Desperately Seeking Sadie Lee A brother's anguished search for his long-lost sister


For nearly four decades, David Powell has been trying to put a face to a name.

The face is that of his younger sister, a face he hasn't seen in nearly 60 years and has long ago forgotten. But the name is one he thinks of almost daily.

Last year, using his own money, he published a book of all the things he doesn't know about his sister, all the things he'd tell her if only he could. Its title: "Sadie Lee, Where Are You?"

But the 100-page book could just as easily have been called, "Sadie Lee, Who Are You?"

"I don't know anything about Sadie Lee," explains Mr. Powell, a former professor of humanities who was only 3 when his family gave the year-old girl up for adoption at the end of the Great Depression, "nor does anyone else."

He doesn't know the name of the young couple who took Sadie Lee from his sick mother and alcoholic father in 1937. He doesn't know if they are the ones who wound up adopting her. He doesn't know if Sadie Lee realizes that she has three older brothers and a sister. He doesn't know if she is dead or alive.

All Mr. Powell knows is that Sadie Lee is his sister, maybe his only living sibling. And that's why he refuses to give up on a search that has lasted for decades and led to nothing but dead ends.

"It's important because it might be important to her," he explains. At least, he adds softly, "I don't know that it's not."

His search for his sister has taken him throughout the country: to east-central Texas where he and Sadie Lee were born; to the state homes, foster homes and boarding schools where he grew up after his family fell apart; to cavernous rooms full of official records and documents.

It's a search that has revealed precious little about Sadie Lee, but plenty about the brother she left behind. And it's a search perhaps fueled by the realization that he, too, could have been a Sadie Lee. For his father had signed papers authorizing his adoption, only to have the prospective parents separate before the process was complete.

He might have been better off had the adoption gone through. Instead, David Powell bounced from one place to another, never living anywhere long enough to establish roots. When his father suddenly decided he wanted to take care of him again, he was returned and then beaten and neglected before being dumped back into a state home.

Yet somehow Mr. Powell, now 60, managed to graduate from a military school, win a college scholarship, earn a Ph.D. and become a university professor.

He has served in the Army and the Peace Corps, has married and raised two children of his own, watched his father and other siblings pass away or disappear. He has gone from teaching at a New Mexico university to being without a job and moving in with his older sister in Cumberland.

All the while, he has remained loyal to a family torn apart by alcoholism, the Great Depression and death. And to a sister he never knew.

"I think for David, it's like a void in there," says his wife of 30 years, Maria Delcarmen Powell, who works as a nurse at a Cumberland hospital. "He needs to feel there's somebody out there for him. I don't think I would ever give up, and I don't think that David will ever give up. I just hope they find each other before it's too late."

Almost 40 years after he started looking, what Mr. Powell knows about his sister can be found in a pair of documents. A birth certificate on file at the Liberty County Courthouse in Liberty, Texas, verifies that Sadie Lee Powell was born in Rayburn, Texas, on Jan. 31, 1936. And an application his father helped fill out in 1938, seeking David's admittance to the Waco State Home in Waco, Texas, lists four siblings, three in the care of the Corsicana State Home in Corsicana, Texas. The fourth, Sadie Lee, is listed as having been "legally adopted by a family approved by the Mississippi Children's Home in Jackson, Miss."

That's it. Those are the known facts of Sadie Lee Powell's life.

"There was never a time where I felt I'd come close to finding her," her brother says. "I have essentially the same information now that I had 40 years ago."

Yet, there is one thing Mr. Powell remembers, the sort of thing a 3-year-old might recall about the toddler he played with all the time. He remembers laughter -- "squeals of delight."

Finding Sadie Lee would provide Mr. Powell with one last connection to a family torn apart by the death of his mother 57 years ago -- a family that led a vagabond existence even while Pearl Angeline Powell was alive, rarely staying in one place more than a few months.

His father, Ocie, was a part-time carpenter, part-time bootlegger and near-full-time drunk who was never able to hold the family together after his wife died. With Sadie Lee gone, the four remaining Powell children were shuttled in and out of state homes and the homes of friends' and relatives. They rarely saw each other and would never be together in the same place after 1940. By the time Ocie enlisted in the Navy in 1942, the Powells had pretty much ceased to be a family.

With each passing year, memories of Sadie Lee grew dimmer. David Powell, of course, barely remembered his sister. His older brothers, James and Robert, never talked about her. Only the oldest of the Powell children, Mildred, worked to keep her memory alive, eventually enlisting her youngest brother in the quest to make the Powell family whole once again.

Now, that can never happen. Ocie died first, in a Texas veterans' hospital in 1971, ending a hard life that left him looking far older than his 65 years. Robert died in 1984, at age 57, his brother at his side.

James disappeared in the early 1970s. "He always said he was going to make us all rich," David says of the brother he believes spent his last days as a broken, possibly homeless man wandering the streets of north-central California. During their last phone conversation, Mr. Powell remembers, "You could feel the brokenheartedness beneath the bravado."

And Mildred, who always prayed she would find Sadie Lee before it was too late, died on June 5, 1994 in Western Maryland. She was 68.

It is Mildred's memories that dominate the opening pages of "Sadie Lee, Where Are You?" her stories that helped David Powell piece together those early years. Without Mildred's recollections, Mr. Powell would have no sense of what it was like to have a kid sister.

As it is, he has no idea what she looked like. "To [Mildred] and to me, she was just a child," Mr. Powell says. "I don't remember that Mildred ever said anything about what kind of hair she had or anything like that."

Born Sept. 4, 1934 in Cleveland, Texas, William David Powell has almost no memory of his mother, Pearl, who died when he was 3 1/2. One of the two pictures he has of her, taken when she was 20 and a first-time mother, shows an attractive, round-faced woman with black, shoulder-length hair, sporting a wry grin and holding a squirming, year-old baby. The picture must bear little resemblance to the bone-weary mother of five who, 12 years later and in poor health, would try to ensure her youngest daughter's happiness by handing her over to someone else.

Mildred, the infant Pearl is holding so proudly in the picture, described their mother "as very sweet, very caring, very gentle ,, and constantly weak," Mr. Powell says. She "was unable to take this constant moving about and living in tragic conditions that were in one part a consequence of the Depression, but another part a consequence of being with a man who just didn't know how to take care of his family."

Mr. Powell remembers his father as a talented carpenter and hard worker who should have been able to make a comfortable life for his family, but never did. Much of his income was earned through bootlegging, but most of those dollars went right back to the source, as Ocie Powell struggled to quench his insatiable thirst for alcohol.

The repeal of Prohibition put an end to that business forever, and Ocie would spend the rest of his life struggling to earn a living.

For a time, he was reduced to performing odd jobs on a Texas farm, resentful of the tedious work he was forced to do. Sometimes, his anger would boil over: On Christmas Eve 1935, Mr. Powell writes, "He had come home in a rage at his helplessness; ashamed that he had no gifts for us, he had tossed our only presents, apples and oranges, into the woodstove and, with tears rolling down his cheeks, cried out in anguish, 'There ain't no Santy Claus.' "

By early 1937, Ocie and Pearl Powell and their older children had become migrant workers, picking crops throughout Texas and Mississippi, traveling from town to town on railroad boxcars. David and Sadie Lee, too young to work the fields, would play under the watchful eyes of their mother or sister.

Later that year, Sadie Lee and her family would see the last of each other. Pearl knew she was dying; both she and Ocie realized he could never raise a family. So the Powells temporarily moved in with a young couple -- all Mildred could later remember, Mr. Powell says, was that they were "very young, very very young" -- and made arrangements to hand Sadie Lee over to them.

While the Powells lived in one part of the house, the young couple and Sadie Lee lived in another. After a few days, the time came for Ocie, Pearl and their four oldest children to leave. In "Sadie Lee, Where Are You?" Mr. Powell writes movingly to Sadie Lee about what followed, as related to him by his sister,

"One day the door opened and the young woman walked through it with you in her arms, saying, 'Let's say goodbye now. Can you say "goodbye," Sadie Lee?' She set you on the floor of the porch and, instead of saying goodbye, you began to weep inconsolably after us. Distraught, your face a crimson mask of sorrow, you crept to the end of the porch and cried out for us. With Mildred holding my hand, I kept turning back to look upon you . . . ."

After walking several hundred feet, Pearl's legs buckled. She fell to the ground, crying out, "My baby!" Ocie grabbed his wife as she fell, and the two of them wept. The elder brothers, James and Robert, stood quietly and waited.

None of them ever saw Sadie Lee again. On Jan. 18, 1938, in Gunnison, Miss., Pearl Powell, already weakened by a miscarriage, died of pneumonia. She was buried, in a coffin Ocie built for her, in an unmarked grave alongside a levee. Mildred, James and Robert would soon leave Mississippi with Ocie, while David was left in the care of a family living nearby.

Seven years later, in a moment of sober reflection, Ocie would admit to his youngest son that he felt responsible for his wife's passing. As they grew older, Ocie and David would often talk together, but rarely of the hard times. Ocie avoided the subject, and David wouldn't press.

"He never returned to particulars," Mr. Powell remembers. "He would return to grievances about this individual or that individual, but never talked about his wife, never talked about Sadie Lee. I'm sure that was more from the effort of forgetting, of wanting to forget, than from a lack of compassion. The sense I've always had, even while he was beating me for the short period of time we lived together [after Pearl's death] was that of a deeply compassionate individual.

"He was drunk," adds Mr. Powell, who says he harbors no bitter feelings toward his father. "But there was a humanity that I felt."

Some 35 years after his mother's death, David would visit the site of her grave and realize that, given the passing years and the changing course of the river, Pearl's body had probably long since washed out to sea.

In all but the most technical sense, the Powells ceased to be a family on the day their mother died.

In the two years immediately following Pearl's death, David would be shuttled between no fewer than six "homes" before settling in at the Corsicana State Home, about 50 miles northeast of Waco, Texas, in August 1940. There, for the last time, he was reunited with his brothers and sister, who had been deposited there by Ocie just a few months after leaving Mississippi.

They would remain together less than five months. And they would never all be together in the same place again.

The only surviving picture of the four Powell children was taken in autumn 1940, during that brief stay at Corsicana. Mildred, 15, stands stiffly off to one side, her flowered dress covered partially by a dark overcoat. On the other side stands Robert, 13, his gaze wandering outside the frame, hands shoved inside his pockets. Next to him stands James, 12, dressed in coveralls, his arms at his side.

And between him and Mildred stands 6-year-old David, trying to squeeze his way into the picture, like any younger brother would. His eyes are cast downward, and he's holding his sister's hand.

Although he was absent much of the time, Ocie maintained a strong grip on his children, often deciding -- for no apparent reason -- to move them from one temporary "home" to another. Sometimes, they would live as wards of the state. At other times, they would stay with relatives, or with friendly strangers who would effectively become foster parents.

Robert and James grew to fear their father, Mr. Powell says. Mildred tried to go with the flow, secure in the knowledge that she would soon be old enough to make her own life.

In 1942, while living with Ocie's sister and brother-in-law near Highlands, Texas, the two older boys ran away. Both ended up lying about their ages so they could enlist in the armed forces during World War II.

Mildred moved in with a family in nearby Bullard, Texas. Although she would spend occasional periods at Corsicana, generally visiting on weekends, she was soon old enough to strike out on her own.

In 1944, she married Bill Green, a native Marylander and member of the Army Air Corps she had met at a post exchange near Biloxi, Miss. In late 1945, the couple moved to Lonaconing, in Western Maryland, where Mr. Green found work as a baker.

And what of young David? For years, he continued on the vagabond path Ocie had set for him. Leaving Corsicana, he spent a year living with a Texas couple who moved from house to house throughout east-central Texas -- and were ready to adopt him until their own marriage fell apart. He then spent 10 months in Memphis, Tenn., six months back at Corsicana, a few months with Ocie's sister in Highlands, Texas, a few months with a cousin in Romayor, Texas, then seven months with Mildred and her adoptive mother in Bullard, Texas.

Unexpectedly, Ocie made one last attempt to take control of David's life. Armed with an honorable discharge from the Navy, perhaps feeling that he was finally responsible enough to care for his youngest son, he took custody of David in April 1945 -- after not having seen him for seven years.

An April 26 wire sent by Ocie to Mildred reads, in the stunted

language often seen in telegrams, "David arrived OK have excellent place for him I thank you and dont fail to write to me."

But the result of Ocie's good intentions was a disaster. He was almost always drunk. Incapable of making a living, unable to stay in one place more than a few days at a time, he took his rage out on David, beating him frequently and neglecting him almost constantly.

"He was drinking all the time," Mr. Powell remembers. Pleasant ++ memories of that time, he says, have nothing to do with his father. Instead, he remembers the man at the Travelers Aid Society who handed him a few dollars, so he could go to the movies; the people who ran the various missions Ocie and he were forced to live in from day to day; the police officer who put him up for an evening when Ocie abandoned him.

"These are the people who gave me happiness, gave me a sense of mattering," Mr. Powell says. "But not my father."

By August, Ocie realized he'd made a mistake. David was returned to a state home, this time in Houston. From that day until he graduated from high school in 1953, David never saw his father.

Over the next several years, each of his siblings would approach officials at the DePelchin Faith Home and Children's Bureau in Houston to see if they might be able to adopt their brother. But none ever ventured beyond the talking stage -- Mildred, Mr. Powell suspects, had a hard-enough time making ends meet, while his brothers were too young and unsettled.

Young David knew none of this. All he knew was that, maybe for the first time in his life, he felt secure.

"David is getting along very well in Faith Home," caseworker Ruth K. Brown wrote to Mildred in September 1947. "He gets splendid grades in school and seems to like it. He is interested in singing and whistling and frequently performs for the rest of the children in the dining room. Last summer he went to our camp and had a very good time. He was a candidate for the best camper, so you can see the others think highly of him."

But contacts with his family were rare. Mildred would write occasionally. There was no contact with Robert. James stopped by in 1946, while he was in the Marines, and said he would be back the next day.

He never returned. Weeks later, he sent a letter explaining he knew it would be hard for the brothers to say goodbye. By saying he'd be back, goodbyes became unnecessary.

"That was really a heart-wrenching experience," Mr. Powell recalls. "I had been sitting there waiting for him."

But good times at DePelchin outnumbered the bad. And while there, young David honed a passion for the written word that would eventually turn into his livelihood.

"I don't recall an instance in school where I was taught reading, because I didn't need school to start reading," Mr. Powell remembers. "People always were astonished by how well I could read. They were always showing me off to friends who didn't know about this ability, bringing me around with a Bible and asking me to read the Bible to them."

Shortly after his 14th birthday, David was told by the home's executive director that he was too old to remain a ward of the state. The official was instrumental in having him accepted to the Allen Military Academy in Bryan, Texas. But David would have to work his way through school. Waiting tables in the academy dining hall, he earned enough to pay for his room and board and have $3 a day spending money.

"I didn't really like the life there," Mr. Powell says of the highly regimented military existence at Allen, "but I had very fine colleagues and I was very active. I got through those four years fairly happily."

His success and popularity at Allen were enough to have him named senior class president and valedictorian in 1953 -- an academic honor that earned him a full scholarship to the Texas state university of his choice.

He chose Baylor University and spent two years there before the restless nature that was his birth legacy got the better of him. Having grown "rather bored with things," Mr. Powell says, he volunteered for the draft and served two years in the Army infantry.

Honorably discharged in 1957, he enrolled in San Francisco State College, determined to both finish his education and re-establish a connection to his brother, James, who was living in the city with his family. David soon moved in with his brother, his wife, Hope, and their six children.

The arrangement didn't last, however -- "It was too crowded," Mr. Powell remembers -- and after a few weeks, David was out on his own, taking a full-time clerical job with the Bank of California while still attending school.

In 1958, David and James drove from San Francisco to a naval hospital in San Diego, where their older brother, Robert, was being treated for a service-related illness. It was the first time David had seen his brother since 1940, and the last time the three brothers would be together.

But David Powell's wanderlust was far from sated. Just one month short of graduation, he took a year off to travel east and spend some time with Mildred and her family.

In 1959, at age 24, David returned to San Francisco and finished his degree. But the rootlessness that Ocie had instilled in him did not let up: Over the next four years, David would teach in Texas, California and Virginia, as well as for a brief time at Severna Park Junior High School in Anne Arundel County.

By 1963, he was ready to sample yet another lifestyle. Heeding the call President John F. Kennedy had issued two years earlier, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Costa Rica, which Mr. Powell describes as "one of the most heavenly places in the world. I loved being there."

He found more than paradise in the Caribbean. He also found a wife, Maria. They married on July 7, 1964. His life took a new turn.

"I had had quite a number of one- and two-year jobs before that time," Mr. Powell remembers. But now, he needed something more permanent.

Returning to the States, he earned his M.A. in English from New Mexico Highlands University in 1966. Four years later, he was awarded a doctorate by Southern Illinois University and accepted a position on the humanities staff at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, N.M. In a personal record for longevity, David Powell would remain at the university for 21 years.

He was named a full professor and a department head. He wrote several reference works, including "The Wisdom of the Novel," a collection of passages from literature spanning 500 years, and "What Can I Write About?" which lists more than 7,000 potential topics for student writers.

But despite his success, one goal still eluded him, one accomplishment remained unrealized.

He still didn't know where his sister was.

The search for Sadie Lee began on New Year's Day 1955.

On break from Texas University, David drove to Maryland to visit Mildred -- the first time they'd seen each other in 10 years.

"She told me all about her life here in Maryland and also told me about our early life. It was at that time that the idea for the search began," Mr. Powell says. "It was only then that I really developed any real sense that I had a missing sister. I don't remember ever thinking of this other sister before that."

David promised to do what he could to find Sadie Lee. But it didn't take long for him to encounter the first in what has been 40 years of roadblock after roadblock.

"The first thing I remember doing," he says, "was to try and locate her through resoures available through the different vital statistics offices in Mississippi and Texas. I hadn't a clue how to ,, proceed, but I did look into it."

What he found were insurmountable gaps in his knowledge, gaps just as wide now as they were then. Neither his father, sister, brothers, aunts nor anyone else could remember the name of the young woman who had sat Sadie Lee on that porch nearly 18 years ago. Papers that would reveal who had adopted his sister were shielded by privacy laws.

But he never gave up looking. He tried using archives at the Texas State Capitol, but came up empty. He visited Mississippi and Texas, scouting out locations where his family had lived, worked and died. He wrote the Salvation Army, which tries to bring together families broken up by adoption. He signed on with several adoption registries, but found they specialized in bringing together adopted siblings looking for each other. Sadie Lee, apparently, was not looking.

He was told the Social Security Administration would forward letters to adopted siblings who could be located through its records. He sent a letter. Four months later, it came back unopened.

"I found nothing about Sadie Lee, [not even] the beginnings of facts about her," Mr. Powell says. "I lost heart very quickly over the years with each successive failure."

It was Mildred, he says, who kept him going.

"She kept her faith to the end that Sadie Lee could be found," he says. "She always felt it was a certainty that we would find her."

For several years, the search for Sadie Lee was put on hold. Then, two events prompted Mr. Powell to redouble his efforts: He lost his job, and his sister's health began to decline.

Mr. Powell and the administration at Western New Mexico University had been squabbling for years. He had even published an underground newspaper -- The Bewilderness Press filled with pointed jabs at the university's administration.

The final break came during a 1990 dispute involving inflated grades he felt the school was awarding some of its football players. The series of events that unfolded, and the tenacity with which Mr. Powell pursued an action he believed was right, hints at the singlemindedness that has sustained him during the 40-year search for Sadie Lee.

Mr. Powell had taken over a summer-term class one week before its end, after the regular teacher had left the university. He claimed, and continues to claim, the instructor had been threatened by football players and coaches. In court testimony, the instructor denied he had ever been threatened.

Based on what he insists were absences, test results and incomplete assignments recorded in the original professor's grade book, Mr. Powell handed several members of the school's football team a grade of incomplete. The school's acting vice president for academic affairs overruled him and awarded the players passing grades. After Mr. Powell took his case to the media, university officials ordered him to hand over the grade book. He refused, saying school officials could look at it, but only in the presence of his attorney.

The university's Board of Regents fired Mr. Powell for insubordination in June 1991. At the urging of school officials, he was charged with criminal libel. And he was sued in civil court for defamation.

Mr. Powell has spent much of the past 3 1/2 years before judges and juries. He was found guilty of libel, but the conviction was overturned. A jury ruled against him in the defamation suit, but awarded no damages.

Mr. Powell sued the university, claiming he had been fired simply for exercising his constitutional right of free speech. Last year, a jury awarded Mr. Powell $150,000, plus legal fees. He is now involved in litigation aimed at regaining his tenured professorship.

Without a job and without any prospects, he and his wife moved in with Mildred, by then a widow living in Cumberland. With plenty of time on his hands, and realizing his sister's health was deteriorating, he threw himself back into the search.

In 1992, convinced that he'd never find Sadie Lee through conventional methods, he began writing "Sadie Lee, Where Are You?" Maybe, he hoped, someone in Hollywood could put together a film detailing his plight. Or maybe a television show like "Unsolved Mysteries" could get the word out about his sister. Such extraordinary exposure, both he and Mildred were convinced, was the only way they'd be able to find her.

He had the book published last June. Because Mildred was practically blind from complications of diabetes, he had read the manuscript to her -- five times. She died June 5, convinced to the end that "Sadie Lee, Where Are You?" would reunite her family.

"In Mildred's last two years, when she saw the realization of something that would get her story out to the world, she was so delighted," Mr. Powell says. "Not just by the physical fact of the book, but by, as she saw it right to the end, the assurance that this would be the way of finding Sadie Lee."

Mr. Powell is not so sure. He's mailed copies of the book to every actor or actress he could think of who might be interested. He's contacted movie studios and talent agencies, television networks and talk-show hosts.

So far, he's received about 50 replies. No one has expressed interest in the project. Many entertainment figures have sent back the book unopened, saying they will not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Some have suggested he contact agencies that help family members separated by adoption find each other; none has suggested anything Mr. Powell hasn't already tried.

David Powell figures this is his last shot. He's tried all the conventional methods and always come up short. Unless someone picks up "Sadie Lee, Where Are You?" and decides to give his story greater exposure, he believes his sister will be lost to him forever.

Whatever happens, he knows he's done his best.

"I don't have a fever to complete the search," he says. "This is not to discount my love for Sadie Lee, but to say that I accept this is a mountainous task, maybe an impossible one. If no one listens to the story, if no one reads the story, if there's not a great audience for it, I'll never have an answer."


CHRIS KALTENBACH is a features writer for The Sun.

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