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Bud Donley, 23, died days before the birth of his son, who for 16 years wouldn't know Bud existed. The son says he dug up the past because even in death his dad is . . . : 'Still Part of My Life'

July 07, 1993

Flickers of memory haunted Craig Tomashoff as a child. Scenes of being at his parents' wedding . . . a set of books he'd seen with the name Craig Donley scrawled in them . . . hazy images of a time when there was no dad around--just his mom, his brother and him.

When Tomashoff, now 33, turned 16, his mother matter-of-factly told him that his father--her first husband--had died before he was born. And that the man he grew up believing was his natural father was actually his stepdad.

"I didn't think much about it," says Tomashoff, a Los Angeles writer . "That may sound odd, but my mom didn't seem too emotional about all this so I didn't figure I needed to be."

It would be another 15 years before he would begin the journey to find out who his father was . . .

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It wasn't not knowing my father that bothered me. It was not knowing that he existed at all. I had spent all of my childhood calling one man Dad. Then when I was 16, my mother came into my room and calmly asked me to sign a Social Security benefits check. I had a father before the father I grew up with, she told me. He died before I was born. These were his benefits.

For the next 15 years, I occasionally thought about this unknown part of my past. But clearly it was a touchy topic for my mom and stepdad, so I left it alone. Why bring up painful memories? I had a good life with these parents. Then two years ago, the issue surfaced again. During a physical exam, my doctor, warning me about all the horrible things that happen to men over 30, asked about my family history. Was there a history of prostate cancer? Heart disease?

The time had come to quiz my mother.

Who Was My Father?

I waited for the best moment to spring it on her during a trip back home in September, 1991, but couldn't find the nerve until we sat in the airport, waiting for my plane to leave.

I could practically see her hair turn gray as she gave me precious few details about him.

His name was Bud Eugene Donley and he was from Oxford, Kansas, a one-stoplight town a half-hour's drive from my mom's hometown of Arkansas City.

They had met in college.

He died from the injuries he received in an explosion at their home 10 days before I was born. He was 23.

She remarried three years later, and my stepfather adopted my brother and me a year after that.

Hearing this tragic story brought a lot of things into focus. The Craig Donley from my childhood books. The brief period when I vaguely remembered living alone with my mother and brother. The wedding . . . that had been my mother's and stepfather's.

It also brought into focus my relationship with my stepfather. I've always assumed that a man's identity comes from his father, but it never felt that way for me.

I have no doubt that he loves me as his own, but there was always something about our relationship that didn't feel right. We never seemed to be from the same gene pool. He's a big man, well over six feet tall and on the far side of 200 pounds--a size I knew I'd never come close to.

Not as noticeable were the philosophical differences.

From the time I was able to tell a welfare program from a government handout, I knew my liberal way of thinking would never fit with his staunch conservatism. He loved football; I worshiped baseball. I talked to strangers; he thought strangers were dangerous.

Like vague recollections of some long-canceled TV show episode, the images all came back to me as my mom gave up her few stories about my dad.

As I sat in that airport, I knew I needed to learn more. But I stopped after sensing that this was painful territory. I knew my parents loved me and figured they were doing the right thing by keeping the story of my birth father a secret so as not to confuse me.

The last thing I wanted to do was hurt them, but then again this wasn't about them. It was about me. This father I'd never know was still a part of my life.

My mom offered to answer any other questions, but only if I mailed them to her.

I needed to get my answers first-hand. What characteristics had I inherited from my dad? Do I look like him? Do I have his mannerisms? Do we share any hopes and dreams? Pressuring my mom on these details wouldn't be fair to her.

Besides, her reactions made it very clear that she wanted to stay as far away from my search as she could. As my brother, who is four years older, we were never close. It never occurred to me to ask him nor for him to volunteer information.

So in May I went back to Kansas.

The Library

The local libraries in Oxford and Arkansas City--tiny rural towns--seemed like the easiest places to begin.

As I'd suspected, the accident that killed my dad had been big news in these southern Kansas towns. A front-page story in the Arkansas City Traveler, dated Aug. 19, 1959 explained it all:

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Twenty-three-year-old Bud Donley and two plumbers were injured after checking out a clogged pipe in the basement of his home. An accumulation of sewer gas combined with his lit cigarette caused the explosion.

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