- Associated Press - Sunday, August 17, 2014

MCCOOL JUNCTION, Neb. (AP) - Leora Smith struggled to open the small present that sat in front of her.

The hard, felt covered box was the last of her gifts given at her 80th birthday party, the York News-Times reported (https://bit.ly/1rc1QOE ).

After removing the neat bow placed delicately atop the package, she obtained from the case a beautiful gold ring adorned with rubies. It fit her finger perfectly.

“I wanted to give this to Leora,” said the man Smith had just met this month. “That is from my mother to you. She longed for a child and she was so sure she would never have one - you gave her that gift and I wanted you to have that from her to you.”

In May of 1954, Leora (Myers) Smith gave her first-born son, Richard Milenkovich, up for adoption. Sixty years later, mother and son have reunited and both say it was the perfect time for such a reunion to occur.

Smith discovered she was pregnant with Milenkovich when she was just 19 years old. As a teenager, she struggled to see how she could support a child in the midst of a society that, in her experience, was unwelcoming of unwed mothers.

“I was pregnant and the father would not marry me,” Smith explained. “We didn’t have very much money. I had gone to school with a child whose mother was not married. They went to church every Sunday and the church treated them terribly.

“You would not be treated right as a single mother with a child,” Smith continued. “No one wanted to have anything to do with you - that’s the way it was in 1954.”

She made the difficult decision to give her son up for adoption, forgoing even to see her son before he was taken to his foster home.

“I love kids so much,” Smith said. “I knew if I saw the baby, I wouldn’t be able to give him up.

“I just knew I couldn’t take care of child right at that point in my life,” Smith added. “There was no help like there is now.”

Milenkovich spent three months in a foster home before being put in the care of his parents who officially adopted him about a year later.

“Times were stricter back then they are now,” Milenkovich said. “They wanted to make sure the family matched in case the parents didn’t want to tell the child they were adopted. I’ve always known and I’ve always been proud of it.”

Milenkovich was originally born with the name Michael Wayne Myers, although his original last name was left off his paperwork to protect Smith’s privacy.

“I thought Wayne was the last name so I used to wonder if I was related to Bruce Wayne or John Wayne,” Milenkovich joked.

His parents renamed him after his father, Milan Richard Milenkovich - a name Milenkovich passed on to his own son as well.

An only child, he spent the first part of his life in Omaha, moving to Phoenix, Arizona, at the age of 15. After getting married, Milenkovich settled in Costa Mesa, California, with his wife (Cynthia) and son, working for Kubota Tractors and staying active with his favorite hobby - martial arts.

Smith eventually married and had children of her own. She raised a large family, having three boys and two girls.

From the beginning, Smith said she was open with her husband about what had happened in her past.

“I told my husband before I was married that I had had a child that was adopted,” Smith said.

Shortly before passing away in 1984, Smith’s husband told their daughter, Pam, about the adopted brother she had never met. It was Pam who encourage her mother to pursue finding Milenkovich so they could reconnect.

With the help her sister Bev, Pam tried a number of ways to find Smith’s adopted son, but because of the closed adoption status, was never able to get far.

In October of last year, Pam wrote a letter to the adoption agency, Lutheran Family Services, to see if they would be willing to give her any information.

On the other side of the country, Milenkovich’s wife and son were trying to convince him to look into his past. However, Milenkovich lacked the inclination to find out more about his birth parents.

“I was raised with my adopted parents from three months old. I always knew that I was adopted, but I had always felt like they were my parents. Through good times and bad times they were the best parents they could possibly be,” Milenkovich said.

“As you get older and older, you get more secure in yourself and things don’t affect you as much,” he continued. “I put all my energy into my family, but they wanted to know.”

Last February, his wife Cynthia sent her inquiry into the adoption agency as well. Since both parties had now expressed interest in meeting, the adoption agency was able to move forward with the process and began verifying that both Smith and Milenkovich were who they said they were.

“I was contacted by Sarah, my lawyer, and she gave me some information and wrote a letter with all of the information about my two parents,” Milenkovich continued. “The next step was to write a letter, so I wrote a letter telling Leora that I knew about the name Michael Wayne.”

“That’s how knew he was my son,” Smith interjected, “because only he would know the name Michael Wayne.”

From February to April, Milenkovich and Smith wrote back and forth, telling each other about their lives and families.

“He was so tickled to find out he had brothers and sisters,” Smith said.

“I was amazed,” Milenkovich added. “I always knew there was a possibility of having one or two, but I never thought I would have five.”

Soon, the adoption agency lawyer felt that the two were getting along well enough to talk on the phone. Richard chose Easter Sunday of this year to make the initial phone call to his mother.

“We talked for two hours,” Milenkovich said.

“The first time Richard called me, his son walked through the room. He said, ‘My son Richard just walked through the room and he wants to say hi to his grandmother.’ Sixteen years old and he wants to say hi to someone he doesn’t even know,” Smith said, beaming at her new found grandchild.

The first member of Smith’s family Milenkovich was able to meet in person was his sister Pam. They spent the Fourth of July weekend together in Jerome, Arizona, and planned the big meeting that would happen on Smith’s 80th birthday.

On Friday, Aug. 8, Smith and Milenkovich met for the first time in 60 years.

“It was an easy meeting. We’ve had a really good time and everybody has accepted me and everybody has sat down like they’ve always known each other,” Milenkovich said. “It feels like family.”

“I’ve always wanted to know what he looked like,” Smith added, tears welling behind her glasses. “Just seeing him … just knowing that he’s here … I just wish he didn’t live so far away.”

Though the wait has been long, both say that now was the right time, and Milenkovich stressed that has had no hard feelings towards Smith or her decision.

“There is nothing for me to complain about,” Milenkovich said. “I had a really good life and a really loving family.

“We’ll carry on this relationship. I don’t know where it will take us - it’s an adventure so you don’t know what will happen down the line, but it was definitely the right thing to do, and definitely the right thing to do for Leora so that she could know her sacrifice was not for naught.”


Information from: York News-Times, https://www.yorknewstimes.com

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