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He died 42 years ago. Saturday, his family met his daughter

Kris Lang, left, hugs Dixie Griswold, Leonard Spencer’s aunt, during a family reunion in Tacoma on Saturday. Lang recently got in touch with her relatives and met many of them for the first time at the reunion. “Everyone should know their family,” Griswold said.
Kris Lang, left, hugs Dixie Griswold, Leonard Spencer’s aunt, during a family reunion in Tacoma on Saturday. Lang recently got in touch with her relatives and met many of them for the first time at the reunion. “Everyone should know their family,” Griswold said. jbessex@gateline.com

Leonard Spencer’s family spent more than 30 years wondering why he never came home.

Eleven years ago, they got their answer — the freewheeling Tacoma native had drowned in California in 1974, when he was 25.

Now, four decades after his death, Spencer’s family is discovering he had a legacy they never knew about: An adult daughter, who says she was given up for adoption after Spencer left to serve in Vietnam.

That daughter — 47-year old Kris Lang of San Diego — reached out to members of Spencer’s family earlier this year. She found them after a decadeslong search for her birth parents led her to a 2005 news article about her father’s body being identified, she said.

Lang traveled to Tacoma this week for a family reunion at the home of Spencer’s cousin, where she met many of her relatives for the first time.

Cherie Crowley, Spencer’s sister, said meeting her brother’s daughter makes it feel like “he’s still kind of with us.”

“Especially when you lose somebody, it’s like you get a little bit back,” said Crowley, 59.

Everyone wants to know where they came from, where their people come from and their stories.

Kris Lang, who was given up for adoption 47 years ago

Lang said she has been searching for her family members for years, hoping they could help her learn more about her father, who died when she was 5 years old.

At Saturday’s backyard barbecue, she sipped punch and laughed as her cousins and aunts told tales about Spencer and the rest of the family.

“Everyone wants to know where they came from, where their people come from and their stories,” Lang said.

Now, she said, “I’m learning — little bit by little bit.”

Lang said Spencer met her mother in the Chicago area while he was training to deploy to Vietnam with the Navy. After Spencer went to war, Lang said, her mother put her up for adoption.

While Lang has known she was adopted since childhood, it was only after finding her birth mother on Facebook in April that she began to unravel the secrets of her ancestry, she said.

Her mother gave her Spencer’s name — spelled incorrectly — and told her that he was from Washington state.

That led Lang to a 2005 News Tribune article about how authorities identified Spencer’s body through a fingerprint search 31 years after his death.

Earlier this year, Lang asked the reporter who wrote the story to pass on her contact information to one of the family members quoted in the story.

There’s a whole life you’ve got to catch up on ... Every time I see her, I have more questions.

Cherie Crowley, sister of Leonard Spencer, who never told his family about the daughter he put up for adoption

It was Crowley who called Lang back. A DNA comparison showed a strong familial connection between them, Crowley said.

“It’s kind of weird because there’s a whole life you’ve got to catch up on,” Crowley said. “Every time I see her, I have more questions.”

For Lang, the answers aren’t to be found only in words. She said she’s slowly discovering the unspoken things that connect her to her newfound family members, and expects that process to continue for some time.

“People who are related, even if they don’t grow up with each other, they tend to have some of the same likes and mannerisms — the weird little quirky things,” Lang said.

“I think that’s what I’m looking for: the weird, quirky things that make us related.”

Dixie Griswold, Leonard Spencer’s aunt, said she sees the family resemblance when she looks at Lang. Lang has Spencer’s olive-skinned complexion, for instance, Griswold said.

“She seems like us — very outgoing, which is nice,” said Griswold, 76.

Several expressed sadness that Spencer’s mother, Dolores Nelson, couldn’t be a part of the reunion. Nelson died in 2005, only a few weeks after learning what happened to her son.

But welcoming Lang into the family is what Nelson would have done, said one of her sisters, 75-year-old Deanna Mackiewicz.

“This is what my sister would have wanted — she would have wanted us to reach out to her,” Mackiewicz said of Lang.

“She’s part of our family now, and she will always be a part of our family.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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