It's a seemingly heartbreaking backstory that could destroy so many of us.

A 5-year-old Region boy is taken to a Hammond orphanage by the only mother he has ever known.

It's the 1960s, and the social strain of raising a child who's half black and half white in a white Region household has become too much.

Jackie, as his birth family calls him, is left in the care of the Carmelite Home for Boys, formerly in Hammond.

Any memory of his birth family, for years, will fade into the fuzzy vagueness of a life left behind.

Such beginnings could have seeded Jackie's early years with an overwhelming feeling of abandonment. By expert accounts, children form so many emotional attachments in their early years, with many of the important bonds occurring well before the age of 5.

But in the heart of National Adoption Month, it's important to remember the great gift of love and opportunity that comes with the most difficult of decisions.

The backstory

In full disclosure, I've known Jackie for years.

Regular Times readers will know him by his work.

Now 64, Jackie grew into the man many of us know as John Watkins, a photographer here at The Times for the past 35 years.

I've worked with John for nearly 17 years and have gotten to know him on a personal level — as a friend.

John, of Merrillville, even provided advice as I began my own adoption journey some eight years ago.

That journey culminated in my wife and I welcoming daughter Izzy, now 7, into our family in 2012 and then our son Aidan, now 4, in 2015 — all through the great wonder that is adoption.

Izzy and Aidan are black, now being raised by white parents.

John was born to a white mother and black father and later raised by black parents.

Similar threads in our story lines have opened a dialogue between us over the years.

Like my children, John, this story's Jackie, was chosen by a loving birth family — not based on blood or skin color, but because of love.

'Little big-head boy'

John agreed to speak with me about his adoption story last week, and it carries lessons for all of us.

Though he doesn't know all of the circumstances that led to his birth mother leaving him in a Hammond orphanage, family members over the years have helped put some of the pieces together, John said.

The 1960s were some of the most racially charged years in our nation's history.

And John was a little boy with black skin living in a household with a white mother and two white older siblings. His birth father wasn't in the picture.

So in 1961, at the age of 5, John, then called Jackie, was left in the care of the Carmelite Home in Hammond.

Memories of the experience are indeed fuzzy these days, but John recalls occasionally being taken for haircuts at Twin City Barber College, a long-since shuttered facility in East Chicago.

"They took us there as guinea pigs," John told me last week, noting that students at the barbershop would provide “practice” haircuts on boys from the Carmelite facility.

A man named James ran the barber college, spotted John in the barber chair and took a liking to him.

"Little big-head boy — that's what he called me," John recalls of James.

James inquired about John with the nuns who ran the Carmelite facility. James also told his wife, Gladys, about the charming "little big-head boy."

Within the year — still 1961 — James and Gladys Watkins, of Gary, adopted John, putting him on a road to love and success.


John grew up immersed in the love of two parents who chose him as their own.

Their hard work would provide one of so many examples.

Gladys worked for a time as a beautician, James as a barber, whose Twin City Barber College would be featured in Ebony Magazine, and the whole family, for a time, ran a grocery business.

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James and Gladys had two older children, nearly grown to adulthood by the time of John's adoption, so John's childhood largely mirrored that of an only child.

Fortunes of a loving family were there, but curiosity of his origins always lingered, John recalled last week.

He had heard of three siblings — an older brother and two older sisters — who had been living in the same household in which he spent his first five years with his birth mother.

Into his teen and young adult years, John knew the identities of his brother and birth mother and would look up their names and addresses in a Region telephone directory from time to time, just to see if they still resided in the area.

He also would think about trying to connect with them.

But the fear of not being embraced by the family that left him at a Hammond orphanage — or worse yet, of upsetting the adoptive parents he loved so deeply — held him back.

"Sometimes, I would drive by the houses, not knowing what or who I might see," John recalled.

Still, he kept tabs on his birth mother's and brother's whereabouts over the years. That task became even more easy in the late 1990s, with the people-finding tools available on the internet.

In the late 2000s, John came across a Schererville listing for the home of his biological brother.

Years of burning curiosity prompted him to do more drives past the home, but he always avoided actually approaching the door.

That is until 2008, when a for-sale sign stood in the front yard of his brother's home.

"I thought, 'Man, he's selling the house and could be gone forever,'" John told me last week.

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It was enough to provide that final ounce of courage John had sought over the years. And he didn't even have to knock on the door.

He saw his brother working in the yard and approached and introduced himself.

"Hi, I'm Jackie," John said.

'Oh, thank God'

That reunion developed into other get-togethers.

By that time, John had three grown daughters, as did his brother.

They bonded over that and realized they had other things in common, too.

"It was 2008, and I remember seeing an Obama campaign sign in his yard and thinking, 'Oh, thank God!'" John chuckled.

"We all just melded together."

John ended up reuniting with one of his biological sisters as well and developing a dialogue.

There are times, though, when remorse over time lost sets in.

A few years following the reunion, John's brother died. John's birth mother died in 1996, leaving so many questions unanswered.

"I think about that a lot. What if I had just been able to knock sooner — to reach out to him earlier," John said. "There were so many years of brotherhood and fellowship lost."

'I was chosen'

But when reflecting on adoption and all it has meant to his life and story, John said he comes out ahead.

His mother, Gladys, died in 1998. James, the barber and then Dad, died six months later in 1999.

They both lived to see a son, who they chose as their own, attend college at Purdue and then work in a field that he loves.

"I was chosen," John told me last week. "That's the really strong thing about adoption. Parents choose you."

It's a fact that John literally found written in black and white a few years ago while taking photos for a story at the Carmelite Home, which is now located in East Chicago and still serving as a shelter for youth.

While on the photo assignment, John said he asked a nun at the facility about seeing records from the time he was the "little big-head boy" at the former Hammond location.

She produced a record book from the era, and there was John's name in the ledger. The last name of his birth was scratched out and the name “Watkins” written there instead, he recalled.

"I was chosen," John repeated.

Times Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/marc.chase.9 or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.