University Communications

The Newsletter for Marshall University        July 20, 2011

Profile: Gina Kates

Imagine growing up a cherished only child, a universe of one, and one day unexpectedly finding that you have eight siblings, countless nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles—a flourishing family tree heavily laden with newly discovered relatives.

Gina Kates always knew she was adopted; her parents made sure of that. “I knew the word ‘adopted’ when I was two years old even though I didn’t have any idea what it meant.” In fact, just six hours after a home birth in Logan County she was scooped up by her adoptive parents, Verla and George McCloud, and brought to Huntington where they were living at the time. Secure in her small family, she would grow up in the tri-state area, in Willow Wood, Ohio, and go on to graduate from Symmes Valley High School.

Today the administrative secretary in the Dean’s Office in the College of Liberal Arts is philosophical about the events that unlocked family doors and the labyrinth of new relationships through which she had to learn to navigate. But she’s eager to share her story.

“My parents did everything the right way,” she emphasizes. “From the very beginning I knew I was adopted and they assured me they would do anything possible to help me find my birth family if I ever chose to look for them.” But in truth, Kates admits she wasn’t particularly interested in looking for an unknown family and she didn’t work very hard at finding them. Oh, occasionally she would make some half-hearted inquiries or some desultory efforts but life as she knew it was good so mostly she left the door to the past shut. By now, married with three children, her life was serene and as uncomplicated as families with children can be. Then one day in the early 1990s the ring of a telephone changed everything.

“My older sister Judy was on the line. Her call came out of the blue and I was just dumbfounded. She had been looking for me but instead had found my older brother. Then they found me and they later located my other brother who had been adopted. Suddenly I had eight brothers and sisters and all the assorted relatives that go with them.”

Then followed a heady period of discovery, connecting with lost siblings she didn’t know she had, peeling back decades of family connections and lore. ”It was such a joy when I would pick up the phone and a voice would say ‘this is your brother’ and I would think, ‘I have a brother!’ I never got tired of hearing that.” And today she and Judy have a particularly close relationship. They’re friends and confidents as well as sisters.

In a fairytale world, the now-reunited family would regularly hold joyous reunions and eagerly gather for special celebrations. But that hasn’t happened. The closest they’ve come to all being together was at a younger brother’s wedding, which several of the siblings, including Kates, attended. Initially there was the euphoria of finally solving the family puzzle, but in truth the family that so long ago was splintered by separations and tightly held secrets is not particularly close as a whole, she says. Members of the clan have pretty much gone their own ways and that’s okay with her. There are circles of relationships within the family where various siblings have their own family alignments. But the big difference now, she says, is that a long last the whereabouts of everyone is known and there is security in knowing that communication is as close as a phone or a computer click. And too, she says, “I have the feeling that my brothers and sisters didn’t grow up in the close family that I had and there’s a gap in our ages.”
And sadly three of her siblings have died, one a brother whom she never met, and another brother and sister she did get to know. Her brother’s loss was particularly devastating to her as they had become quite close before his death from a heart attack at age 37.

Kates met her birth mother only once over a weekend visit arranged by Judy at her Columbus, Ohio, home. Judy brought together the three adoptees and their mother in a meeting that was the subject of a story published in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. It was a bittersweet reunion, one that Kates remembers gratefully. “It was awesome. It was joyful because I had looked forward to that day. I don’t regret one bit of it.” Over the next few months she and her birth mother corresponded a couple of times by letter but had no more communication. Their relationship ended less than a year later with her mother’s death. Kates bears no bitterness toward her mother. “I understand why our mother gave us up; it was for our own good,” she says quietly. “At first I felt kind of guilty about going to this reunion but my parents supported me wholeheartedly, just as they have my entire life.”

But one mystery remains to be solved: where did Kates’ eclectic musical abilities come from? “No one in my family has any music ability at all,” she says candidly. However from the time she was a small child it was evident that she was musically gifted. Today, strictly by ear and totally self-taught, she plays the piano, guitar, trumpet, baritone and organ. She sings as well. In fact, for several years she was a church pianist. But happily it appears there is now another budding musician in the family who may follow in her grandmother’s musical footsteps. Five-year-old Taylor loves to sing and wants to play an instrument which delights Kates, who is encouraging her. “I want to get her into lessons very soon,” she says.

Actually Kates started piano lessons when she was eight but quickly grew bored with their slow progress. “I knew I could do so much more. I can sight read and I can hear a song and I can play it. It just comes naturally to me; I can pick up almost anything.” Now carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis in her hands are hampering her and have caused her to give up her church pianist position.

Last month Kates was among those honored for years of service to Marshall, in her case 25 years. She worked as a temporary employee in the medical school from 1984 to 1987 before taking a full-time job in Sociology and Anthropology. There she found one of her principal tasks was to be the transcriptionist for the oral history project. The project was tailored for various classes and provided a valuable record of events and the times in which they occurred. Interviews were mostly conducted by students and they covered a diverse range of topics, including the history of business in West Virginia, mining and labor disputes and the heated Kanawha County textbook controversy, which took place in the 1970s. She was heavily involved with a series of interviews with Owen-Illinois employees who lost their jobs when the Huntington plant closed and found them to be particularly memorable. Fortunately, these oral histories have been preserved and currently are housed in special collections in the Morrow Library, she says.
Intrigued by her work on the histories, she was trained to conduct interviews and in fact did some herself. Today she will speak when asked on the “how to's” of effective interviewing. Recently she’s used her skills to initiate an oral history program in the South Point, Ohio Church of God, which she had been instrumental in organizing and where she was the pianist for several years. She’ll be documenting the church’s origins and the extensive planning that brought it into being.

She transferred to the Dean’s Office three years ago, where she particularly likes interacting with students. “I’m kind of a mother or grandmother figure for some of them. I can empathize with them. They’re away from home and even though they’re considered adults, many still need some guidance. We try to make them feel comfortable and we’re always here to help.” She’s a student herself, working on an associate degree, but she’s thinking about switching to the RBA four-year degree. “I’ve taken some time off from classes but I’m going to get back into them soon,” she vows.

And just as she learned music, the same do-it-yourself approach led to her fascination with computers. “When I worked in the medical school, one day I had an Apple PC just plopped on my desk and someone told me to just learn how to work it, so I did. Luckily I took to computers immediately. I did take some classes here and there but mostly I’m self-taught. They’re fun but I’m always willing to learn something new.”

These days she says her family, reading, music and computers are her life. Husband Terry also works at Marshall in Plant Operations in Smith Hall. They’re an integral part of the lives of their daughter Courtney and Gina’s step-children Jeremy and Carissa, who live in South Point Ohio, and North Carolina, respectively. With six lively grandchildren life is never dull, but she says “We’re pretty much homebodies; we both like watching sports and I love working on the computer and reading.”

She’s a frequent visitor to websites and Facebook pages concerning adoption and she’s always happy to relate her experiences, answer questions or give advice when asked. Her candor is refreshing. “I am not bothered to talk about adoption at all. I will speak to anybody or go anywhere to talk about my life. Sometimes children who are up for adoption don’t have anyone to speak up for them. It’s important they have someone they can talk to, to relate to. And prospective adoptive parents often have concerns. I will tell everybody my adopted parents made me the person I am today and gave me the life I have today. They gave me my values.”

And she has one firm bit of advice to all adoptive families—be upfront and candid about the adoption from the beginning. She’s seen the pain non-disclosure can cause because it happened in her own family. One of her brothers was placed with a family that chose not to disclose his adoptive status. Actually, as a child, Kates knew him as a cousin and not her brother. He was in his 30s when he learned the truth, and the secrecy resulted in a great deal of bitterness and anger on his part which could have been prevented Kates says. “Adoption once was not talked about, it was a hush-hush subject. But today it’s a much more open topic and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s a wonderful thing because there are so many children that need good homes and parents with so much love to give.”

Actually her adoption helps her relate to her work, she says reflectively. “I see students and I can relate to them and some of the issues they face, the problems they’re dealing with. I know my life could have been a whole lot worse. I grew up in a loving, close family and I always say I am the lucky one. My parents chose me, they didn’t have to take me. I have had a very balanced life thanks entirely to them.”


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