Written by Marty Hiller
"A doorbell echoed through the quiet house on a sultry day in the summer of 1944. The door opened to a life-changing message - a message received that summer at thousands of front doors across the United States, several in the small town of Westfield. A young American soldier had lost his life in defense of our democracy. For my grandparents, Dorothy and Lloyd Todd, it was the loss of their only son, for my mother Marion and her sister Phyllis, the loss of a beloved brother. My grandmother grieved daily for the remainder of her 93 years, dying June 6, 1994 - exactly 50 years from the day that Robert Todd had died - with a hole in her heart that had never been filled.
This Todd-Sheath family reunion photo was taken on June 10, 2012 at the home of David and Leslie (Hiller) Chundrlek. Pictured in the back row, from left to right, are: David Chundrlek; Bob Macer; Bonnie (Macer) Lancaster; Dick Lancaster; David Sheath; Marty Hiller; Karen Hiller; and Mark Grohol. In the front row, from left to right, are: Leslie (Hiller) Chundrlek; Fabiana Sheath; Valerie Macer with Mattie Hiller; Sue (Hiller) Grohol; Erica Grohol; and Kristin Grohol.
"In late 2010, the chime of an in-coming email cut through the background noise of the usual day at the office. I turned to open it and the story - the one that seemed to end so sadly with the death of the young American soldier, Robert L. Todd - suddenly took an unexpected trajectory that practically defies imagination.
"Todd enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve his country as a paratrooper in World War II. His unit was shipped to England and began training for the invasion of Europe. When plans were drawn up for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, Todd and his unit were cloistered in the English countryside, cut off from connections with any of the civilian citizenry. The severing of this connection created reverberations that resonated only faintly for over 60 years.
"David Sheath, a retired headmaster of an English Catholic school in Windsor, United Kingdom, was raised as an only child with his ,other, Stella. His childhood was a pleasant experience, leading him to a life of education and teaching. He married Fabiana (Fab) and fathered two daughters, Nikki and Suzanne. As the child of a single parent, he had occasion to wonder about his father, but he and his mother never spoke of this issue. His mother, who lived a full life as an employee of the government, contracted cancer and died in 2002. Close to death, Stella's sister, Barbara Clifton, encouraged her to share what she knew of Sheath's father before her death. That conversation never took place.
The office of the Westfield Historian is located at 117 Union Street, in the small green building on the north side of driveway. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 9 to 11 a.m., or by appointment. The Westfield Historian phone number is 326-2457, and the email mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
"After his mother's death, Sheath was clearing his mother's things from her cottage. Opening a bureau drawer, he found a sealed envelope with the following message on the outside in his mother's neat script, 'If you want to know about your father, read the contents. If not, destroy.' Sheath opened the envelope and thus began the next chapter of the story. The letter described Sheath's father as an American serviceman, Robert Todd, who she believed was originally from Ohio. She gave no other history of the relationship. She did focus her message on how much she loved Sheath and how proud she was of his accomplishments.
"Sheath was determined to learn what he could of his father. He spoke at length with his Aunt Barbara who had not met his father, but knew of the young man who had captured his mother's heart. She could not provide much information that would help in his search. He pursued his father's identity through the logical channels in the U.S. military. His search lasted nearly two years when he unexpectedly ran into an insurmountable barrier. The service records for this period, stored at Fort Riley, Kansas, had been destroyed in a fire. The military was a dead end.
"David took this setback as a sign and decided to end his search. After all, he had a happy and fulfilled life. While he was curious as to his father, he had thoughts of eventually contacting the individual and being unwelcomed. Perhaps the unexpected appearance of a son would be viewed as a curse rather than a blessing. So he stopped and determined it was not meant to be.
"However, Sheath's friend who knew of his search, Andreas, could not remove it from the back of his mind. Years later in 2010, unbeknown to Sheath, Andreas and his wife impulsively visited the American cemetery at Normandy while on a vacation. Here, at the site of a beautiful monument to the Americans who lost their lives in the initial battles of the European campaign, the cemetery caretaker led them to the cross memorializing the death of Sgt. Robert L. Todd, paratrooper in the U.S. Army. Thanks to another twist of fate, the search resumed.
"After some further research, Andreas shared his remarkable find with Sheath. Charged with excitement as well as a bit of trepidation, Sheath continued his search, re-focusing from Ohio to Westfield, N.Y., and Westfield Historian Marybelle Beigh, with whom his friend Andreas had first made contact. This ultimately led to the faint chime signaling an incoming email on my computer with the following message, 'To Whom It May Concern, My name is David Sheath and I believe I may be the son of Robert L. Todd.' The connection began to be made.
"Frankly, the message attached and the story it told was beyond possibility. And yet, our own brief electronic inquiry and talk among the cousins led us to believe that this unbelievable connection may have led us to a new family member. My initial response to Sheath began, 'If all is as it seems, allow me to introduce myself as Marty Hiller, your first cousin, the oldest child and only son of Marion Todd Hiller, the older sister of Robert Lloyd Todd.'
"From that point our story accelerated and began to take shape. Sheath emailed me as well as my sisters, Leslie Chundrlek and Sue Grohol, and other first cousins, Bonnie Lancaster and Bob and Valerie Macer. Our conversations picked up speed culminating in a remarkable Skype experience in Westfield during the Christmas holidays in 2010 when Sheath and his family joined our family through an electronic medium allowing my mother, Marion, to see the face of the son of her brother, unknown to any of our family for over 64 years.
"Following that initial contact, we were able to fill in some of the blanks. Robert Todd and Stella Sheath had a wartime romance. When the quarantine between the troops and civilians was announced, there was no further communication between the two of them. We will never know what Todd thought. He never shared the news of his relationship with his family. Her actions seem to suggest Stella believed Todd had abandoned her and, after the war, returned to his life in the United States. It was only after her death - and with the insistence of her sister Barbara - that David Sheath began the long trail to learn his father's identity. The strange twists and turns that followed, the interruptions of years at seeming dead ends and finally the strange impetuous visit to an American memorial led to the wonderful conclusion, a family reconnected.
"But the story does not end there. Months of email and Skyping finally resulted in plans for the Sheath family to visit Westfield in June 2012. Sadly, in late February 2012, my mother died, the last of her generation of the Todd family in Westfield. Nevertheless, when Sheath's visit finally occurred, the family truly felt re-united. His fear that his American family would not be welcoming of an 'unexpected' relative could not have been further from the truth.
"David, Fab, and their daughter Nikki were met at the Buffalo airport by a contingent of the Macer family that began a whirlwind 10 days of meeting new cousins and other more extended family. Sheath toured Westfield to see the house where his father grew up, strolled the streets where Todd had walked and even talked with some few individuals who had specific memories of his father. A group of family drove to Southwestern Pennsylvania where our grandparents had lived before moving to Westfield, visiting members of that branch of the family we had pretty well lost touch with over the years. Sheath's visit served as a re-bonding of familial ties that had grown weak as the generations changed.
"And so the Todd family tree grew and a new branch was added. Our family history was enriched with a wonderful, almost miraculous addition of an unknown and unimagined first cousin. We have welcomed Sheath into our family, and he has thus joined the narrative of Westfield's history and will remain a part of it as time continues to unfold. The history of a small town goes beyond the remembrances of the past. Our stories continue to unfold with the joining of unexpected connections that weave the fabric of our present and our future."