Tag Archives: Dunn

What do you do when you find hundreds of living relatives Part 2

It was Friday evening about 8:30 pm. Karen and I pulled into my sister’s driveway in Cortland, New York. She greeted us warmly with hugs and kisses, but I kept looking over her shoulder to get a look at the woman I came here to see. Apparently having nodded off after her long flight from Alabama, Aunt Cissy looked perfectly comfortable but not so much that I wasn’t willing to go over and wake her up!

By this time, my brother-in-law, Ray, had come out of the house to watch the big event. Karen and I walked slowly toward Aunt Cissy followed by Diane and Ray as he came down the steps to the back yard. Aunt Cissy wasn’t really sleeping.  She was hoping to give me a bit of a scare. It worked! She leaped up in a big “Surprise!” moment…

Diane Robison Lillie - Cissy Robison Hunter - Dave Robison

Diane Robison Lillie – Cissy Robison Hunter – Dave Robison

When I finally got my arms around her, I said to everyone that I felt as though I was hugging Aunt Cissy, my grandfather Cecil Lee Robison, his parents Erskin and Linnie Otto Peace Robison, their parents Samuel and Mary Hardin Robison, their parents Green Coleman and Eliza Ann Francis Rochelle Robinson and lastly, Green’s parents, Hezekiah and Tabitha Grantham Robinson. Hezekiah’s father might have been Jonathan Robertson a mid-1700’s Scots-Irish immigrant. But that, so far, has yet to be proven. What a crew!

 

My aunt is the daughter of my paternal grandfather and his second wife. That means she is my half-aunt. But that’s just a technicality. To Diane and me, she is a full-fledged aunt!

Cissy was no disappointment! She came loaded with stories, photographs and documents along with her excitement and genuine happiness over finally getting to meet Diane and me. She also brought 2 crocheted Christmas decorations, hand-made 5 X 12 wall hangings that have the word “NOEL” set crocheted into them.

Onto to Cissy’s story, blended with what I know based on the few stories I heard as a child or more recent genealogical research.

Cissy knew my father, Henry Dunn, but he was at least 15 years her senior. By the time she was born, Henry was living back in Evergreen with his mother, Mary Virginia, and his overbearing grandmother, Gilma Robertson Dunn. Gilma was widowed in 1918 when her highly successful businessman husband, Henry Wright Dunn, was driving out of town and heading up the hill on his way to pick up a nurse he had hired to work in his household. His car stalled on the hill and he rolled backwards and into the oncoming L&N train heading through town. He died 2 days later and his gravestone is marked, “Death Loves a Shining Star.” He had been a Ford and Buick dealer (a mega dealer in the early 20th century!), a hardware dealer and the owner of extensive rental properties in and around Evergreen. These stories I had learned through my own research, trips to Alabama, newspaper articles, cemetery visits, vital records and other family records that were made available to me. Henry Dunn had traveled up to Anniston from time to time to visit his father and step-mother. The visits were very short and long on antipathy.

Gilma Robertson Dunn  (1873-1954)

Gilma Robertson Dunn (1873-1954)

Back in Evergreen, Gilma had long ago managed to have my father’s birth records destroyed as she was no fan of the man her daughter had married and it seemed as though she didn’t want Cecil’s name to be associated with her grandson, Henry Dunn. Perhaps she was hoping to marry off her daughter to another man and have that man adopt Henry. Whatever the motivation, this turned out to have been a convenient decision on her part for her own nefarious purposes. Not only was Henry Dunn sent from one aunt and uncle to another, he was sent off to a boarding school in Mississippi, back to his father in Anniston and wherever else they could put him. Amazingly, the 1930 US Population Schedule shows 5-year-old

Henry’s parents, Cecil Lee and Mary Virginia, living on one side of town while Henry was in the household of 3 single African-American domestics on the other side of town. Fast forward to December 7th 1941. My grandparents were divorced with Cecil remarried and Mary living in Evergreen either alone or with my father whenever that was convenient for the family. But what were they to do with 15-year-old Henry? To Gilma, that was easy. She had a son who was a Lieutenant Commander in the Army Air Corps. Gilma had the connections to obtain an affidavit claiming the Henry was 2 years older than he really was. Voila, “17-year-old” Henry Dunn Robison joined the US Navy, enlisting in early January of 1942, 4 weeks after the Japanese attack.

 

Aunt Cissy knew my father. She was frightened by him given his age and height. He was over 6 feet tall, even as a teenager. He was also a much different person than Cissy’s 4 brothers. The dynamic in that household was far different than anything that my father ever experienced. So I can only imagine how “pleasant” Henry Dunn’s infrequent visits to his father and step-mother would have been.

 

My grandfather, Cecil Lee Robison, and his 7 siblings. Cecil Lee is in the upper right  hand corner.

My grandfather, Cecil Lee Robison, and his 7 siblings. Cecil Lee is in the upper right hand corner.

Henry Dunn’s father, Cecil Lee Robison, was also a tall man. He was a successful businessman in Evergreen working as an accountant and had been a deacon of his church. In other words, a well-respected citizen of his community. However, his home life was less than the typical 1940’s or 1950’s home life. His relationship with his family was not particularly warm and cozy. However, he was a loyal and faithful father and husband who, along with Hilda Mae, his wife, raised 5 children who were respected in their own right: a mayor, a teacher, a State Fire Marshall,

an independent business owner, an early DNA researcher… All quite successful.

There are quite a few more details I’d like to share. I’m sure you’ll want to hear about Uncle Michael, the early 1960’s DNA researcher at Duke University.

So as much as I’ve tried to put this whole amazing story into 2 parts, I’ve got to stretch it out with at least one more installment and maybe two.

Stay tuned!

 

What do you do when you find hundreds of living relatives? Part 1

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood. That is, I don’t want you to think my parents and each of their families were a bit dysfunctional. I’m here to confirm that “dysfunctional” is not only an appropriate characterization but also quite accurate. However, I would like you to keep in mind that my sister and I are thoroughly, absolutely and convincingly normal. Of course we are!

I’ll be writing a few posts to explain a few things and bring everyone up to date. This will be the first in a series of who knows how many posts, at least until I feel that I’ve bored everyone to tears…

Henry Dunn Robison WW II in Puerto Rico, 1944

Henry Dunn Robison World War II in Puerto Rico

Let me start by saying that both Henry Dunn Robison, my father, and Beatrice Agatha (Dickson) Robison, my mother, took the position that “What you don’t know won’t hurt you!” In hindsight, I can understand why they would have that attitude. I don’t agree with how they handled this aspect of raising my sister and I, I just understand it.

 

Cecil Lee Robison

Cecil Lee Robison

I’d like to first talk about my paternal grandfather, Cecil Lee Robison. That’s about all I knew about him. His name, that is. Well, to be honest, I also knew that he lived in Alabama and was a CPA. This picture was cropped out of a group picture that included all of his siblings. My father would call him every Christmas but was only on the phone for a couple of minutes. It was an annual ritual. It was also a bizarre ritual!  Cecil had divorced my grandmother in the early 30’s and remarried. I suppose I should talk about that a bit.

My father’s mother was Mary Virginia (Dunn) Robison. We knew her pretty well because although she was born and raised in Alabama, married Cecil in Alabama and gave birth to my father in Alabama, after the divorce

Mary Virginia Dunn Robison

Mary Virginia Dunn Robison

she found her way to Massachusetts as a Practical Nurse” and lived with us in the mid to late 50’s until she was hospitalized.  Based on interviews I’ve since had with a few of my “new” relatives, it seems that Mary Virginia’s mother, Gilma (Robertson) Dunn, didn’t approve of her daughter’s marriage and went about sabotaging it. At least that’s my current thinking. First, the family story was that Miss Gilma, an upper middle class widow, had my father’s birth record destroyed. Even today, all I can get from the Alabama Department of Health is a letter stating that they have no record of the birth of Henry Dunn Robison. So, Gilma claimed that my father was actually 2 years older than he really was in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. That put 15- or 16- or 17-year old Henry Dunn in the Navy in January of 1942. His uncle, another of Miss Gilma’s sons, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Corps. I would speculate that his influence at some level may have kept my father in the Caribbean for the duration. Antigua and Puerto Rico are 2 locations I’m aware of. He was honorably discharged in 1945 and made his way to Massachusetts where his mother was working at Framingham Prison in Framingham, Massachusetts in her capacity as a nurse. Framingham was a women’s prison that had become somewhat famous due to the warden who ran it, but that’s another story.

When I was very young, the paucity of relatives and the seemingly rare spelling of our family name (Robison versus Robinson or Robertson or many others) made me believe that my sister and I were members of a family that was virtually non-existent. I would be quick to correct anyone who made the horrible mistake of calling me David Robinson. I even took to pronouncing it ROW-bi-son rather than RAH-bi-son, the way my father pronounced it. This caused quite a problem when I began a serious search for my “Robison” family. I became a genealogist.

Genealogy crept in about 1969. A person whom I’d never met sent me a letter out of the blue. It was a descendant chart of some of my paternal ancestors beginning with a guy who was born in 1849. 1849!! And it went all the way down to my sister and me. There was at least one other line there, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I now knew that name of an ancestor born 120 years ago! 1849!! I couldn’t get over it; I was so impressed, I folded it and put it away for about 25 years.

Scroll ahead to the mid-90’s. I’m know obsessed with family history. I had many successes with my maternal line relatively speaking. My mother’s sister was a great deal more forthcoming with information, some of which I now know to be true. Aunt Gert was willing to talk about anything and make it up as she went along if necessary! The truth? Well….  But I certainly knew my father was born in Evergreen, Alabama. So common sense sent me to find the Conecuh County Historical Society in Evergreen, Alabama. The archivist there told me that if I wanted any family history on the folks in Evergreen, I should write a letter to Mrs. Sarah R Coker who lived right there in town.

I wrote the letter and waited.

About 2 weeks later, I received and envelope properly addressed in a hand that was obviously of a very old person. But written well enough that it found it destination.  With a great deal of enthusiasm, I opened the letter and stared at her words: “Why hello sweety-pie! I’m your Grand Aunt Sarah. I’m your Daddy’s aunt and your grandpa’s baby sister.” I should pause here to try and give you the overwhelming sense of excitement and a bit of anger I was feeling. I loved finding Aunt Sarah. It was a thrill beyond explanation! But I was… I was… I don’t know what I was! Angry, indignant… There are no words for the how I felt at that very moment! But let’s move on.

Sarah Elizabeth Robison Coker (1919 - 2009)

Sarah Elizabeth Robison Coker (1919 – 2009)

Sarah Elizabeth Robison Coker (that’s the “R” in her name…Robison!)  had been researching for decades. And researching without a computer. No computer for two reasons: 1) She had done a mountain of work prior to the electronic age. She actually wrote letters. She actually got responses; and 2) She had macular degeneration in her old age and wouldn’t have been able to see the screen even if she had one. Naturally I wrote back with an incredible amount of enthusiasm. I don’t remember if I called my sister that very second or if I waited until later that day. But I wanted her to share in the excitement. We had relatives!!!

There’s a great deal more to tell you: I flew down to meet with her; I met the author of the 1969 letter, a second cousin named David Sanders; I was told many fabulous family stories; I was treated like “royalty!” You’ll love the part about the pictures. And a few racy stories Aunt Sarah was almost embarrassed to tell! She wanted me to turn off the digital recorder I brought with me. I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of her story about eloping to Defuniak Springs, Florida from her home in Evergreen. Then in 2003, a family reunion with over 300 relatives in attendance.

Again, lots more to tell….stay tuned!