Tales of Found Family, Perseverance Permeate Overflowing Storytelling Event

October 28, 2021 By Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu

Amid Thursday evening’s cloudy skies and seasonably cool temperatures, members of the local community joined others at the University of Virginia for a night of storytelling – a bridge-building event that Jim Ryan launched four years ago at his inauguration as UVA’s ninth president.

This year’s “Double Take: Stories That Make You Think Twice” event, themed “Life Lessons Learned,” took place outdoors under a large, lighted tent at Carr’s Hill, UVA’s presidential home, in front of an overflowing crowd.

Seven speakers drawn from the ranks of students, faculty and staff members, touched on such topics as surviving cancer, widowhood and the destructiveness of COVID-19.

The evening’s opening speaker was Ian Solomon, dean of UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

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Finding a Father

Solomon shared the deeply personal story of his found family and a birth father he would meet only once, but whose impression would stay with him to this day.

Speakers included Ian Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy; Anh Nguyen, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Lily West, president and CEO of the UVA Alumni Association.

Solomon shared that just 10 weeks ago, he first met one of seven siblings he had never previously known existed – a man named Damon, who at 50 is just one year his senior.

How do we go our whole lives and just meet 10 weeks ago?” he said.

“Well, at one level, it’s a very simple story. We share the same biological father,” Solomon said. “We have different mothers. We grew up with our mothers, mostly in different families, in different parts of the country … never had a chance to meet. But when you’re talking about families, it’s always more complicated.”

Solomon grew up in New York with his biological mother and the man he “considered Dad,” along with five other siblings, two adopted, in “a dysfunctional but wonderful home.”

Despite having a “good life,” Solomon, at age 21, itched to find his biological father. This was the predigital age, so he was left checking newspaper obituaries.

A Letter and No Response

“Fast-forward a little bit … 1994, I’m trained on a news clipping service, kind of like the Stone Age precursor to Google LexisNexis machines, and what do I search for with my 10 free hours of training? I search for the name I’ve known my whole life and learned a lot. Tracked him down. Wrote him a letter. Didn’t get a response, so I went to find him.”

The one and only face-to-face meeting between father and son would be anticlimactic. “Despite all my myth-making and fantasies, it was just a man,” Solomon said. “He was, frankly, as cautious as he may have been courageous, as fearful as he may have been ferocious. I don’t think he knew what to do with me. I don’t think I knew how to ask the questions that he knew how to answer.”

Storytellers Jonathan Bartells, a palliative care liason nurse; Rawan Osman, a student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Olivia Egge, a third-year student; and Ken Elzinga, Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics.

Through his newfound brother, Damon, Solomon did manage to get one last, meaningful glimpse of his mysterious father, in a 1966 police training video he only learned of two weeks ago.

Damon had come across a guest post from the Colombia University Press blog that contained the video, so Solomon got a copy.

“Let me tell you; the surreal aspect of watching a 55-year-old film with a 30-year-old version of your father with a megaphone … talking to police and youth. Urging the police to understand the perspective of the youth, [and he] actually takes out a Life magazine, puts it on the on the floor … and is pointing to and saying, ‘This is what kids are seeing, examples of police forces’ – the police, the dog and the abuse. It doesn’t matter that it’s in Selma, Alabama, or South Jamaica, Queens, New York. This is what they were seeing,’ urging people to take the perspective of others to understand what’s going on.”

Solomon said he valued the lessons he has learned on his quest to learn more about his extended family, and added he learned an especially poignant one from his biological father.

President Jim Ryan addressed attendees at the fourth annual “Double Take” storytelling festival.

“As I realize that the message of my father, about taking other people’s perspectives, I can apply that to my own new siblings as well. … It really does make me realize that as I now uncover more and more layers of ancestry and DNA: We are all family.”

Video of the event will be forthcoming. Beside Solomon, the other speakers were:

  • Jonathan Bartels, palliative care liaison nurse at UVA Health.
  • Olivia Egge, student.
  • Ken Elzinga, Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics.
  • Anh Nguyen, student.
  • Rawan Osman, student.
  • Lily West, CEO of the UVA Alumni Association.

Ryan founded “Double Take” in October 2018, on the weekend he was inaugurated, as a way to build bridges across all divides, a theme of his presidency. He shared his own, moving story of meeting his birth mother, who was raised in Ireland and later moved to the United States.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications