A FAMILY REUNITED

Family reunion stories used to make Paula Bagnell cry. Family dinners meant sitting and listening to her husband’s relatives talk about their old times. That’s not so any longer.Bagnell was adopted in infancy. After a 20-year search she has located her biological mother, along with four siblings and an extended family of more than 65 who have welcomed her with open hearts and open arms. “I realize birth-family reunions don’t always turn out the way mine did.” Paula said. “I’ve been watching and reading stories about them my whole life.”
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Paula was born at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., in 1962. Adopted at age 1 by Keith and Helen Johnson, her parents divorced when she was 5. Paula grew up in Holdrege.Keith Johnson died when Paula was 18.“I had lived with my dad during my senior year, and he was starting to tell me little things,” Paula said. “He said my biological father was in the military. But back in 1962 there were no open adoptions so adoptive parents were not told much. Everything was signed, sealed and shut up forever.”Not forever.“After my adoptive dad died, I heard a story about reunions,” Paula said. “I told my mother I wanted to find my biological family.” Her adoptive mother was resistant to the idea, and Paula promised her she would not try to find her biological family.“I didn’t want to upset her.” After a turbulent childhood and rebellious adolescence, Paula joined the U.S. Army in 1989.“By the time I graduated from basic training I was a totally different person,” Paula said. “I had been a fighter and pretty wild. When the young nurse found herself stationed at Fitzsimons, she took it as an omen to begin searching for her biological family.Adoption records in Colorado are sealed and after running into brick walls, Paula’s search was put on a back burner. She married and had two children. She and her husband Jim moved to North Platte 12 years ago.She has had a good life: A happy marriage, two great kids and a fulfilling career.In 1996, Paula was hospitalized with heart problems and suddenly her wish to find her biological family became a search for medical information.“All I knew was that one parent had to have been military since I was born at Fitzsimons,” she said. She registered with adoption search groups, wrote letters asking for information and hired a private detective, but without her birth records she got nowhere.After finally seeing her adoption papers, she learned she was adopted in Brighton, Colo. She petitioned the court to release her records.“I had one chance,” she said. “If that judge said no, I wouldn’t get another chance.”Paula prepared for her day in court, practicing her speech before the judge.“When the judge said, ‘Tell me, Paula Johnson Bagnell why I should release your records,’ I started crying and couldn’t speak,” Paula said. “He said, ‘OK, I’ll release them.’ The only words I said in court were ‘Thank you, I have been waiting my whole life for this.’”Paula hired a confidential intermediary who began searching for Paula’s biological parents.Confusion over Paula’s name slowed the search. “My parents had told me my name was Pauline Williams when they adopted me,” Paula said. Her adoption records gave her name as Patricia Lawrence. Then one day in 2005 the call she had been waiting for finally came.“I found your father.”Bennie “Butch” L. Montoya Jr. had grown up in New Mexico, joined the Marines and was stationed in Hawaii. While at Camp Smith, above Pearl Harbor, Bennie had training drills on a small parade ground in front of the Office of the Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief. A young female Marine named Patricia Gonder watched from the windows of the admiral’s conference room.In a telephone conversation from a gold field in Arizona, Pat tells her story.“Bennie chased me until he got me,” Pat said. “He was very handsome with dark wavy hair and green eyes. Watching him from the window was captivating. In a Hawaiian setting, beach parties and romance, love was close by.”When Pat became pregnant the young couple talked to the base chaplain. “The chaplain said Bennie didn’t want to get married,” Pat said. “I knew I would not force him, it could have only been a miserable existence.“I think the Marine Corps started my discharge paperwork before I left the doctor’s office,” Pat said. Pat returned to the states and Bennie went to Vietnam. Only Pat’s sister knew of the pregnancy.“In 1962 a woman with an illegitimate child had a helluva time,” Pat said. “I was very young and had nothing, so the decision to put Paula up for adoption was the right thing to do.”Bennie Montoya died in 1986 at the age of 44.In October 2005, Paula received another call from the adoption intermediary.“You have four brothers and sisters.”Before Paula could contact any of her father’s family, they had to sign release forms giving the intermediary permission to give Paula information.When Leticia Bonifas received a call from someone asking if she was one of the children of Bennie Montoya, it confirmed something she had known for years. She had a sister.“My sister Diana and I talked about it years ago,” Leticia said. “When the call came and said you have another sister, I said, ‘We know that, where is she? We want to go get her.’”It can be argued that there is no such thing as coincidence. Leticia and her husband live in Lexington, 65 miles from Paula. Their children had played softball against each other and they have sat in the same bleachers, not realizing the connection.The four children of Bennie and Barb Montoya immediately accepted Paula as one of their own.“It’s not forced,” Leticia said. “She just fits. This is not something we have to do to honor our daddy. Now her being in our lives is like she was never gone. When we took her home to see our family, it was like we were finally complete.”Paula traveled to New Mexico to meet her grandmother, Ida Montoya. “When I first walked in, there were 58 people crammed in the house, all crying and hugging,” Paula said. Leticia said all of her family is thankful for Paula.“I listened to her story and saw how she lived and I am so thankful to God,” Leticia said.Paula admits life with her adoptive parents wasn’t easy.“My mother is one of the toughest people I know,” Paula said. “She wasn’t afraid of anything. I don’t know why she blew up when I first talked about finding my biological family. But I did grow up feeling special being adopted. I was always told ‘we picked you.’ “If I had grown up in a nice prissy house I would have waited for something to drop in my lap,” Paula said. “I’m tough, too.“I thank God for allowing me to finally find my family. When I start feeling sorry for myself that I missed out on so much, or didn’t find my family sooner, I have to stop and remember it all happens in God’s time, not mine. His timing is perfect.”Paula’s mother, Pat Lazzarotto, isn’t surprised Paula found her family.“I thought a lot about her over the years and remember thinking if she was like me she would figure out how to get through the barriers and find me. When the call came, I wasn’t shocked. She’s strong and an independent thinker. Like mother, like daughter.”

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