Editor’s Note: Rhonda Noonan, author of The Fifth and Final Name: Memoir of an American Churchill, will be signing copies of her book Sunday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m. at Full Circle Books, 1900 Northwest Expressway, Oklahoma City. For more information, call 405.842.2900
BY ARNOLD HAMILTON
Early in her elementary school days, Rhonda Noonan says the subject of ancestry came up. She doesn’t remember why, but she knew where to go for answers: Her grandmother.
“Where am I from?” she asked.
“Well,” her grandmother replied, “my family is from England and Ireland …”
“Yes,” little Rhonda said, “but where am I from?”
“Well,” her grandmother continued, “you’re from the same place I’m from.”
“No, I’m not from the same place you’re from. I want to know where I’m from.”
From her earliest memories – as far back, she thinks, as age 2 – Rhonda Noonan knew she was adopted. Her family made no secret of it. But just knowing she was “my special chosen little girl,” as her mother called her, wasn’t enough. She needed to know more.
She needed to know who she was. Really was.
It took Noonan, now 57, nearly three often exhausting, emotionally taxing decades, but she thinks she finally unraveled a mystery that couldn’t be crafted in the most fertile fiction writer’s mind.
She was the product of a one-night-stand when her mother, a financially strapped hairdresser with four children, crossed paths with Randolph Churchill, the son of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, at the Tinker Air Force Base Officer’s Club.
Noonan’s sleuthing determined Churchill traveled to Oklahoma City with New York Gov. Averell Harriman, who was eyeing the 1956 Democratic presidential nomination. Harriman’s groundwork included a visit with a possible vice-presidential running mate, Oklahoma Gov. Raymond Gary.
“You absolutely couldn’t make it up,” says Noonan, a career mental health therapist who recounts her odyssey to locate her birth parents in The Fifth and Final Name: Memoir of an American Churchill. “All of the clues … everything was pointing that direction to the extent that I just couldn’t ignore it any longer.”
Like a detective, she eventually put the pieces together: She interviewed Gary’s sister, who mentioned Harriman’s visit. Harriman’s ties to the Churchill family go back to the early 1940s when he was a special European envoy for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Randolph Churchill was in the U.S. at that time participating in the filming of some game shows. Polly Hunt, the top assistant to state welfare director Lloyd Rader, who facilitated Noonan’s adoption to a prominent Tonkawa family [her grandfather was academic dean and interim president at Northern Oklahoma College], helped fill in more details, including the fact she met Randolph Churchill at the state Capitol.
But adoption records were sealed tight. And Noonan had heard more than one story about her birth parents and adoption. It was like chasing a ghost.
Eventually, Noonan tracked down her birth mother, who lived in Purcell. She drove unannounced to see her, “not sure what I was going to say,
which I think is pretty typical.”
She knocked on the front door. A 76-year-old woman answered. She knew immediately it was her birth mother.
“Does July 8, 1956 mean anything to you?” Noonan asked.
“Excuse me?” the woman answered.
“July 8, 1956 … does that mean anything to you?”
“So,” the woman said, “what do we do now?”
“I don’t know how you answer that,” Noonan says, “but I knew that she wasn’t interested in knowing me. And truthfully, I would have been OK with maintaining her confidentiality and not contacting my [four half-] sisters until she had passed, if she had been the least bit interested in helping me with my main question, which was, who’s my dad?”
Noonan says she knew her birth mother, Pat Nail, and birth father “didn’t want to see me. I was really interested in finding my grandfather. I had to find them in order to find him. She was someone I had to talk to by default, sort of.”
Nail never did come clean about who Noonan’s biological father was, pointing the finger at several men [hence, the title of the book]. But Noonan’s investigating kept turning up the likelihood it was someone of considerable stature.
Two months into her pregnancy, for example, her biological mother seduced a man at a speakeasy “so that her best friend could see her leave with him.” She secured the man’s identifying information so she could claim he was the father.
Noonan interviewed the man, who remembered being followed that evening.
“I felt I had stepped in it,” she quoted him as saying. “No way this woman was a prostitute. It just smelled funny to me.”
Noonan is certain those shadowing the “hookup” were from the FBI. A federal agent she interviewed said the FBI only would get involved in an adoption case if it involved a foreign dignitary or diplomat. Before the adoption, the FBI showed up in Tonkawa, interviewing businessmen who previously employed her soon-to-be adopted mother.
“It was years later my adopted mom thought to mention to me ‘the FBI came and interviewed your grandparents,’” Noonan says. “And I said, ‘And this is a little detail you’re pulling out now?’ And her response was, ‘Well, we didn’t think much about it. It was 1956 and you just did what you were told to do.’ They thought they were adopting a baby and the FBI showed up. It was dismissed just like that.”
Without a DNA test – and the Churchill’s have refused to cooperate – Noonan can’t prove with certainty that her grandfather was Winston Churchill. But the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. And she is satisfied after her three-decade search that she knows the truth.
“I’ve made all the overtures I’m making,” says Noonan, who lives with her 87-year-old adopted mother and her mother’s twin sister, near Sand Springs. “I eyeballed my half brother Winston. He knew who I was. We watched each other across the tent one afternoon” at a polo match in Connecticut. “I met his son Randolph, my nephew.
“I’ve reached out to them. I have no idea why they’re not responding, don’t want to respond. I can tell you I don’t lose any sleep over it. It would be nice if they wanted to – but they don’t for whatever reason.”
Noonan says she wrote the book about the search for her birth parents in hopes “people look at adoption a little bit differently. I’d like to see some things changed in terms of how we treat adoptees, how we look at adoption as a social system and in terms of the truth that is not present in it currently.
“Every human being … we do value our history, we do value our genetics. We have a right to know where we come from … The issue is really one of injustice. I think adoptees are keenly aware of injustice of the adoption system.
“That’s why I do a lot of advocating now for adult adoptees and their right to know who they are.”
– Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer
To see a video of Arnold Hamilton’s interview with Rhonda Noonan, click here. Videography by Dr. Bruce Prescott.