Gratitude For The Man With No Name
by Joni Hilton

I never met the man, but you could say I owe him my life. He was a football player at Arizona State University in the mid-1950s. Maybe you know him.

He attended class with a bouncy, popular brunette– you could call girls by their hair color in those days– named Judy. The two became casual friends, and Judy noticed an interesting trait in this young man: He didn’t laugh at off-color jokes. He came from an unusually strong and loving family, and seemed to hold himself to a higher standard than the other students.

Judy transferred to Whittier College in southern California, where she met another young man, a school officer, a physics and chemistry major headed for the Rand Think Tank, and a fellow who would go on to play professional football. Swept off her feet, Judy began dating him exclusively. And then, one winter night before Christmas, Judy made a mistake she would regret for the rest of her life. A few weeks later, she learned she was pregnant.

So many emotions ricochet through the hearts of unwed mothers– why me? What will this do to my family? Shall I put the baby up for adoption? Should I marry the father? What of my future? Have I ruined everything? Anger, hurt, shame, sorrow– everything except joy fills the hearts of such young girls.

But she summoned her courage, and used her head, thinking of the best option for her unborn baby. Wearing a skirt and blouse with her hair combed into a sweet ponytail, she walked boldly into the San Diego County adoption agency and signed adoption papers. And then, where the form left a blank for special requests, she wrote in what she had been thinking about for months: She asked that her baby be placed in a Mormon home. She was not herself LDS, but she remembered that her friend from Arizona was, and thought maybe his religion explained his outstanding character. She hoped her child would have as good an upbringing.

That one, simple choice, as the saying goes, “has made all the difference.” I was that unborn baby. If not for the example of that anonymous athlete 45 years ago, I might never have had the extraordinary blessing of being raised in the gospel. I might never have found it! My entire destiny was shaped by the quiet strength of a Mormon college boy, who would now be a man in his late sixties, a fellow who probably doesn’t even remember Judy or the indelible impression he made on her. Thanks to his unwavering example, I was adopted by LDS parents, and raised in the restored church of Jesus Christ.

A few years ago, my curiosity got the best of me, and I found Judy. I never told my parents, because when my sister’s biological mother had approached them years previously, they had bristled at her request to meet them, refusing to respond. My sister had died in a car accident, but even had she been living, my mother in particular, could not have dealt with this “other mother.” I could sense that it would cause hurt to bring up the subject. But now that my father is deceased, and my mother is disabled with Alzheimer’s, I can finally share my secret.

And I don’t think most adoptees who search out their genetic past, are looking for actual parental relationships. I love my parents and that’s who I’m sealed to, period. They raised me, they’re my mom and dad forever. Theirs is the genealogy I trace, and the family reunions where I share a history with my relatives. But finding my birth parents filled in a lot of blanks about inherited traits and health issues that everyone else just grows up knowing.

A few years after I found her, Judy died of a rare form of primary liver cancer. She had not become a mother to me, but she had become my friend. I will forever be indebted to her for making the brave choice she made, and turning a mistake into an act of heroism. And today, I have a close friendship with the father, though I had to find him on my own, as Judy wouldn’t tell me his name.

Nor would she reveal the secret football player from Arizona State, whose adherence to gospel teachings is why I was grateful this Thanksgiving. Like all school kids who set a good example, he will never know where the ripples of his influence will end. Certainly his actions made the difference for my own life, my husband’s and my children’s lives.

Today I tell my kids, “You never know who will think back about you, when they’re standing at a crossroads in life. You can be a savior on Mount Zion, just by being a good LDS kid. It’s honestly that simple.”

So wherever he is this holiday season, I’d like to give my nameless hero a standing ovation from a heart full of gratitude. And if you think you might know him, give him a hug from me. And by the way, if you are he, and you remember Judy, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks.

2003 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.