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Ottawa native seeks unknown father

Joel Fleming, of Monmouth, was born in Ottawa before his parents gave him up for adoption. Now nearing 60 years old, he is seeking his biological father. The photo in the background shows his children.
Joel Fleming, of Monmouth, was born in Ottawa before his parents gave him up for adoption. Now nearing 60 years old, he is seeking his biological father. The photo in the background shows his children.

Joel Fleming hopes someone in the Ottawa area will help him find his biological father.

“I’m curious. Nothing more. It would be very interesting to know if there’s some 80-year-old guy out there who is my biological father. It’s been on my to-do list. I’m going to be 60,” Fleming said.

Fleming, who lives in Monmouth, was born Oct. 15, 1958, in Ottawa, then given up for adoption 12 days later. His adoptive parents took him to Monmouth, where he has stayed, except for a 10-year stint in the Air Force.

Several years ago, Fleming and his wife Violet started trying to peel back the first layer of his life by obtaining adoption records, which ended up revealing his biological mother was Arlene Ham. However, his biological father was not named.

The Fleming couple next took a trip to Ottawa to see what further information they could dig up. Their stops included the La Salle County Genealogical Guild and Reddick Library. At the library, he saw his birth mother’s face for the first time — in the 1955 Ottawa High School yearbook.

According to her yearbook entry, Arlene played accordion, was in the dance, needlecraft and future nurses’ clubs and had a role in the senior play. Her nickname was Joe. After high school, Arlene worked in Ottawa at the Illinois Valley Dairy Bar ice cream shop and then the Western Union office. Her name vanishes from the city directory around the time she gave birth.

During his investigation, Fleming visited the grave of a Ham family member and was surprised to see the man, who had legal custody of him during adoption proceedings, was in the adjacent grave. That man was Wilbur Schiffbauer, who was a county probation officer.

“I thought that was strange they were buried next to each other. That made me think he was maybe a family friend,” Fleming said.

The lawyers involved in the adoption were Craig Armstrong, who was then a county prosecutor, and John A. McNamara, who lived in Marseilles and had an office in Ottawa’s Central Life Building.

McNamara, who died in 1970, has a place in local history: he defended Chester Weger in the 1961 Starved Rock murder trial. Armstrong passed away in 1996.

Even stranger than the Schiffbauer grave was that Fleming met the cemetery caretaker who knew the Ham family, which led Fleming to Arlene’s sisters, one of whom lived in Texas and the other in Washington state. He learned Arlene had last lived in a nursing home in Texas, but died in August 2014. Her married name was Osburn.

Arlene’s sisters were unable to shed any light on the biological father’s identity. Arlene’s two daughters, one in Oklahoma and the other in the Pacific Northwest, were also of no help.

Fleming’s last resort was to place advertisements several weeks ago in The Times, but there was no response.

Fleming recognized his effort has been a long shot, but nonetheless knows what he would say if he encountered the mystery man, if the man is still alive.

“I’m not afraid to meet him. I’d say, ‘Nice to meet you. If we don’t get along, no big deal for me, no big deal for you. If we get along, fine. I just wanted to find out. Mystery solved.’ ”

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