Lake Ann man finds birth family after lifelong search

Special to the Record-Eagle/Mike WillseyClockwise, Mike Willsey, of Lake Ann, poses for a first family photo with sister Katherine Seymour of Seaside, Oregon, birth mother Mary Elizabeth Baker, of Vancouver, Washington, and sister Karen Pederson, also of Vancouver.

LAKE ANN — Scripture and science — prayer and a microscope — became common threads in a newly-woven family quilt for a Lake Ann man.

Separated from his family at birth and after an exhaustive search, Mike Willsey was reunited with his natural family recently when he flew to Vancouver, Washington.

“I’m a man of strong spiritual faith and I know that this, in my heart, is a divine discovery,” said the 66-year-old retired charter captain and electronics technician.

“When you’re adopted (and an only child), there’s tons of mystery about where you came from. When you look nothing like the people you live with, you start asking questions about who you are and where you’re from. I think that’s human nature to be curious about your actual background.”

A few years ago Willsey posted information about his birth on Ancestry.com storyboard. In 2016 he completed an Ancestry DNA test to see if a search “could find any hints to my birth parents.”

When 30-year-old Morgan Follette of Seattle, Washington, completed a similar test about a year ago, a match was discovered. Follette’s mother, Karen Pederson, of Vancouver, Washington, was Willsey’s sister. To make matters more exciting, Willsey’s 86-year-old mother, Mary Elizabeth Baker, also of Vancouver, was still living.

“If Morgan wouldn’t have had a DNA test, none of this would have happened,” said Willsey. “This is a God-driven miracle in my world.”

Pederson, 63, was overwhelmed to introduce her new-found brother to their mother two weeks ago after Willsey flew to Vancouver for a week-long visit.

“I’ve been praying often for this to happen,” said Pederson. “I knew my brother had been put up for adoption (at birth), and I thought about him often. Mom had told me way back when I was a teenager that Mike existed and I would think of him whenever I read about other families’ similar stories (of being reunited).

“It’s amazing. I think (our reunion) was more emotional for him because he had been searching for so long, but it was so-o-o amazing.”

Born simply as “Baby Boy Baker” on Jan. 21, 1953 at the Veterans Hospital in Battle Creek, Willsey soon became the adopted son of Kenneth and Joy Willsey of Traverse City. His birth parents, both in the military, decided adoption for their son might be a better option.

“I understood a little about the reasons I was adopted out and it wasn’t anyone’s fault, or a serious issue,” he said. “I was not abandoned, (though) I tell my grandkids Grandma found me under a rock in a swamp.”

Willsey said he became driven to learn more about his birth family when he was 11 and in his backyard “doing something very bad.”

“When mom walked out on the back porch and pronounced my full name, ‘Stephen Michael Willsey, what are you doing?’ I had never heard the name Stephen until that day. Obviously it was a bit of a shock.

“She said, ‘We never told you,’ (and) she took me into Dad’s study, opened his desk and placed papers in front of me that showed me my adoption record and the birth certificate. That day I realized I didn’t look anything like my parents.”

Willsey said a few years later his adoptive father shared with him “some more details about my background, and the questions started growing in my head about my birth mom and dad.”

“I was told that my birth father was seriously injured in the Korean War and was sent back stateside to heal up and then was transferred to Alpena Army Airbase in Alpena. My birth mother was in the Women’s Army Corps as an admin specialist and met my birth dad. There is no mention of his name in any records of my birth. Nonetheless they met and here I am.”

When he turned 18, Willsey began “serious inquiries” as to how he might find out who his birth parents were.

“My searches went to county seats in Calhoun, Alpena and Grand Traverse counties looking for clues,” he said. “I got the repetitive answer: ‘The records are sealed,’ and ‘Unless you produce the birth mother’s Social Security number, we can’t tell you anything.’ I’m not easily convinced to give up on anything. I push and try to find answers. I searched for many years and chased leads I thought were correct. Again, same answer.”

As technology became more and more useful in matching people with their ancestors, Willsey’s search began to take direction.

In early 2018, Morgan Follette had a DNA test done by Ancestry and began a search for her birth dad and family. She had stayed in contact with her birth mother and was familiar with her birth family, minus the father.

“When her records made a direct link to me, we began conversing on Ancestry message boards,” Willsey said. “After some information was exchanged between us, I discovered the this lady was my niece and that my birth mother was living in Vancouver with my sister.”

Willsey said he cried with joy to the point that he had trouble breathing. He said he sat on the floor and began “talking to this person I’ve never met about my birth mother, 50 years after I started my search.”

“Within an hour of getting my breath back and calming down, I spoke to Mary Elizabeth Baker — my mom — on the phone, and my sister Karen (Pederson),” he said. “We exchanged information about me mostly and began the process of clearing paperwork from the State of Michigan to open the records for both our families to see.”

Finally, definitive proof came from Grand Traverse County Child and Family Court.

“Mary Baker is my birth mother,” said Willsey. “So, I made reservations to travel to Vancouver to visit with my sisters. I arrived in Vancouver on Jan. 15, and saw my birth mother for the first time in my life and met my sister Karen and her family. I also learned of another sister, Katherine Seymour of Seaside, Oregon, and a brother John Seymour of Hawaii, plus several nieces and nephews.

“What is so amazing is to find people who look like me. Karen and I are almost identical in many ways. Same hair — wait, mine’s gone — same eyes, nose, chin, ears, thinking process, and on and on. I was completely overwhelmed.”

Though Willsey didn’t plan it to be that way, his trip to visit his mother and sisters took place during his birthday. To his surprise, his family served him cake.

“The visit was very overwhelming,” said Willsey. “It was very emotional. I didn’t plan to be there for my birthday, it just worked out that way. My sister had a birthday party for me while I was there and invited the extended family to visit. They sang happy birthday to me and I couldn’t hold it together. I was a wreck.”

He said talking to his birth mother on the telephone, then meeting her in person “completed me.”

“(She) is very healthy,” he said. “No medications, vitamins only, (she) exercises daily around the house with her walker. No blood pressure issues — me either — perfect cholesterol, me too.”

When not searching the internet for his ancestors, Willsey enjoys golfing, fishing, hunting, shooting sports, swimming, off-roading and camping. He and his wife of 42 years, Becky, have two children and seven grandchildren, two of the latter which are adopted.