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Chris Fordney: One father located, two lost

By Chris Fordney -- Daily columnist

SAGINAW, Mich. -- How far will we go to plumb our roots?

Cindy and I got off the highway at this central Michigan town and drove through block after block of shuttered factories, boarded-up shopping centers and streets where every third or fourth house has been abandoned.

I was looking for the grave of my great-grandfather, Joseph W. Fordney, who lived in Saginaw in the early 20th century.

I never knew him because he died 23 years before I was born, nor did I know either of my grandfathers, who both died when I was very young. I've always felt wistful and little deprived about that, especially as I've watched my own children spend significant time with all their grandparents and one set of great-grandparents.

We had almost given up when we saw the Catholic cemetery where Joseph is buried, and we drove around its shady lanes for 10 minutes, looking for his tombstone. Finally I turned to Cindy, pointed and said, jokingly, "I can feel him calling me in that direction."

I parked, we got out, and within a minute Cindy had found his grave, not 75 feet from the car.

There was a simple, flat gravestone, bearing only his name and that of his wife, Cathern, and the dates of their births and deaths. Several other family members were buried nearby.

That modest marker was a surprise, because Joseph was quite prominent in his day.

He started out carrying water to lumberjacks and horses in rowdy, dangerous lumber camps, where foremen often had to back up their words with fists.

Joseph used his head more than his hands and became a "cruiser," or estimator who looked for prime new stands of timber. He rose quickly to become a true lumber baron, with holdings in the Midwest, South and Northwest. Elected to Congress, he was appointed chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Then came the Depression and ruin. The family tradition is that his business partners were able to hang on. Their names were Boeing and Weyerhauser.

He lived in a large home a couple miles back toward the downtown. His house is gone, but an 8-acre piece of the grounds is still there. He donated it to the city in 1912, and today it's a park shaded by some of the biggest trees I've ever seen. A plaque, erected at the suggestion of my father and another relative, recounts his life.

There was a big birthday party going on and the park's playground was filled with kids. That oasis of green in those depressed neighborhoods seemed like a better memorial than a grand tombstone.

Two nights later, we stayed in a hotel on the south side of Cleveland. We got into the pool and struck up a conversation with a couple of young boys. We were taken aback when they told us they had traveled to Ohio for the funeral of their father, who was recently killed in action in Afghanistan.

I talked to their grandfather sitting nearby, and he told me how his son, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason J. Fabrizi, had died in an ambush.

We got that day's Cleveland Plain Dealer and found the story. At the bottom was the stunner; the boys' parents had divorced and their mother had remarried. In 2007, their stepfather was killed in Iraq.

Those boys had lost two fathers to war.

I didn't feel deprived anymore.

<a href="mailto:cfordney@nvdaily.com>cfordney@nvdaily.com</a>

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