Never Ending Story leads to new family

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comDecember 11, 2013 

— Never-ending story? Try storybook ending.

Here’s how it goes. Diana Haining lives in County Meath, in eastern Ireland. Her father-in-law, Alan Priestley, lives in Kilcoole, just southeast of there, on the Irish coast. Adoptive parents took in Priestley as a baby during World War II. It wasn’t until the passage of the Freedom of Information Act that he learned the name he was given on his birth certificate – James William Piper.

Haining took what little information the birth certificate offered and began looking. Ancestry research led to a marriage certificate for Priestley’s parents.

And that led to birth records for siblings, including a Dorothy Joan Piper born in Hornchurch, Essex in 1936. Google brought results when Haining searched the name; Dorothy Piper came up as author of a chapter in the The Never Ending Story in the Fort Mill Times.

And that sent Irish eyes to smiling.

“The first sentence of the reply read, ‘Congratulations, you have found your family,’” Haining wrote via email about his first, online interaction with Dorothy Piper, “which still sends shivers down my spine to this day.”

The idea behind The Never Ending Story began a half-dozen years ago. The thought was to set up a fictional tale and have readers submit chapters to keep the account going.

Author Mignon Ballard, who lived in Fort Mill for 40 years before returning this past summer to her native Calhoun, Ga., agreed to provide the first chapter.

“I didn’t think it was a good idea,” Ballard admitted earlier this week, “because I didn’t think people would want to do it.”

But some did. The story never really took off with regular installments, although readers sent in several more chapters. But Piper’s personal story outshines anything else in the series, Ballard said.

“That’s an even better story,” Ballard said.

Dorothy Piper lived in Indian Land and worked part-time when she penned her chapter “Doubts” in the summer of 2008.

A brief informational tag at the bottom listed her coming from native England to New Hampshire in 1995 and publishing a children’s book in 2007.

It also listed her age. Haining all but convinced herself that she had the right person from that corroborating information, which she used to track down an email address leading to the celebrated reply.

“I have to confess that, upon reading the short bio in your newspaper I experienced my first ‘Eureka!’ moment during my research,” Haining wrote to the Times.

He continued: “As I then also knew that Dorothy had published a book, my research then focused on her book and I found a link to a website where Dorothy’s son mentioned her book and I couldn’t believe my luck when I noted that his email address was there in front of my eyes.”

Within hours of the first email response, Priestley was on the phone with a sister whom he never knew he had. Since then, Piper visited Ireland and met the family she credits a Never Ending Story chapter with helping find.

As a writer, Piper said she hopes to connect with readers. She just wasn’t expecting so life-changing a connection.

“Never in my wildest dreams,” Piper said.

Piper still lives in Indian Land and is retired. She’s a hobbyist writer who recently submitted a science fiction novel to an English publisher.

Piper still vividly recalls the transatlantic correspondence and calls herself the “happy beneficiary” of Haining’s effort and the wonder of the internet.

“Absolute amazement,” Piper said. “I mean, what are the odds of a person being found as the result of writing a chapter for an online newspaper in Fort Mill – 3,000 miles away from Ireland?”

Fort Mill Times editor Mike Harrison came up with the idea for the Never Ending Story to engage readers, promote literacy and allow an avenue for creative expression.

“When Dorothy told me about finding a brother she never knew she had, I was so happy for her, the part our website played took a little while to sink in,” he said.

Harrison is pleased with the project’s unintended consequence.

“It’s pretty ironic that a fiction project could lead to such a heartwarming story in real life,” Harrison said. “And so close to Christmas!”

The timing means a good bit to Piper, too. Over the past four decades, she said, she has become “resigned to watching my family become smaller with the progression of years.”

“But here is Alan, with all his wonderful family, adding a whole new branch to our family tree,” she said. “And it so nearly might not have happened.”

In planning for the first-time reunion in Ireland, both parties learned of Priestley’s diagnosis of brain cancer. But he underwent chemotherapy.

He has fought off the disease thus far, met his new family and is regaining his strength after years of helping others find relief as a physiotherapist.

Still separated by miles but no longer by unfamiliarity, the new-found family is now convinced they’re living out a story not yet meant to end.

“He was meant to be spared,” Piper said. “I am convinced of that.”

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