Daughter of a legend Jett Williams' search for roots led to her father, Hank Williams

October 03, 1990|By Randi Henderson | Randi Henderson,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Washington

In another life, an adopted child named Cathy Deupree fantasized that her parents had been killed in a car crash or a plane disaster, or even that she was somehow the offspring of aliens.

After all, she reasoned, Superman -- her favorite comic book hero -- had come to Earth from the planet Krypton. And anything would be better than facing the possibility of having been willingly abandoned at birth.

The girl grew up to be a woman who now calls herself Jett Williams. As she reached adulthood, she searched for her birth parents and found that her mother was a Nashville secretary named Bobbie Jett.

And her father was country music legend Hank Williams.

Not exactly your classic ending to an adoptee-seeks-birth-parents story.

But then not much about the life of Jett Williams, aka Cathy Deupree Mayer Atkinson, has fit classic patterns.

"Even when I lived that conventional middle-class life with the Deuprees, when I went to college and married and had a career, I knew all along there was something else I should be doing," Ms. Williams, 37, reflects. "If I hadn't found answers, I'd probably still be searching."

Dressed in a purple shirt, tan jeans and cowboy boots, she is relaxing in the cabin of the Jett Stream, the 72-foot antique yacht docked on the Potomac where she lives with her husband, investigative attorney Keith Atkinson. She's home in Washington for just a brief respite, in the midst of a two-month publicity tour for the book she has written about her life, "Ain't Nothin' as Sweet as My Baby" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). The book details her search for her heritage and the court decisions that have supported her findings.

Sandwiched between the dozens of media appearances are a couple of concerts. Working with two of the musicians who backed up her father 40 years ago, Jett Williams is also trying to make her mark as a country singer. And to those who are cynical enough to suggest that perhaps she is capitalizing on her recently discovered paternity to launch a new career, Ms. Williams, pale blue eyes blazing, offers a quick disclaimer.

"As far back as I can remember I had a guitar," she says, and indeed snapshots from early childhood picture her strumming. "The group I hung out with in high school, we all sang."

She speaks freely about the facts of her life, both remembered and discovered. Born six days after her father died at age 29 at the height of his career to a mother who apparently had no interest in raising her, she was put in the custody of her paternal grandmother who eventually adopted her.

But in another of the unfortunate twists of fate that would move young Cathy's life from one track to another, Lillian Williams Stone, Hank's mother, died when her granddaughter was 2, just two months after the adoption had been finalized. Cathy became a ward of the state of Alabama, was placed in foster care and then adopted by Louise and Wayne Deupree when she was 3.

She grew up in the Deuprees' Mobile, Ala., home knowing that she was not their natural child.

Her first hint of illustrious parentage came in 1974 when she was 21, soon to graduate from the University of Alabama. Along with the news that there was a possibility -- but no proof -- that her

real father might have been Hank Williams, Mrs. Deupree told her that she had inherited $2,000 from the estate of Lillian Stone.

Confused, Cathy tucked the information away and didn't act on it until six years later when Mr. Deupree -- prompted by a news report that Hank Williams Jr. earned $500,000 a year from his father's estate -- urged her to see what she could find out for herself.

What she found was a birth certificate listing Bobbie Jett as her mother, a contract dated three months before her birth in which Hank Williams agreed to support her and take custody after her third birthday, and relatives and friends from both the Williams and Jett families who knew of her existence and remembered her as an infant and toddler. She also learned that she had seven half-brothers and -sisters on her mother's side and that Bobbie Jett had died in 1974 of heart failure.

When she graduated from college, Cathy had married Michael Mayer and taken a job with the Montgomery (Ala.) Parks and Recreation Department as a recreational therapist. But soon after she hired Washington attorney Keith Atkinson to help investigate her case, she divorced her first husband, and in 1986 she married her lawyer. He encouraged her to pursue a performing career, and she began calling herself Jett Williams.

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