One of the more touching stories in my family history centers around my grandfather, David Edwin Swier, who passed away almost four years ago on July 29, 2001. I had always known that my grandfather was adopted, but I only found out the circumstances of his adoption upon his death. My mother sent me a photocopy of his obituary, which I believe was printed in the Yakima Herald-Republic:
SELAH — David Edwin Swier, 79, passed away Sunday, July 29, 2001 at his home in Selah. David was born December 29, 1921 in Spokane, WA to Omar and Gertrude Gearhart. His given name was Edwin Guy Gearhart. He was adopted by Walter and Laura Swier in 1930 and changed his name to David Edwin Swier.
David attended grade school and high school in Cowiche, WA. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during WWII and served as an aircraft and engine mechanic. He married Anita J. Brownell on September 20, 1957. They shared many joys together over the next 44 years.
David worked for his parents in the orchard business, and later worked for Michelson Packaging Co. before retiring. He enjoyed gardening, fixing up cars, and he particularly enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren.
He is survived by his wife Anita Swier of Selah, WA; four sons, David E. Swier of Ohio, Randy Swier of Kennewick, WA, Thomas Swier and his wife Patti of Georgia, Richard Swier and his wife Ellen of Toppenish, WA; and his daughter Debbie Swier of Kent, WA; 11 grandchildren; 3 great-grandchildren; 8 sisters, Eva Heier, Margie Water, Jessie Riddle, Betty Ann Bailey, Ruth Anderson, Carol Babb, Dorcas Tobin and Helen Marie West; and a brother, Frank Walker.
He was preceded in death by his parents and adoptive parents; 3 sisters, Mary Smith, Ruth Kyker and Alice McReynolds; and 3 brothers, Junior Gearhart, John Gearhart, and Donald Cannon.
A memorial service will be held on Thursday, August 2, 2001 at 3:00 p.m. at Keith and Keith Funeral Home, 902 W. Yakima Ave. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the donor’s favorite charity.
This obituary was most illuminating in my quest to find out more about my father’s family. I had never met nor corresponded with my grandfather. I had corresponded with my step-grandmother, Anita Brownell Swier, over the years, but my grandfather seem to be this silent, enigmatic figure who handed down his adopted name to me, but little else. Who was he?
Conspicuously absent from the obituary was a mention of my grandmother, who was my grandfather’s first wife. She and my grandfather divorced when my father was quite young. My father dislikes talking about his childhood; consequently, I knew little about his family.
I did know, as I mentioned previously, that my grandfather had been adopted. I did not know the names of his natural parents. My natural great-grandmother remarried some time after her children were adopted by other families, and my father knew her as Grandma Lightle. This was all the information we had, and we did not realize that Lightle had not been my grandfather’s birth name. Once I read the obituary, I posted some queries at online genealogy sites, and I was contacted by a cousin — her father, too, had been one of the Gearhart children. She told me the following story.
My great-grandfather, Omar Alfred Gearhart, suffered a gunshot wound to the head in a hunting accident. As a result of this brain injury, he drank a lot and could also become violently angry.
During the Great Depression, he opened up an auto repair garage with a partner. Shortly before his youngest child was born, he argued with his partner and was later found shot dead in the garage. The money and the partner were both gone.
After her husband’s murder, Gertrude was left with 10 children and was pregnant with another. She had no means of income. Her pregnancy hindered her ability to work. She had the baby — a boy — and still couldn’t find work. The older children would find work here and there, but it wasn’t enough to fill the needs of the family. They were all starving. Bessie, the third from the youngest, said that she remembered standing at her mother’s bedroom door waiting for her turn to nurse. Gertrude was trying to to nurse the three youngest children just to keep them alive.
Gertrude knew the situation couldn’t continue. She had heard the State of Washington was going to come and take her children away. She didn’t want them parceled out to distant homes, losing contact with each other. She wanted them to be able to stay in contact with each other. She went to her pastor and asked for help. They came up with a plan to ask the congregation for help. When the congregation was presented with the situation, members of the church stepped forward to adopt the children.
The adoption papers included Gertrude’s request that the children grow up knowing each other. The only children who weren’t adopted were those who were old enough to be on their own and the baby.
My grandfather was adopted by Walter Swier and Laura Helen Schmidt Swier. My father remembers them very fondly. His cousin Rick Zeutenhorst has told me he remembers going to their home in Cowiche for large family gatherings. His grandmother, Laura, used to hold him and croon softly to him in Dutch when he was upset. On the night his mother left, she held him like this all night. She was tragically killed in a car accident when my father was about 13. I honor both lineages in my family tree. Some people might say that since the Swiers were not my “blood” relatives that I shouldn’t include them in my genealogy. I disagree. If not for their willingness to help a poor family in need, I might not be here, as my grandfather may have died of starvation or else lived such a different life so as to be unable to meet and marry my grandmother and father five children. The Swiers provided my father with stability and rare moments of happiness in a difficult childhood, and I honor them for that.
I would like to learn more about the circumstances of my great-grandfather’s murder and the death of my great-grandmother. Through a Soundex-based search, I was able to discover the correct spelling of “Lightle” for her name and the month and year of her death — March, 1971. One of my research goals is to try to find desdendants of the other Gearhart children mentioned in this obituary and let them know their story, should they be interested. If you believe you may descend from Omar Alfred Gearhart and Gertrude Nettie Perkins, I would love to hear from you.