Lost brother

AJC videographer Ryon Horne
sets out to find the sibling
he never knew.

Outside the center for unwed mothers, Alan Horne – a black, 6-foot-2, 200-plus pound former offensive lineman on his high school football team — waited in the dark. The weather was typical for late March in Paterson, N.J. — cold with no sight of spring. And the hour was late.

Antonette, the product of a traditional Italian family whom everyone called Toni, was in her third trimester as she sneaked out the window and climbed into the car with the father of her unborn child.

With his barefoot girlfriend at his side, no plan at hand and very little money, Alan drove them to his older sister Darlene’s apartment nearby.

Where the hell you two going? she blurted.

Alan paced the apartment. He didn’t know what the cops might do if they caught him with Toni, but he was more frightened by the thought of losing his unborn son to adoption.

It was 1969, and Alan and Toni were teenagers set to become parents in a time when society forbade their union. Her family had made it clear she was not going to be the mother of a black kid.

While the two juggled ideas for their next step, Darlene cooked — she was good for fixing folks quick meals.

An hour passed and the young couple realized there was nothing to do but return Toni to the center. They had no other options so they convinced themselves her parents would come to their senses and everything would work itself out.

It didn’t.

Secret revealed

2

Secret revealed
When I was 15 years old, Aunt Darlene shared this tale of Dad’s first son. It seemed like some sort of myth because no one else ever mentioned a word of it in the family.

I had grown up one of three brothers. First born was Tyson, broad-shouldered and strong-willed. He is an artist, and we tried to emulate everything he did growing up — painting, rapping, photography.

Byron is the middle brother. He’s a visionary whose ideas are sometimes hard to grasp. As a teen, he carried around a frown that made him a little intimidating at times.

Then there’s me, the youngest, who looks nothing like my brothers because of my dark skin and curly hair. But despite our differences, we are a fiercely loyal team by blood and profession. Together we own an independent film company called the Horne Brothers: Byron is the producer, Tyson is the cinematographer and I’m the editor.

Whether it was in New Jersey where we were born or in south Florida where we later lived, life with my two brothers was always exciting. Our days were filled with fights, pranks and creative endeavors, like the time when I was 5 and Tyson and Byron scared me senseless by dressing up like vampires and turning my room into a horror movie set.

The thought of there being another Horne brother preyed on my imagination.

When I told Tyson and Byron about Dad’s other son, they didn’t believe me and I left it alone for 20 years.

But on Christmas night 2013, I was driving home in Atlanta from my mother-in-law’s house when I made my annual holiday phone call to Dad. It was late and I was certain it would be a quick conversation. He was catching me up on the latest in the family down in Florida when something clicked in my mind. It took all the courage I could muster, but I finally asked Dad about his first son.

His voice cracked a little as he told me the story and how devastating it was not being able to care for his firstborn, not knowing what kind of man he turned out to be. He said the experience changed his life. He lost confidence in the government and he thought of his firstborn every day, hoping to find him one day.

He’d run into Toni years later in Fort Myers, Fla., but she’d had no connection with their child. He didn’t know where to start looking, but he’d made his Facebook profile public in hopes his son would someday find him.

My heart broke as I listened to him. I couldn’t imagine someone taking any of my four children away. I realized Dad had been mourning the loss of his child for more than 40 years.

“Dad, you want me and the guys to find him?” I asked.

“I would love that, son.”

I decided I would make this dream come true for him, and I thought I had all the time in the world to do it.

But four weeks later, Dad had a stroke and died in his sleep.

Saying goodbye

Tyson's son Uriah Horne (from left), Ryon Horne, video producer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Alan Horne, Byron Horne and Tyson Horne.

3

Saying goodbye
Whenever my brothers and I are together, we’re either arguing, laughing or working on a project.

But on this day, we were crying.

The sun seemed to shine a little harder on the day of Dad’s funeral. There were about 25 of us waiting outside the home he shared with our stepmother, Linda.

The limo driver was late, but no one seemed eager to get to the Thirty-fourth Street Church of God, where the funeral was being held and where Dad had led the men’s ministry for several years.

He’d always served others one way or another. Before he died, he was a counselor at a center for teenage addicts and had recently earned his bachelor’s degree at age 64 so he could teach. He also spent countless hours at the bedsides of elders who were ill. The night he died he was in Baltimore, where he’d gone to visit his godmother in a hospice.

Dad had been the patriarch of the family, and it was evident Tyson was prepared to take on the role now that Dad was gone. He was antsy, pacing around the house and checking on everyone, as if this was his first big test as the family’s new leader. He’d always taken the “big brother” thing a little too seriously.

Byron kept to himself as we prepared to leave the house, occasionally raising a small camera to record the action. “You better not turn that camera on when we get to the church,” an aunt warned him. It was the kind of threat we were accustomed to as kids, and it was usually followed by a swift swat upside our heads.

Dad wouldn’t have minded us documenting the day of his funeral. In fact, he was always a little zealous about our achievements.

At the 2011 Atlanta Film Festival, my brothers and I premiered our first feature documentary, “The Start of Dreams,” about kids using acting as a way to learn with Broadway director Kenny Leon. Mayor Kasim Reed introduced the film to a packed crowd, including comedian Chris Tucker and actress Jasmine Guy. Dad was there too, sitting next to his wife, Linda, and his first wife, our mother Monica. As lovely as the ladies were, it was my dad who stood out, thanks to the bright red suit he wore for the occasion.

We’ve often joked since then about how Dad showed up at our first red carpet event wearing the red carpet.

The limo finally arrived to take us to the funeral. Byron turned on his camera as the family formed a circle in the driveway and Tyson said a prayer before we headed to the church.

After the funeral, we returned to the house and the three of us sat on the back porch where we used to hang out as kids. It was hard to believe Dad wasn’t there with us grilling his famous garlic burgers.

“We need to find a way to honor Dad,” Byron said as he gazed at the funeral program with our father’s picture on the cover.

I knew how.

“Let’s find our brother.”

A dead end

4

A dead end
We started by searching Dad’s home office and reading his journals in which he recounted the highs and lows of his childhood. When he was 5, his parents lost everything in a house fire. They moved to the Alabama Projects in Paterson and soon after, his father left his mother with three kids. She had to work three jobs to take care of the family. While attending Eastside High School — the same school featured in the Hollywood film “Lean on Me” — he met Toni, and they dated for over a year.

“That’s when my first son John Alan Savistino was born and I never got to see him,” he wrote.

It’s a simple statement for such a devastating event. The absence of details seemed to speak to his stoic nature, but it was clear there was void in his life and now it had been passed on to his boys.

Our logic was that if we could find Toni, we would find our brother. Byron signed up on high-school, ancestry and genealogy websites, and he plugged in different variations on the spelling of Toni’s and John Alan’s names. Before long, her name popped up and he traced it to her daughter’s Facebook page that contained a photo of the two women together. He sent it to our aunts for identification and they both agreed it was Toni. From there he tracked down her phone number.

I felt a lump in my throat as I dialed the number. I didn’t know what I would say. How do you ask a person whether or not she’s the mother of my brother? Sounds ridiculous.

A woman answered the phone and, fumbling over my words, I began my pitch that ended with: “Did you happen to know or have a relationship with Alan Horne in the late ’60s in Paterson, N.J.?”

“No, I’m sorry I don’t know Alan Horne,” she said and hung up the phone.

I suspected she was lying and had closed that door forever.

'I lost my son'

Alan Horne (left), in his high school senior photo, and his first-born son.

5

‘I lost my son’
According to Aunt Darlene, Toni’s parents were a traditional Italian family. They were hard working and kept to themselves. When Toni got pregnant, her parents were determined to keep the couple apart and put the baby up for adoption.

Before Toni started showing, her parents put her in a home for unwed mothers south of Paterson. Darlene said Toni would escape any chance she could, sneaking out late at night, climbing out of windows.

When she gave birth, Dad wasn’t allowed to see her or the baby. He went to the adoption agency and petitioned for custody. His mother was unable to take the child because she was hospitalized at the time, so Dad asked Darlene for help.

She signed papers agreeing to take the baby. She worked as a flight attendant for Eastern Air Lines, had a stable home and she was family. But because she was single, she was denied custody.

Still, Dad continued to fight for his son. The agency told him to get a job to prove he was capable of providing for a child and to come back in a year. So he quit college and went to work at the city gas company. A year passed and Dad returned to the agency to claim his son, but he was told his child already had been adopted. It was too late.

Dad showed up at Aunt Darlene’s doorstep sobbing uncontrollably that day.

I lost my son, he’s gone, he wailed. I’m never going see him.

He was never the same after that, Aunt Darlene said. He wasn’t the optimistic, happy guy everyone knew him to be. This was the early ’70s, and the country’s racial tensions were still simmering. Dad felt he was denied the right to be a parent because he was black. It didn’t stop him from being attracted to white women, though. He soon met our mother, Monica, and created three more boys, Tyson, Byron and myself.

He wasn’t a father without flaw, however. Show me one who is.

My parents separated when I was 6 years old and divorced five years later. For a long time I resented Dad for leaving our mother to raise us by herself, something he resented his own father for doing. After the divorce I only saw Dad during summer breaks, and we barely spoke throughout the rest of the year.

Every time I asked him for help, it seemed to me he had an excuse for why he couldn’t deliver.

Things eventually changed, thanks to my wife Latrisha. As a young couple she and I went through a pretty rough patch, and she asked my dad to intervene.

Ryon, don’t make the mistakes me and your mother made. Take care of your family, he said to me.

I learned then that I needed my father more as a grown man than I had as a kid.

That Christmas night when I talked to Dad about his first son, I asked if losing that child had affected his relationship with my brothers and me.

“I believe it did,” he said. “I was too young to handle something that traumatic and didn’t rely on the one thing that could have gotten me through it — God.”

But later in life he worked hard to be there for us. His devotion to his 10 grandchildren was his way of righting wrongs.

6

I found him
The first anniversary of Dad’s death was approaching, and I was on Facebook practicing my monthly ritual of looking at old pictures of him and reading old posts. That’s when I came across a group page for his high school class. On it was a post about Dad with nearly 40 comments describing how great a football player he was, how nice he was, how handsome.

I joined the page thinking someone might have information about Toni. Five minutes later, page administrator Linda Cantanzariti accepted my friend request and I began quizzing her about Dad.
“Big Al was one of the good guys,” Linda wrote. “(He) always had a huge smile on his face.”

I asked about Toni.

“I remember her well,” Linda wrote. “Toni’s real name was Antonette Savastano.”

My heart started beating faster and my hands shook a little as I tried to find the keys to type my next question.

“So I’m sure you know why I asked specifically about her.”

“Yes, indeed I do,” Linda replied.

We continued our Facebook conversation for three hours that night. As it turned out, Linda was a genealogist who helped connect adoptees with their birth parents. She offered to dig around in the morning to see if she could track down Toni or the child.

Although it was midnight, I couldn’t sleep. For so long we had been searching for “Savistino.” Either Dad had the wrong name, or we misinterpreted his handwriting. I finally had the correct spelling of Toni’s last name and wanted to see what I could find.

Google Search: John Alan SAVASTANO.

I nearly fell out of my seat when I saw the first link: a 2005 post on ancestry.com by the user Kathleen Hammel.

“Looking for information regarding birth parents of Alan John Savastano born July 10, 1969 Paterson, NJ.”

I’d found him.

Good news, bad news

Alan Marco Birkhimer with his adoptive mother Kathleen Hammel.

7

Good news, bad news
Linda contacted me the next day. She’d learned that Toni had moved to Fort Myers, Fla. She’d married twice and was a mother and grandmother. She’d died in 2004.

Another brick wall.

I felt bad thinking that woman I’d spoken to earlier in our search was lying. And I told Linda about the post I’d found the night before on ancestry.com. She said she would look into it. About an hour and a half later, she sent me an email.

“Ryon please call me ASAP!!!”

Those nerves returned — the kind where my heart begins to race as if I am preparing to walk the red carpet again. I was happy but petrified. She’d found him, I thought. I began to rehearse my questions.

Over the last year, I’d played out our first meeting in my mind. I’d imagined the four of us brothers sitting and talking for hours while I searched his mannerisms for echoes of our Dad — the tone of his voice, his good looks or the intense way he stared when listening to others speak. Maybe he’s an artist, I thought. We could bring him into the business, although that would mean changing our corporate logo, which shows three kids horsing around between the letters H and B. But so what!

Then it hit me. I was going to have to break the news of Dad’s death to him. He’d probably been searching for Dad all his life and now he was about to find out the unpleasant truth.

“Ryon, I have some good news and bad news,” Linda said when she answered the phone.

“Kathy Hammel is your brother’s adoptive mother.”

I grinned and fist pumped in victory.

“The bad news is, your brother died in 1993.”

I stood silent for what seemed like a lifetime. My eyes started to swell.

When I told Byron the news, he said, “We still need to know who our brother was.”

8

Questions answered
His birth name was Alan John Savastano. When he was adopted, his name was changed to Alan Marco Birkhimer.

Everyone called him Marco.

For the first year of his life, Marco lived in three foster homes. He was 1 year old when Kathy and her husband adopted him. He was a good baby, she said. Judging from his photographs, he resembled all three brothers at various stages of his life. As a baby he had loose curly hair and a bronze skin, much like mine. He had broad shoulders, similar to Tyson, and he had dark eyes with thick eyebrows like Byron. In his smile we could see Dad.

He was athletic in high school, favoring soccer until he suffered a knee injury. Kathy never told him he was adopted, but he noticed from an early age that he didn’t resemble his white family. It wasn’t until he was a freshman at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia — where he studied liberal arts and wrote for the school newspaper — that he asked about our dad. He didn’t push it though.

In his sophomore year, Marco’s adoptive father died during surgery for lung cancer. Marco did not take it well. He dropped out of college in his junior year, moved back home and got a construction job.

One Tuesday night in October 1993, after drinking at a party, Marco accepted a dare to imitate a dangerous stunt from the movie “The Program” by sitting in traffic and trusting the cars would avoid hitting him. Marco was struck by two cars, according to news accounts, and he died at age 24.

I spoke at length over the phone with Marco’s adoptive mother, Kathy, who vividly described her son, my brother, in a voice that sounded like a woman who had lost her son recently, not 22 years ago. It dawned on me as we spoke that Marco died the same year Aunt Darlene told me about his birth.

After about 20 minutes, I began to ask the questions Dad would have asked.

Did he love God?

“Marco was very serious about his religion. He took everything he learned as black and white, either it was true or not. (God) was an absolute with him,” Kathy said.

Did he treat people right?

Marco was a very open, loving kind of person,” she said.
I asked Kathy if she would be willing to meet with us; she wanted a little time to think about it. But I texted my brothers and told them we were taking a trip to New Jersey.

Paying respects

9

Paying respects
In late April, we piled in a rental car and drove 13 hours from Atlanta to the southern tip of New Jersey to pay our respects to Marco.

The journey was mixed with enough emotions to fill a full-length film. As always we argued and we laughed and we mounted three small GoPro cameras in the car to document our conversations, that ranged from memories of Dad to stories about our children.

Tyson performed his best Jersey accent as he acted out an impromptu scene about three men coming home to avenge their brother’s death.

And we talked about Marco — the way he resembled us and his way with the ladies. We got a kick out Kathy’s story about Marco attending two high school proms with two different girls.

We arrived in the small town of Crosswicks, N.J., around 5 p.m. and called Kathy.

“We just want you to know you have three extended sons,” Tyson said. “This is coming from a place of love.”

She expressed gratitude for our interest in her son, but she couldn’t be persuaded to meet us. She did, however, tell us where we could find Marco’s grave.

Our destination was the Chesterfield Township Historical Society, a small brick building with two large windows flanking the front doors. Behind it was a small cemetery. As we walked toward the back of the building, it started to rain. Stepping over a small chain barrier, we quickly found Marco’s burial site.

The three of us stood in silence for a couple of minutes, looking at his name, making it all feel real. Reluctantly I pressed the record button on my video camera to capture the moment. Tyson, our newly minted patriarch, struggled to find the right words.

“It’s not the closure we wanted,” he said, and then paused. “I feel good about the fact that we found him, but it’s not a happy ending. It’s just not a happy ending.”

It felt like a funeral for the brother we never knew.

We laid down a bouquet of tulips and said a prayer, then Tyson and Byron made their way back to the car while I lingered for a moment.

When I stepped up to Marco’s grave, I fell to my knees and tears began to fall. I’m not sure if they were tears of happiness for having finally found our fourth brother or tears of sorrow over the loss of never having known him. I guess I’ll never know for sure. But I am firm in the belief that Dad, Toni and Marco were united in heaven — and what better place to meet?

Behind the story

ABOUT THE REPORTER

Ryon Horne is an award-winning filmmaker and video journalist. He joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 15 years ago and has been the company’s video and audio producer for eight years, covering breaking news, entertainment, sports and features.


HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Ryon Horne is one of the many people who work behind the scenes on Personal Journeys each week. He often mans the camera or edits footage for the videos that accompany the feature every Sunday. When he approached me with an idea for his own Personal Journey, he was still in the middle of it and didn’t yet know how it would end. But as a dedicated journalist and filmmaker, he knew a good story when he saw it and he was dedicated to telling it, no matter the conclusion. The result is a moving story about family and brotherly love that transcends all odds.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


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