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Finding Uncle Billy — A thank you to Pinellas County and Clearwater

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

12/07/2013

By most accounts, including his own, 95-year-old Uncle Billy of Clearwater doesn’t need the cane the Veteran’s Administration health care folks insist he use. Until, that is, he did.
That’s where I come in. He’s my great uncle, a man I may have met but a couple times decades ago. He’s my mother’s only living relative on her side of the New Castle, PA, family and she loves him dearly.
She called me early in December from her home in Harrisonburg, VA. “Lindy, I can’t find Uncle Billy. He’s not answering his phone. I’m worried. He’s all I have left of my mother’s family. Do you think something happened”?
OK, let’s see how this is going to play out. He’s in Clearwater. She’s in Virginia. I’m in Key West. We have his address and phone number and not much else except some sketchy details on his sons’ names and last whereabouts. This is a generation not much given to Facebook and Twitter posts or Instagram snapshots.
Scattered, extended families lose contact. Names change. Folks move. The old ones who glued the far-flung kids together die. There’s not much left except those faded sepia photos with names like “Uncle Billy and Donna” scrawled on the back. Maybe — or likely not — with a date and location.
This was going to mean cold calls. I hate making cold calls. I knew that when I was 12 and suffered extraordinary anxiety if I had to call the local grocer and ask what the store hours were. I became an editor because reporting meant cold calls. Clearly, I wasn’t cut out for advertising sales, either.
But, this is my mom. Cold calls it would have to be. First, though, I did the database searches. No obituary and no record in the Social Security Death Index, so he probably wasn’t dead. Still owned his house. Telephone still connected.
I mapped his house location and all the churches around it and started calling. Gratifying how genuinely helpful was Debbie Kohnle of Countryside Baptist Church, the church closest to Uncle Billy’s home. She didn’t know him, but she gave me a list of phone numbers and instructions on whom to contact. Thank you, Miss Debbie.
Then there were calls to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department, who sent me off to the Clearwater Police Department, who checked the EMT logs (no calls to his house and none to the neighborhood since 2008).
And, then this wonderful stranger said: “How about we go around there and check? We’ll either call you back or we’ll make sure he calls you.”
And, they did. Right away. And, he did. And, all is well.
Well, almost all well. He’d had a small stroke, had been in the VA hospital getting checked out (hence the unwanted cane), was staying temporarily with a friend. He’d returned home that evening to pick up a few things and found the note from the Clearwater police asking him to call me.
I’ve edited countless stories over the years about the struggles in those law enforcement call centers around the country. Many of them less than flattering. The Pinellas County sheriff’s department and Clearwater police department folks were compassionate, helpful and professional. They took me seriously, though I must have sounded a bit unfocused. I am grateful.
My mom called Uncle Billy that night — and updated her contacts database with names, email and snail mail addresses and phone numbers of his sons and friends. Pretty sure that removes me from the cold call business. She’s happy and I got some “good daughter points.”

3 Comments

  1. Paul

    Did anyone ever mention you can write one heck of a good story? =)

  2. mike

    Points???? You have a long way to go but catching us sons quick. We better be on our toes.
    Thanks for helping out! Waiting for ice and snow on Sunday

Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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