, in whose car the baby had been abandoned, had gone out that evening to attend a play at Antlers High School, about a block away. As they were returning home, one of them heard a faint baby's cry and, bothered by it, thought to listen more closely and eventually to track it down to the neighbor's car.
Seventy-eight years later, McFatridge, who grew up to be a school teacher, principal, superintendent and eventually a successful insurance agent now retired and living in Duncan, might reasonably think of that moment that he was discovered and saved as the moment that he really arrived in the world.
He doesn't hold any bitterness in his heart about what happened, he told The Lawton Constitution . As everything turned out, it wasn't like his birth parents gave him up, he said, but rather like they gave him more.
After rescuing the baby from the car, Homer and Theo McFatridge immediately called the sheriff, and almost as immediately started talking about doing whatever it might take to keep the baby safe, taking him into their own home, even adopting him; and they made it clear to authorities, too, that they would be willing to give the child a family.
And that's what happened.
These days, adopting a child can be an excruciatingly slow process, but in those waning days of the Depression in rural Oklahoma, it didn't take long for the "foundling" to become Johnny McFatridge. And his adoptive family did indeed give him a happy home, his sisters often making him feel as if he were the best Christmas gift ever, considering the timing of his arrival.
The mystery of how the infant boy came to be abandoned in Antlers didn't remain so. It turned out that a midwife had been with the baby's birth mother on the day he was born in a house in the mountains somewhere between Clayton and Tuskahoma, about 40 miles away. The midwife led authorities to a birth certificate that revealed that Johnny was actually born David Leroy on Dec. 4 and that his birth mother was a young woman from Tennessee who'd had a relationship with a 26-year-old man from that area. It was determined that the woman, 11 days after giving birth, bought a bus ticket to Antlers and there left her baby in the back seat of the car, chosen at random. She'd then left Oklahoma and gone back to Tennessee. The baby's father made no claim on him.
These days, such a scenario would likely lead to one or both of the birth parents being charged with a crime, but apparently authorities in those days were willing to consider the case closed after the McFatridges' adoption of the baby.
In point of fact, in order to avoid similar child abandonment cases, lawmakers in Oklahoma have since passed a "Safe Haven" Law that allows for people to leave babies, up to 7 days old, with an employee on duty at any medical facility, hospital, fire station, police station or child welfare agency in Oklahoma without fear of being charged with a crime.
McFatridge said his adoptive parents were always as honest with him about where he came from as they were about their love for him.
"I grew up knowing I was adopted," he said. "They would say to me, 'You're special because of the circumstances of how we got you and also because of how much we wanted you."
Though all families are unique, his advice to other adoptive parents would be to be that honest with their children. In his case, he said he was always content with the family he got and the town he grew up in and never gave much thought to any other way that things might have turned out.
He never felt any desire to meet his birth mother. His birth father, however, had sent letters to the McFatridges while he was serving in the military during World War II, making references to "the boy" and writing that he'd someday like to see him. So, after doing a little detective work and thinking about it for five years, McFatridge said he decided at the age of 35 that he would introduce himself to his birth father, who was by then 61.
He didn't want to cause any problems for the man, who was married with four other children, so he thought to simply go to his home in Wilson, knock on his door and ask about a rental home nearby that he'd heard the man knew about. A few minutes later he found himself driving in his pickup with the man, who still didn't know that McFatridge was his son.
"I was driving and he was sitting beside me, and I finally told him that I wasn't there for the reason I'd said. I told him 'I wanted to meet you because your name was on my birth certificate.'"
At that, there was no happy reunion. Mostly, the man just stayed quiet and stared straight ahead.
"He elected not to participate in the conversation and I wasn't going to force him to," McFatridge said. "He did say that when she (his birth mother) went back to Tennessee that she may never have thought about me again."
For many children, adoptive parents are godsends.
Fast forward the story through years, to McFatridge's second personal experience with adoption. This time it involved his daughter, Carolyn, and her husband, Paul, who welcomed 10 foster children into their home in Texas over a period of several years, "all the while wanting to be considered as adoptive parents." Finally, in the fall of 2013 they were notified that they'd be able to formally adopt their son, Jace. McFatridge, his wife, Nancy, and others in the family were all there to celebrate when everything was finalized. As it happened, McFatridge said, there were actually about 90 children adopted that same day in the same building in Fort Worth.
Jace, who will soon be 6, is just one of the grandkids in the extended McFatridge family, but he certainly holds a special place in his grandpa's heart. McFatridge is very proud to show his picture to anyone who might care to see it, and he's happy, too, to share his firm belief about adoption that it doesn't mean for a minute that a child has been "given up" but rather that that boy or girl has been "given more."