Desperately Seeking Sadie Lee A brother's anguished search for his long-lost sister

March 12, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach

CUMBERLAND — For nearly four decades, David Powell has been trying to put a face to a name.

The face is that of his younger sister, a face he hasn't seen in nearly 60 years and has long ago forgotten. But the name is one he thinks of almost daily.

Last year, using his own money, he published a book of all the things he doesn't know about his sister, all the things he'd tell her if only he could. Its title: "Sadie Lee, Where Are You?"

But the 100-page book could just as easily have been called, "Sadie Lee, Who Are You?"

"I don't know anything about Sadie Lee," explains Mr. Powell, a former professor of humanities who was only 3 when his family gave the year-old girl up for adoption at the end of the Great Depression, "nor does anyone else."

He doesn't know the name of the young couple who took Sadie Lee from his sick mother and alcoholic father in 1937. He doesn't know if they are the ones who wound up adopting her. He doesn't know if Sadie Lee realizes that she has three older brothers and a sister. He doesn't know if she is dead or alive.

All Mr. Powell knows is that Sadie Lee is his sister, maybe his only living sibling. And that's why he refuses to give up on a search that has lasted for decades and led to nothing but dead ends.

"It's important because it might be important to her," he explains. At least, he adds softly, "I don't know that it's not."

His search for his sister has taken him throughout the country: to east-central Texas where he and Sadie Lee were born; to the state homes, foster homes and boarding schools where he grew up after his family fell apart; to cavernous rooms full of official records and documents.

It's a search that has revealed precious little about Sadie Lee, but plenty about the brother she left behind. And it's a search perhaps fueled by the realization that he, too, could have been a Sadie Lee. For his father had signed papers authorizing his adoption, only to have the prospective parents separate before the process was complete.

He might have been better off had the adoption gone through. Instead, David Powell bounced from one place to another, never living anywhere long enough to establish roots. When his father suddenly decided he wanted to take care of him again, he was returned and then beaten and neglected before being dumped back into a state home.

Yet somehow Mr. Powell, now 60, managed to graduate from a military school, win a college scholarship, earn a Ph.D. and become a university professor.

He has served in the Army and the Peace Corps, has married and raised two children of his own, watched his father and other siblings pass away or disappear. He has gone from teaching at a New Mexico university to being without a job and moving in with his older sister in Cumberland.

All the while, he has remained loyal to a family torn apart by alcoholism, the Great Depression and death. And to a sister he never knew.

"I think for David, it's like a void in there," says his wife of 30 years, Maria Delcarmen Powell, who works as a nurse at a Cumberland hospital. "He needs to feel there's somebody out there for him. I don't think I would ever give up, and I don't think that David will ever give up. I just hope they find each other before it's too late."

Almost 40 years after he started looking, what Mr. Powell knows about his sister can be found in a pair of documents. A birth certificate on file at the Liberty County Courthouse in Liberty, Texas, verifies that Sadie Lee Powell was born in Rayburn, Texas, on Jan. 31, 1936. And an application his father helped fill out in 1938, seeking David's admittance to the Waco State Home in Waco, Texas, lists four siblings, three in the care of the Corsicana State Home in Corsicana, Texas. The fourth, Sadie Lee, is listed as having been "legally adopted by a family approved by the Mississippi Children's Home in Jackson, Miss."

That's it. Those are the known facts of Sadie Lee Powell's life.

"There was never a time where I felt I'd come close to finding her," her brother says. "I have essentially the same information now that I had 40 years ago."

Yet, there is one thing Mr. Powell remembers, the sort of thing a 3-year-old might recall about the toddler he played with all the time. He remembers laughter -- "squeals of delight."

Finding Sadie Lee would provide Mr. Powell with one last connection to a family torn apart by the death of his mother 57 years ago -- a family that led a vagabond existence even while Pearl Angeline Powell was alive, rarely staying in one place more than a few months.

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