FARMINGTON — Last Christmas, Ed Kehl’s wife bought him a DNA kit, but he didn’t even bother with it.
The former BYU and NFL lineman knew he was adopted at age 12 and was grateful to be raised in the loving home of Gary and Nancy Kehl. On occasions when his other adopted siblings found their biological families, Ed Kehl, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, causally searched for his too, but was unsuccessful. Over time he lost interest in looking.
“I assumed nothing was going to happen,” Kehl said. “I was thinking why get my hopes up when nothing is probably going to happen. Come to find out I was looking for the wrong name.”
Then less than 24 hours after giving his sister, Debbie Weaver, the family’s genealogical guru, a few names he could remember, Kehl suddenly found contact information for a brother and two sisters. They in turn guided Kehl to his father, “Big George” Young, in Gainesville, Florida, who had never lost hope of finding his son after he was taken by his mother more than 35 years earlier.
The opportunity to find and reconnect with his long-lost biological family members has been nothing short of a “whirlwind,” Kehl said.
“It’s really crazy,” Kehl said. “Even though it was bad at times, I had to go through that to get where I am today. I truly believe it’s made me who I am. You see the Lord’s hand. … You end up where you’re supposed to be.”
Kehl was born to biracial parents. His father was African-American and his mother was white. The couple lived together for about three years before parting ways, Kehl said.
For the first nine years of his life, Kehl lived happily under the care his father and grandmother in Gainesville, Florida. He remembers everyone calling him “Little George,” but didn’t know the surname Young until recently.
Little George primarily lived with his grandmother, who cared for him and around 10 other cousins while his father worked and lived elsewhere. Kehl recalls being happy there, he said.
One day, Kehl’s father told him his mother wanted him to come spend the summer with her but he was adamantly against it. His grandma thought it was a good idea. Ultimately, his grandma prevailed, Kehl said.
“I remember I was sleeping on the couch and a lady comes in. There wasn’t a lot of white people where we lived. She was running her fingers through my hair. I pretended to be asleep and she left. I asked my grandma who she was. She said ‘That’s your mother,'” Kehl said. “I didn’t have a say, so a couple of days later, I ended up going with her. It was a bad situation.”
A difficult situation
When the summer ended, Little George did not return to his grandmother or Big George. He said his mother changed his name to George Edwin McWhorter, the surname of one of her ex-husbands, and began moving around. After a series of moves, they ended up in South Carolina, Kehl said.
In addition to Kehl, his mother cared for two girls, his sisters Sarah and Jennifer from another father. Kehl describes a difficult family situation.
Before Kehl’s mother took him, she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and they attended weekly worship services. One Sunday, according to Kehl, the bishop’s wife observed the mother’s ill treatment of Kehl and came to his defense.
When she saw it happen again, the bishop’s wife offered to take him and Kehl’s mother agreed. A short time later, Kehl recalls a station wagon taking him and his meager belongings to the bishop’s home. For the next year or so, he lived with the bishop’s family with eight kids on a military base. He then moved in with one of the bishop’s counselors for a few months. The counselor asked him a strange question.
“What kind of family do you want to go to?” Kehl said. “I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know what adoption meant. So I’m like, I don’t know, I don’t care.”
The Kehl family
Meanwhile, across the country in Utah, Gary and Nancy Kehl had already adopted four children. It was 1983, and Nancy Kehl was teaching adoption classes for LDS Social Services when they learned a 12-year-old biracial boy from South Carolina was looking for a family. She felt impressed to take him in, but her husband wasn’t so sure.
“Gary had a heart attack over it,” Nancy Kehl said. “He was serving as bishop. He said we already adopted four kids over two years, have three of our own and we’re broke. What are you thinking?”
In order to adopt the boy, they had to complete some classes. As Nancy Kehl sat by herself in a class, she said a prayer asking Heavenly Father to get Gary to come. Two minutes later, she was surprised to see her husband walk through the door. It turns out he had taken a different route home from work and ran out of gas. Stranded, Gary Kehl recalled his wife was nearby and he decided to join her, she said.
As they sat in the class, Gary Kehl’s heart softened towards another adoption. Although they hadn’t seen a photo or knew many details about this boy, they filled out the paperwork. Soon the 12-year-old was on an airplane flying to Utah by himself.
When he landed in Utah, Little George was greeted by a large group including the Kehl family, neighbors and friends. He initially ran away from the cheering crowd but his new mother chased him down. His new name was Edwin Daniel Kehl.
“He had long hair. The boy in my dreams didn’t have long hair,” Nancy Kehl said. “We got his hair cut and yep, you are the one in my dreams. You look how you’re supposed to now.”
It wasn’t an easy transition for Ed Kehl. It takes about a year for the adoption to be finalized, and although he tried to be on his best behavior and impress the Kehls, he often quarreled with his new siblings and other children. When he bloodied another kid’s nose at church for teasing him, Kehl worried he might be returned to South Carolina. But his mother quickly put those fears to rest.
“I asked if anybody ever told you they love you? He started crying, ‘No, nobody,'” Nancy Kehl said. “I said ‘This mom loves you. I will always love you, no matter what you do.'”
From that point on, Ed Kehl thrived.
After graduating from Brighton High School, Kehl served a Latter-day Saint mission in Fresno, California, where he grew to be about 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds. One year into his mission, a local church member and former Cougar star named Shawn Knight was impressed by Kehl and told BYU coach LaVell Edwards about Kehl. Edwards sent assistant coach Tom Ramage to meet the missionary and offered him a football scholarship on the spot. Kehl returned home to become a 4-year starter on the Cougars’ defensive line before going on to a short NFL career, with his longest stint in Green Bay.
Over the years, Kehl and his wife, Jana, have raised a family of four, including two adopted children. They also had a set of twins that died early in their marriage and shared their home with two foster children, Kehl said.
While Kehl’s interest in finding his father waned, his sister Debbie Weaver was determined to solve the mystery. Weaver, a talented family historian, had helped other siblings find their birth families.
“When Ed admitted he had tried looking for his family, I was surprised. I realized that this was more important to him than he had led us to believe,” Weaver wrote in an email. “At that point I had to find them. I asked if I could search and he said I could, but I don’t think think he really believed I could do it. I told him he had ‘thrown down the gauntlet.'”
Using names and information from genealogy websites, Weaver quickly tracked down three of Kehl’s siblings, including a brother named Eugene McWhorter in Ogden, his sister Sarah Howe Belanger in Florida and third sibling Jennifer Graham in Virginia. In meeting them in October, Kehl learned his mother had died around 1994. He also learned that Graham had kept a photo of him for 35 years while Belanger had named a Teddy Bear “George” after him.
“Talk about divine intervention.”
Belanger was around 8 years old when her big brother George left.
“This has been mind-blowing. Talk about divine intervention,” Belanger said. “I knew it was him as soon as I saw him. It’s probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to me next to having my children and getting married. I’ve wondered and thought and yearned for him, to find out where he was, for a long time.”
His siblings then led Kehl to his father, Big George, still living Gainesville, Florida. Because the family had honored their grandmother’s dying wish to “keep looking for Little George,” a niece had reached out to Belanger six years earlier.
The first time Kehl got his father on the phone, he introduced himself as Little George, words that nearly stopped Young’s heart.
“I couldn’t explain it to you. I’ve been looking, other people been looking, and we couldn’t get any connections. When I got the call, it nearly killed me,” Young said. “You can’t even explain the feeling after 30-something years. It’s wonderful.”
Kehl, his wife, Jana, and Nancy Kehl flew to Florida a week later. When Ed Kehl pulled up to Young’s home that October day, Big George was standing in the driveway with a huge smile on his face. Over the next few days, Kehl reconnected with long-lost family members, listened to stories about his youth and delighted in seeing photos of himself. He also recounted stories from his own life, which both pleased and saddened Young.
“I can’t explain it,” Young said. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world. Just to see his face and get a hug from him was unexplainable. … The bad part of it is that I missed all of it (Kehl’s life).”
As many as 100 family members, including uncles, aunts and cousins, drove great distances to join in a reunion feast, with Kehl on the grill preparing ribs and chicken. When it was over, there were misty-eyed farewells and promises to stay in touch. Young is planning to fly out and spend the holidays with Kehl’s family.
As for Kehl, he couldn’t be happier. He expressed gratitude for adoption and being part of multiple loving families.
“The way I look at it is we’re all in the same pool. We’re all swimming to try to make it back to the celestial kingdom. Along the way there might be some people that are struggling and we’ve got to grab them and pull them along,” Kehl said. “In our Kehl family we’ve got a strong group and everybody’s chugging along. We’re just going to keep grabbing people and adding them in the mix. It’s cool. Everything happens for a reason.”