A patriotic memory, a Fourth of July tradition

I wrote this story when I worked at The Sun in San Bernardino, Calif. in 1990. It was a Fourth of July story. 

Fourth photo

Helen and Harlie Bohner


July 4, 1990

By Mike Gordon , Sun Staff Writer

The boy Harlie and Helen Bohner remember is always a smiling rascal with a heart of gold.

He is a boy who liked to pitch baseballs, a boy who nursed wounded animals, a boy whose freckles gave way to manhood.

He was their boy, Leonard Allen Bohner, all of 19 when they last saw him.

That’s his flag in the Bohner’s front yard. It flies proudly from a homemade flagpole. Harlie made it from tetherball poles.

On this day when most Americans celebrate their patriotic roots with parades, picnics and fireworks, the Bohners will do what they have done every day for 23 years: send Old Glory to the top of that flagpole.

They do it for patriotism — Harlie’s a World War II vet — and they do it for Leonard, who died in Vietnam in 1967.

“He really believed in the flag,” says Harlie, 66.

“We wanted something that would be a constant reminder to his friends,” says Helen, 63. “He was very well-liked.”

“He had a million dollar personality,” Harlie says.

Leonard grew up in this house on this tree-lined San Bernardino street. His friends were always trooping through. Helen kept a big old cookie jar in the kitchen. And how many times did those kids stay over for dinner? Why, she just can’t remember.

There was a basketball court in the backyard. Harlie, a retired heavy equipment operator, made sure the play was sportsman-like.

Those were fun times, they’ll tell you.

They have a lot of scrapbooks to remind them.

There’s 8-year-old Leonard in a Little League uniform. There he is on Santa’s lap. And there’s that three-legged turtle he nursed. How proud the family must have been when they took those graduation pictures — San Bernardino High School, Class of ’65.

Then there’s the telegram. A gunshot wound to the chest. Somewhere near Danang. President Johnson sent a letter of condolence. So did Leonard’s commanding officer.

Helen says it isn’t easy to look through her scrapbooks, to find the tattered all-star team baseball cap or the little boxing gloves. But she knows she’s lucky to have them.

And that makes her smile.

“This young man cared enough to give his all,” Helen says. “When he said he joined the Marines, I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t have to go to Vietnam.”

When he did, he told his parents, “If I die, I die,” Helen says. “And he said he truly believed his presence there could be felt. He said, ‘I think I can make this a much better world for others to live in.’”

Neighbors still tell the Bohners how much they enjoy seeing the flag. So do people driving by. Maybe that’s why the Bohners fly Old Glory.

But there’s another reason the Bohners find just as comforting.

Little boys who stop and salute.

On the hunt for a stolen life


Therese Vanderheiden-Walsh when she was about 6.

The abduction of Therese Vanderheiden-Walsh, who was almost 6 when her mother ignored a custody order and took her from Hawaii, is a story that I often think about. Therese would be a grown woman now and I have to wonder what she knows about her past and why it was her mother surrounded her with a life of secrecy and lies. I am posting it here, in part, as an experiment with social media. Maybe Therese will see it on Twitter or Facebook and learn something about herself.

This story was originally published May 27, 1996 in The Honolulu Advertiser. In the years since, I sometimes checked the various identities used by Therese’s mother against records in a national database to see if she had surfaced, or made a mistake that allowed her location to be revealed.

But she’s a smart one. The life she created for her daughter remains a secret.


By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer

Merle Marie Vanderheiden is a clever woman. She was trained in U.S. Army counter-intelligence techniques, something that gave an edge to her steely confidence.

Francis Walsh, her ex-husband, is also a veteran of U.S. Army counter-intelligence.

Divorce didn’t ease the hatred between them, but the kidnapping turned their broken marriage into war. The courts had given Walsh custody of the couple’s only child. Some inner voice had given his ex-wife the nerve to ignore that.

On a warm June day almost six years ago, Vanderheiden disguised herself with dark glasses, a floppy hat and a wig and abducted her daughter. Therese Vanderheiden-Walsh, who would turn 6 in a matter of days, was on her way to swim class at the Kokokahi YWCA in Kaneohe.

And then she was gone. Her mother, too. Witnesses saw them drive away.

Ever since, Vanderheiden has eluded everyone pursuing her.

She’s become a cross-country chameleon with 10 aliases.

A fugitive whose face was different on every driver’s license.

A 45-year-old mother so desperate to keep her only child, that the FBI considers her armed and dangerous.


The FBI says Merle Vanderheiden kidnapped her daughter from the Kokokahi YWCA on June 22, 1990.

She and Therese could be anywhere — a reality that gnaws at Walsh.

“There are so many towns you could hide in, places where no one asks any questions,” Walsh says. “Whenever I fly to the Mainland, I look out the window and see a house in the middle of nowhere and say `She could be there.'”

Therese will turn 12 “there” — wherever “there” is — on the Fourth of July. Her childhood is almost over. Her father has missed it.

Every time Walsh, a 50-year-old bank manager, walks by her room, he wrestles with memories. For that very reason, he kept that room locked for five years.

Therese had green eyes, a cherub’s smile and blond pigtails. She had a little purple bicycle with training wheels.

“Every lead that has happened, was either followed up too late, or was so far after the fact the trail is cold, or it was bungled,” Walsh says. “The police have done a lot of work, but it is not a high priority case for them.

“It is not a drug lord or someone who’s a danger to people on the street,” he says. “It is just custodial interference.

“But it’s my daughter.”

It began in the Army

 They were in love, once. Francis Walsh fishes for the memory, trying to find the place where it all began.

He and Merle Vanderheiden met in the Army, when they were stationed at Fort Meade, Md. She was a first lieutenant and he was a major. They were assigned to military intelligence units.

Vanderheiden performed administrative tasks, but she was trained in counter-intelligence — documentation, analysis. And she was smart. Really smart.

It was November 1979. Walsh was recently divorced after a 10-year marriage.

“The old rebound,” he says. “I asked her out. I was probably feeling lonely.”

They were married in September 1980 at the base chapel.

Vanderheiden left the Army in May 1982, a few months before Walsh was transferred to Huntsville, Ala.

Therese was born July 4, 1984. The couple had argued about a lot of things, but the baby heightened the strain between them, Walsh says.

Walsh was transferred to Hawaii in July 1985. He thought this would change things.

But they fought. So badly, in fact, that Walsh lived in his car for four months.

`Brainwashing’ charged

They separated in May 1987. By December, Vanderheiden was accusing Walsh of sexually abusing their child. Later that month, mother and child took a brief, unscheduled trip to the Mainland.

“Christmas Day I went over to her place at Kuapa Isle with presents for Therese,” Walsh says, “and they weren’t there.”

He filed for divorce in January 1988. It was settled by January 1989.

In the bitter world where couples carve apart their lives, Walsh endured humiliating tests to clear himself of the abuse charges.

But the shocker was testimony from the psychologist Vanderheiden hired. Instead of abuse, she concluded Therese suffered from “parental alienation syndrome” — a form of brainwashing where a child comes to believe one parent is evil and the other good.

Walsh got custody of his daughter. Family Court Judge Frances Wong noted Vanderheiden’s unpredictability and “a flagrant disregard for the child’s needs.”

Wong wouldn’t allow unsupervised visitation and ordered Vanderheiden to undergo psychiatric evaluation.

Within a day of the divorce decree, Vanderheiden left for the Mainland. She gave Therese a Barbie doll with her telephone number and the words “call collect” written on the doll’s butt.

Suddenly gone

By now, Walsh had soothed his heartache with a new relationship — with a woman he would move in with and later marry.

Janice Walsh remembers the day Therese arrived. She looked like a refugee.

“Her mother had taken her hair and chopped it down to the scalp in places,” Janice Walsh says. “Chunks of it.”

They put Therese in therapy and tried to give her a normal life. Elementary school. Pets. Birthday parties. A summer fun program.

They almost never let Therese out of their sight.

The morning of the day Therese disappeared — June 22, 1990 — she bounded out of the house with her father. She wore shorts, tennis shoes, her hair in pigtails. At noon, the call came that Therese was gone.

Family and friends threw their energy at the airport, staking out each security checkpoint and Mainland departure. They were there until 1:30 the next morning, staring at the faces of strangers.

Face after face after face.


This page from the Missing Child Center-Hawaii website includes an age-progressed photo of what Therese Vanderheiden-Walsh might look like at 17.

Searching for clues

The search for Merle Vanderheiden is not unlike driving through a strange town without a map.

Police and missing-children agencies in three states have tried to find her. The Secret Service has checked its bank of handwriting samples against letters Vanderheiden wrote. The FBI has thousands of pages of reports. Margaret Faulkner, a special agent at the bureau’s Honolulu office, spent hours trying to close the case.

“We did everything we could, but I know we could have done something different,” she says. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I know I must have had to have missed something. You know it has to be there, staring you in the face. It could be something . . . so . . . insignificant.”

Like many people, Faulkner believes family members — many of whom live in Texas and Colorado — have helped Vanderheiden.

During the first summer she was gone, Francis Walsh hired a private investigator in Texas.

The investigator tracked Vanderheiden’s Social Security number by running it through a national computer database. Although he finds leads in Colorado Springs that summer — and October 1991 — they sour. The leads are thought to be associated with a welfare scam.

In Nederland, Texas, a police detective and a bank employee linked Vanderheiden’s family to the purchase of a Ford van.

Innocent, perhaps, but the owner registration and vehicle identification number led detectives to Daytona Beach, Fla. When Walsh saw the driver’s license for the owner, Mary Jean Hamm, he was startled.

It was Vanderheiden in a bad wig and glasses. But she wasn’t living at the address on the license.


Merle Vanderheiden in one of her disguises.

Spying on family

The investigator then traveled to Colorado to spy on Vanderheiden’s sister, Mary Kim Vanderheiden, a school principal who authorities believe has helped her sister. He sat next to her at a football game one September night, listening to her conversations.

The next day, he knocked on her door — he said he was lost. He was really looking for children’s toys. He saw none.

The search bounced from Plano, Texas, to Homestead, Fla. to Huntsville, Ala. Always close, never close enough.

The summer of 1991 found Walsh and his brother-in-law, a retired cop from Syracuse, N.Y., parking a rental car across the street from family homes in Texas in the hopes that mother and daughter would show up for Therese’s birthday.

It was a bust. The Neighborhood Watch chased them away. At the local 7-Eleven, they fled as Vanderheiden’s brothers approached their car.

Dead ends

And yet, the family connection refused to go away. The U.S. Marshals Service had registered the Ford van in the National Crime Information Center. When “Mary Jean Hamm” sold the van in 1994 to Vanderheiden’s sister-in-law in Bridge City, Texas, the transfer of ownership set off alarms.

“A local cop went there without a search warrant,” Walsh says. “She could have been in the back bedroom. We’ll never know.”

A few days later, FBI agents from Beaumont inspected the van. It had been wiped clean of fingerprints.

Special Agent Faulkner bristles at that.

“They are thumbing their nose at us,” she says. “I think this is funny to them, that they are beating the FBI.”

Last fall, authorities in Hawaii had someone on a plane waiting to take off for Colorado.

They were convinced that Vanderheiden was living in Colorado as Marie A. Vanderheiden and that she was speaking at an American Bar Association conference in Denver.

Faulkner and Anne Clarkin, coordinator for the Hawaii State Clearinghouse on Missing Children, compared photos and driver’s licenses and believed the two Vanderheidens were the same person.

At the last minute, the trip was canceled because a fingerprint check by the Denver FBI came up negative. Clarkin learned after the conference that the FBI used the wrong fingerprints — used Therese’s instead of her mother’s.

A follow-up check cleared the woman, a blonde who looked a lot like the fleeing Vanderheiden.

Just like Faulkner, Clarkin stares at the same pile of documents, wondering what she’s overlooked, knowing one thing is certain about Merle Marie Vanderheiden: “She is not a dummy. And she’s getting better at this. And she has help. Her parents are actively assisting her.”

`More power to her’

Vanderheiden’s parents, Merle and Dorothy Vanderheiden, say they are worried sick about the whole thing. They also believe their telephone is tapped.

“We hope she is OK,” says Merle Vanderheiden, a 73-year-old retired nursing administrator. “But if she is on the run, more power to her.”

They think about their granddaughter every day.

“It is horrible, but it is better than if we knew Fran had her still,” says Dorothy Vanderheiden, a 66-year-old mother of seven. “He is not a sane man.”

The Ford van was an innocent mix-up, they say. The FBI is out to harass them, their family and anyone who knew their daughter.

That’s how another daughter feels. Mary Kim Vanderheiden — who has taken a new job as a counselor at Holbrook High School in Holbrook, Ariz. — is an angry woman.

“How did you find me?” she says. “I really don’t trust anybody. Why do you consider this important? We have been harassed by Mr. Walsh. I won’t speak to anybody as it relates to Mr. Walsh.”

She pauses.

“You’re taking notes, aren’t you?”

Refuses psychiatrist

Time is draining hope from Francis Walsh. People tell him he never smiles. He and Janice won’t go anywhere they might find children. Often, she finds her husband staring at a child. At airports, Janice watches him scan the crowds.

She wants him to see a psychiatrist, but he won’t go.

It is getting harder, too, to generate interest in the search. There are so many other missing children with more promising cases. On Christmas Day last year, as on the year before, the QVC home shopping channel omitted Therese’s photograph from its annual broadcast of missing children.

Still, Walsh can push this aside, insisting that one day Therese will be old enough to track him down through directory assistance and call.

All he has to do is survive the wait with his sanity intact.

“There is a missing part of my life, somewhere,” Walsh says. “I think about it every once in a while, but I bury it. I don’t let too many people in there. When I do think about it, I really get mad. Where is she?”

Postscript: Francis Walsh never got to see his daughter again. He died in 1998.


Francis Walsh

David Kempton’s saga, Part 2


David Kempton

In the mid-1990s, shortly after joining the staff of The Honolulu Advertiser, I developed a good working relationship with a group of people – some official, some not – that sought to locate Hawaii’s missing children. This story grew out of that relationship and, in an example that Hawaii is a small place, introduced me to a machinist I had often seen during a college job years earlier at the Institute for Astronomy – David Kempton.

 Kempton reluctantly shared his sad story, which was originally published on Aug. 9, 1995. A few months later, Kempton experienced a miracle. This follow-up was originally published Jan. 21, 1996.

By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer

The sound of his daughter’s voice had long ago slipped from David Kempton’s memory. Vanished without a trace — just like she had on that weekend in September 1953.

So, Kempton trembled as he pressed the telephone to his ear one week ago in his Nuuanu home.

After 42 years, it was Donna.

His little Donna.

The smiling blonde 4-year-old abducted by her mother.

Kempton had found her. Against the odds. While his head had said impossible, his heart had hoped he was wrong.

They talked for an hour.

“I’m someplace else besides reality,” Kempton said later. “It’s great.”

Luck – or was it fate? – had brought father and daughter together after Kempton, who is 73, threw his energy at one final search.

No one could have predicted the amazing results.

Or that an old photograph, a one-in-a-million juxtaposition of people and a tabloid TV show would lead to a family haunted by lies, secrets and silence.


Donna Rae Kempton, age 4.

Photo prompts questions

She had seen the old photo many times. It stirred something deep inside her soul, prompted questions no one would answer.

But as a young girl, it was one of the first clues that something about her life with “mom” and “dad” was very wrong.

Whenever she asked about the young boy in the photo, her mother said it was a neighbor.

Whenever she asked about persistent memories of a man and a boy in a place far away, her mother said it was a dream.

Above all, one image seemed to stand out for Donna Rae Roe.

“I remember the night she walked out with me,” she said. “I can see it. I can close my eyes and see the night we walked away with a suitcase in her hand and meeting a man on the corner and getting into his car.

“I have been asking my mom about that image since I was little.”

When she was 17, she found her baptismal certificate hidden among her mother’s belongings. The name on it was not the one she called her own.

Who was Donna Rae Kempton?

A private heartache

 Few knew David Kempton’s private heartache.

He is a careful man, his world lathed by a long career as a machinist.

In his workshop beneath Bilger Hall on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus, form follows function. Here, Kempton carves out scientific instruments for the Chemistry Department, precisely and cleanly.

But Donna Rae Kempton was never far from his mind. Mere mention of the name “Donna” conjured images of a cheeky toddler.

Sometimes, he thought of her mother, Barbara.

“She was my first love,” he said.

Kempton was in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1946, stationed in Calcutta, a long way from his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.

He met Barbara Pyne at a dance. She was exotic, a Eurasian woman from Burma.

They were married on Valentine’s Day 1946. By spring, they had moved to Cleveland.

Their first child was a boy, Steven; 2½ years later, Donna arrived.

The marriage lasted until New Year’s Eve 1952. Barbara had fallen in love with an itinerant factory worker named Charles Semmler.

Kempton received custody of his children. Barbara got visitation rights.

It was a Friday when Kempton dropped Donna off for her first visit. On Sunday, when he returned to Barbara’s home, the place was empty.

He didn’t call the police. A private detective all but laughed at him.

“She was a war bride with no connections in this country,” Kempton said. “Her boyfriend was an avowed itinerant, so there was no way to trace them — even if I had the resources.”

Kempton would re-marry, raising Steven and three new children as best he could.

But he was a wounded man.

“For a long time, inside, I was an emotional mess,” Kempton said.

In 1970, he moved his family to Hawaii, where he now lives with his third wife.

Over time, as memories of Donna grew dimmer, Kempton clung to a black and white photograph he had taken of her and Steven during the girl’s fourth birthday party.

Just a few weeks before she vanished.

Photograph `morphed’

Anne Clarkin, coordinator for the Hawaii State Clearinghouse on Missing Children, took on the Kempton case in April 1995.

Kempton’s plight moved Clarkin, the sole employee of this low-budget, high-tech operation in the state Attorney General’s Office.

She wanted an age-progression specialist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to “morph” the last photograph Kempton had of Donna, who by now would be 46.

Clarkin also hoped she could get the case featured on the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Success was a long shot of epic proportions.

Even though a special computer program is used, there is some artistic license involved because no software can take a child’s face 42 years into the future.

The rendering took two days. Almost immediately, Clarkin started showing the “aged” photo, hoping to get enough publicity to convince “Unsolved Mysteries” to feature Kempton.

“Unsolved Mysteries” aired Donna Rae Kempton’s story on the night of Jan. 12, flashing images of her “new” face and that birthday party photo. Her father stood vigil over the telephone from 3 to 8 p.m. while the show was broadcast in time zones across the country.

The show’s producers had told Kempton to expect instant results. By 8:15 p.m., they called to say they were wrong. Kempton wasn’t surprised.

“I am a pretty cautious individual,” he said. “I thought they might be trying to put a positive face on it. I didn’t really think it would happen that way.

“Still when it didn’t, part of me was a little disappointed.”

Fifteen minutes later, they called back.

`Unsolved Mysteries’

Donna Roe’s half sister spit a cherry tomato across the kitchen when “Unsolved Mysteries” opened its show.

Right there on her TV screen was the biggest shock of her life. She didn’t know who that older woman was — the one in the “morphed” image — but she knew the 4-year-old with the blonde bangs and the kitten.

She had seen that photo years ago. Only a handful of people — maybe six — ever have.

Inside of a minute, she telephoned her sister, Donna Rae Roe, who lives nearby in San Jose, Calif.

“No way, no way, no way, this can’t be,” Roe kept telling her husband as “Unsolved Mysteries” aired a re-enactment of her abduction and an interview with David Kempton.

But it was true.

There on her TV screen was the man Roe had wondered about since she was 17 years old. Her real father.

She never expected this would happen.

It had taken 10 years before she could even find the courage ask her mother about the baptismal certificate. The story that spilled out turned a long drive into a three-hour confession.

“I had always put off looking for him because I always thought I had to protect Barbara and Charles,” Roe said.

“I really think they have waited all these years for the FBI to show up at their door and arrest them for kidnapping.”

Instead, it’s going to be Roe who knocks on their front door.

Her parents do not watch “Unsolved Mysteries,” she said.

“This is going to be a big shock to my mother,” Roe said. “Hopefully it will bring some relief to her. I don’t know if Chuck even knows I know he is not my real father.”

She has never pressed her mother for reasons, even for the one question that still gnaws at her.

“I have always wondered how my mother could live with the fact that she left a kid behind,” Roe said. “She has known for 42 years that she has had a son out there.”

Normal childhood

Roe grew up in Northern California and said her childhood was normal.

Barbara joined the PTA and was always there when Donna and her half-sister came home from school. “Chuck” was a machinist, a strict, but fair parent.

“I never felt unloved by him,” Roe said. “His love was always special to me because I have always known he didn’t have to love me.”

Today Barbara and Charles — both in their 70s — live under an assumed last name.

Roe refuses to reveal that last name or where they live. She won’t talk about her half-sister, either.

She also refuses to allow her picture to be taken, worried that the publicity will adversely affect her parents and her business — she owns The Travel Shoppe in nearby Los Gatos.

But she hates the morphed photograph.

“I think it is totally off base,” she said. “My eyes are further apart. My face is thinner. I don’t have such a high forehead. All my friends say I am much better looking than this picture.”

Talks to daughter

Two days after “Unsolved Mysteries” featured David Kempton and his precious photograph, he was talking to his daughter.

It was difficult and wonderful.

The voice he had forgotten had long since changed and his little girl was no longer a tow-headed cherub.

She had grown up without him, but he was never far from her thoughts.

They blamed no one.

“Apparently, this whole thing has weighed very heavily on Barbara all these years,” Kempton said. “I told Donna that I would like her to tell her mother I bear her no grudge. I would hope that would lift some of that burden.”

Kempton told Roe to call her brother, Steven, a restaurant manager in Midland, Texas.

Last Monday, the siblings bridged a 42-year gap with nervous laughter and kind words.

The boy in the photo had grown up without her — had spent his life trying to forget memories that always hurt him.

He blamed no one, though. Not anymore.

“Mom did what she thought she had to do, what she thought was right at the time,” he said. “The important thing is we move forward and that we live for today.”

That means a reunion, a thought that makes him pause.

“Hopefully, my mom will want to get to know me again.”

Postscript: Donna was reunited with her father David at his home in Hawaii on April 19, 1996. David Kempton passed away in 2006.



David Kempton’s saga, Part 1


Donna Rae Kempton, age 4

In the mid-1990s, shortly after joining the staff of The Honolulu Advertiser, I developed a good working relationship with a group of people – some official, some not – that sought to locate Hawaii’s missing children.

This story grew out of that relationship and, in an example that Hawaii is a small place, introduced me to a machinist I had often seen during a college job years earlier at the Institute for Astronomy – David Kempton. Kempton reluctantly shared his sad story, which was originally published on Aug. 9, 1995.

It would become the first of two stories that told a tale of hope and a love that would not go away.


David Kempton


Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer

The girl in the birthday photo has a cherub’s smile, the cheeky kind that a daughter gives her father.

David Kempton stared at the image he had taken exactly 42 years ago yesterday. It’s the most precious photo — perhaps possession — that he owns.

Donna Rae Kempton, age 4, a blonde with bangs that fall to her eyes and a kitten in her arms.

A girl missing now for 42 years. Abducted by her mother after a custody dispute.

Not a day has passed that Kempton, a University of Hawaii machinist, hasn’t pondered the child’s fate. On Monday, the day Donna would have turned 46 — perhaps did turn 46 — he got a remarkable hint: an artist’s computer-assisted rendering of the way his daughter might look as a grown woman.

His case is being handled by the Hawaii State Clearinghouse on Missing Children, which has recovered 19 children since it opened in January. But it’s never tried to find someone missing this long.

The woman in the rendering — which was prepared by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia — has a mane of dark hair with a streak of gray. She looks like her older brother, the boy posing beside her in the old photograph.

“She doesn’t look familiar,” Kempton said. “Somehow, I always expected to see some resemblance to that person.”

He tapped the old photo.

Here in his one-man machine shop beneath Bilger Hall, he chain-smokes cigarettes in the pale fluorescent light. A thin coil of smoke piled above him like a mushroom.

At 73, nearly all his memories of Donna have drifted beyond some mental horizon.

“I can’t imagine her voice. I can’t remember. I can’t remember her trotting around.”

He tapped the photo again.

“That is the only mental image I have of her.”

Kempton is a private man. Talking about this is embarrassing.

But the rendering is the first lead he’s had since his daughter was taken. He is a father buoyed by hope for the first time.

His ex-wife was a war bride from Burma. They met in Calcutta at the end of World War II and were married in 1946. Afterward, they moved to Cleveland, Ohio.

The marriage ended on New Year’s Eve 1952. She had fallen in love with another man, an itinerant factory worker.

Ultimately, Kempton was given custody of his children. But on the first weekend of a scheduled visitation in September 1953, she only wanted Donna.

Kempton dropped off the child on a Friday and never saw her, or her mother, again.

Investigators had nothing to go on because his wife had no relatives in the United States. And Kempton knew nothing about her new beau.

“That’s where it ended,” Kempton said. “I went on and made a life.”

He married again, this time to a woman with two children. They had another child and brought the family to Hawaii in 1970.

Still, he’s thought about Donna almost every day. All it takes to stir him is to hear the name.

In 1991, Kempton started searching again. He got nowhere, even after hiring a California firm that specializes in finding people.

His last shot was a call in mid-April to Hawaii clearinghouse coordinator Anne Clarkin.

“It is a stretch,” Clarkin said. “There is no question that I would take this case. This is the worst thing that can happen to anyone.”

Now she plans to send the rendering to missing person agencies in California and Ohio. The image can be faxed or sent through the Internet.

The new image was created by Glenn Miller, an age-progression specialist with the national clearinghouse. It took two days.

The center has done 350 age-progression renderings since 1991, recovering 60 children with the images.

The key is having photographs of parents and siblings at the age the missing child would be now. All are scanned into a computer.

“We can stretch the photograph to approximate normal cranial facial growth,” Miller said. “Once we do that, we can merge the stretched image with either the mother or the father.”

Miller spent a lot of time comparing Donna’s face with her brother’s. He looked for subtle things that a person retains through life, then airbrushed these features onto his stretched photo.

He used David Kempton’s eyes and smile lines because they seemed to show up prominently in a recent photo of his son.

“I even adjusted the mouth in a slightly upward position, trying to look at family likenesses, subtleties and uniquenesses,” Miller said.

He’s confident the image is Donna Rae Kempton.

David Kempton isn’t sure. But maybe it will bring her back.

“There’s a big hole in my life that I would like to resolve,” he said. “I wonder what she looks like.”



My stint as Santa


When someone tells you that a journalist will do anything to get a story, short of an ethics violation, there’s some truth to that. If you don’t believe me, read the following story, presented in the spirit of Christmas. It was originally published by The Honolulu Advertiser on Dec. 16, 2007 when I was a feature writer and columnist in the Island Life section. And here’s a little-known fact: This wasn’t the first time I was a Santa for a story, as you’ll see if you get to the bottom of this story.

By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer

The first child looked up from her stroller, brown eyes growing wide, and promptly began to cry.

Ho, ho, ho, no. The “Merry Christmas” caught in my throat. Then she began to howl. Not a very good start, Santa.

Two minutes into my shift as a mall Santa, and my self-confidence was being tested. Was I doing this right? I was just walking toward the Santa chair, and things were going wrong already.

Maybe it was my furry red suit. Or the enormous white beard, which was fake. Maybe I should have had bells that jingled. The other Santas had bells.

When you put on a Santa suit, you have only one mission: Make everyone smile. Your whole job is to embody the soul of the season, to share the joy of Christmas and touch the hearts of those who believe.

It’s a tough gig. Failure translates to disappointment. If you can’t make someone’s wish come true, you have to at least leave them thinking it’s possible.

The spirit of Christmas can be elusive, as hard to grasp as chimney smoke. Some might even say it’s nothing more than pleasant nostalgia.


But I can tell you otherwise. I found it the other day at the Kahala Mall.

Undaunted by a few tears, I kept on walking.

The next child I met looked at me with a face as bright as holiday lights. Kai was 2.

“What do you want for Christmas?”


I blinked.

Turned out her mother is already pregnant. Close call, Santa.

“Merry Christmas,” I said to a pert salon worker watching this unfold. “Have you been good, or do I have to bring you coal?”

“Not that good,” she said. “Mostly good, but just a little naughty. Mostly good, though.”

“Santa understands,” I said. “Santa has been around a long time.”

Of course, the next encounter left a child in tears.

To prepare for my gig as the holiday’s biggest icon, I consulted a true master: Patrick Brown, a 56-year-old Kaimuki resident who has worked as a mall Santa for more than three decades.

Brown grows his own beard, which is bleached white for the holidays, and he doesn’t need a pillow in his pants.

He can make an entrance that’s all Christmas. He has bells on his belt, bells on his wrists and bells hanging from his cap. The slightest motion triggers a spasm of jingles.

“You gotta like kids,” he said. “That’s the most important thing. Sometimes you are getting the young kids. The younger ones are the fussy ones. You have to get their confidence so they’re not afraid.”

This guy knows from experience. In a single holiday season, Brown will listen to more than 5,000 fervent Christmas wishes, he said.

One year, a parent handed him her 3-day-old child. Another year, a 105-year-old woman was brought before him in a wheelchair.

“She said to her daughter, ‘I am going to get out of this wheelchair and walk up and sit on Santa’s lap,’ ” Brown said. “And that’s what she did.

“She just laughed and said, ‘God bless you, Santa,’ and gave me a big hug.”

A mall Santa is nothing without his suit.

It has power. It grants those who wear it a license to wave at strangers and to nudge them into a smile when you say “Merry Christmas.” Hey, you can even make them feel guilty if they don’t smile.

Strangers will take your photograph and pose with you. Of course, it isn’t you they’re posing with, it’s Santa.

But let me tell you a little secret: You aren’t you, either. You’re Santa.

Regan Yamashiro, manager of The Costume Closet, warned me when I picked up the suit that it would make me behave differently. This time of year, that happens a lot, he said. People step into the suit like Clark Kent steps into a phone booth.

“I see them prancing around all of a sudden, acting like Santa and practicing their ho, ho, ho,” Yamashiro said. “They may be hesitant at first, but once the suit is on, they are totally different.”

Trouble was, this Santa could use a few more pounds. Walking a mile in Santa’s shoes is easier than walking in his pants. When I stepped into them, I looked like one of those “after” photos from a weight-loss program.

Yamashiro included torso padding that looked like it did double duty on an umpire’s chest during baseball season. Steee-rike.

It took a bit of creativity to secure the padding. The whole time, I was one broken safety pin away from disaster. (Ho, ho, HO, my goodness — Santa moons mall!)

And not that you’ve ever pondered this, but mall Santas suffer for their craft. Those suits are hot.

Under the wig, I was a sheep dog with reading glasses. The beard tickled. I had hair in my teeth.


As I sat in the Santa chair, it was all I could do to be patient. Trust me, five minutes alone on the big guy’s throne can make you feel like the loneliest Santa in the world.

So I waved at people.

“Hi, how are you? Do you want to come say hello to Santa? No? Oh, that’s OK, when Santa was little, he was shy, too. But not for very long.”

I was pathetic.

Then I met Logan Bennett, a 3-year-old from ‘Alewa Heights.

“Do you want to tell me what you want for Christmas?” I said.

“I want my own black Nintendo.”

“I have to ask you: Have you been good? You have? Actually I knew that because I’m watching. So I’m glad you’re good.”

“Are you, like, all over, looking?”

“Well, Santa knows things. Santa finds out. It’s like Santa radar.”

Long moments passed after Logan left, and I managed to scare another child to tears before the Nishihira twins from Mo’ili’ili rescued my confidence. They’re 4.

“Hi, Santa,” Micah Nishihira yelled from across the mall in a tiny voice. “We love you.”

He introduced me to his sister, Mia, and pointed to his mother.

“Now we have to go.”

When I waved at Jason Schriber, a 4-year-old Hawai’i Kai boy, his brow wrinkled.

“I saw you two times already, yeah? I saw you two times.”

But he wouldn’t say no to a third visit with Santa.

“You want a candy cane?” I said. “C’mon. There you go. Hey, what do you want for Christmas?”

“Didn’t I just tell you?”

“Will you leave me out a cookie on Christmas Eve?”

“I might.”

“You might?”

“My mommy always does it.”

“You know, I’ve been good enough for a cookie.”

Nothing lasts forever, and some fantasies end just as you discover that they are both wonderful and fleeting.

When it was time to leave the mall, I walked slowly. In a few minutes, I would have to relinquish the suit, the itchy beard and the power to say that dreams come true, even when they can’t.

I waved at everyone. I wished shoppers a Merry Christmas. I stopped for a father who wanted to know if Santa had time for one more child.

The power to make someone happy is not something one takes lightly.

In the parking lot outside the mall, the Santa suit safely folded and put away, the world looked ordinary. Shoppers walked with purpose. Drivers stalked parking stalls.

“Ho, ho, ho,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

No one noticed.

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com


Santa’s first gig

My first gig as a mall Santa was in 1988 when I was a Honolulu Star-Bulletin feature writer in the Today section. 



She was a Harvey Girl at heart

I haven’t written in weeks. It’s the longest period of my professional career that I’ve gone without writing. That isn’t a complaint, just an observation. But in its place, and until I get myself going again here, I’ve had fun with some old stories from my personal archives. This story was originally published in January 1992 when I wrote a weekly people column for The Sun in San Bernardino. It’s one of my favorites.

Mike Gordon’s People: Woman tracks the early days

SAN BERNARDINO – Flo Strano stood at the edge of the steel rails and hoped for a ride back in time.

Strano didn’t have a ticket. Just a prayer.

She wore the white dress of her youth. Ankle length with black stockings and black shoes. A black bow on her chest, a white headband around her white hair.

She wasn’t 16 anymore, and this wasn’t Barstow. She was 88, a great, great, great grandmother from San Bernardino.

But she was still a Harvey Girl at heart.

“I’m the oldest one alive,” she said. “I started in July 1919.”

Friday, at the San Bernardino depot, Strano was a living piece of history waiting for another living piece of history.

Somewhere down the line was Santa Fe Engine 3751, a restored steam locomotive on a special excursion to Bakersfield via Barstow.

Strano wanted to catch a ride on a four-day trip that will bring the engine back to San Bernardino at about 11 a.m. today.

Even though she didn’t have the $1,100 for a ticket, organizers told Strano that she could board the train. But no one sent her a ticket.

She waited at the depot, suitcase in hand and $75 in her pocket.

She’d dance for meals if she had to. She just had to get on that train.

“Because it’s history,” she said, tapping her toe. “I feel like I’m an antique. And I feel like I’m representing Fred Harvey himself.”

From the 1880s through the 1930s, Harvey House restaurants flourished along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

Weary travelers were greeted by the Harvey Girls, who served hot meals, sandwiches and coffee in San Bernardino, Needles, Bagdad and Barstow.

It was a wild west adventure at $40 a month, room and board included.

“No cursing,” she said. “No drinking. Well, it was dry back then anyway. We had to be in our room by 9 p.m. — 11 p.m. on dance nights.”

Strano pulled a photo from her purse — a snapshot of a dark-haired girl, four days by train from Leavenworth, Kan., in a town she’d never heard of before.

She met her first husband in Barstow.

“A fry cook, wouldn’t you know,” she said

He played an ukulele but didn’t know how to sing.

“We used to go out in the desert and light bonfires and sing songs,” she said. “That’s how we entertained ourselves.”

As the depot crowd swelled, the old-timers spotted Strano first.

Some stared as if she were a ghost. Many took her picture.

Strano was their ticket to days gone by, to memories worth remembering.

“I was a hard-working gal then,” she said. “I hope they let me on that train.”

Then a whistle blew in the distance, and the rails began to hum under tons of history.

Engine 3751 had arrived, a hulking, steam-spewing memory come to life.

Now it was Strano’s turn to see a ghost.

She smiled anyway and clutched the elbow of crewmember Jeff Johannsen, who vowed he would get her on that train. And he did.

He took her to the door of a Pennsylvania Steamliner, helped her up the steps.

Strano had had a ticket all along. Her dress. Her Harvey Girl smile. Her memories.

She waved goodbye and for one brief moment, it seemed that Strano had stepped into a faded black-and-white photograph.

Into history.


The other Arizona


Claire Hetrick beside the rusted remnants of the battleship USS Arizona in 2006.

The term “last hurrah” is used so often, that a skeptic could say it has no meaning.

But this week, when some of this nation’s oldest living veterans — men in their 90s — gather in Hawaii to mark the 75th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, no one will deny that undeniable truth.

One of the veterans who had planned to attend was Clare Hetrick, a survivor of the USS Arizona. But he died in Las Vegas in April at the age of 92. His family plans to have his ashes interred with his fellow shipmates.

I interviewed Hetrick in December 2006 when the Navy escorted him and his family to a little-known section of the battleship that was salvaged after the war and stored on a shady stretch of Pearl Harbor shoreline.

Over the years as a reporter with The Honolulu Advertiser, I wrote a lot of stories about the anniversary and covered it several times. Every one of them was special and a tale I relished telling. But this is my favorite. It was an emotional experience for everyone there. Here is the story as originally published on Dec. 7, 2006.



By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer

Clare Hetrick leaned on his two replacement knees and a wooden cane, an arm’s length away from a piece of his distant past. Then, the 83-year-old former mess cook on the USS Arizona swept a mottled hand across the rusted skin of his old battleship.

“This is the sight of my life,” he said. “I never dreamed that I’d see it again.”

It was the rarest of reunions.

Most of the battleship lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, a sacred memorial to those killed during the Dec. 7, 1941 attack. But a section of the ship remains safely hidden on Waipi’o Peninsula — several tons of steel cut from the Arizona wreckage in 1962.

Hetrick, a Pearl Harbor survivor from Bullhead City, Ariz., told the Navy that this would likely be his last trip of any kind. On Tuesday, the Navy granted Hetrick’s request for a visit. He brought his entire family — his wife, three sons, their wives and his three grandchildren.

“We didn’t believe we’d ever get to do it,” said Jeanne, his wife of 61 years. “He doesn’t show emotions but his whole insides is shakin’. When we get this over with, it will be a big sigh of relief. We got to see it.”

Clare Hetrick — Clare is short for Clarendon — joined the Navy because he got tired of going to high school in Lemon Grove, Calif. It was either that or get a job, he said.

Hetrick was an 18-year-old seaman first class on the Arizona the day it was sunk. He was shaving in the forward head when the attack began and immediately ran to his battle station several decks below in the aft magazine for the 5-inch anti-aircraft guns. He was dressed only in his skivvies.

“When we took the big hit, we lost all power,” he said. “It knocked us all off our feet. There were five of us in there.”

The men scrambled up a ladder to escape. But Hetrick found another sailor stuck in a hatch above him. Hetrick didn’t know it then, but the man had broken both his hips when the blast threw him around. He pushed the sailor through the hatch and they somehow made it over the side.

“If I had been almost anywhere else, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I didn’t get so much as a scratch.”


Hetrick spent most of the war aboard the USS Saratoga, fighting in campaigns that included the battle of Iwo Jima, for which he earned a Purple Heart. One night, he and his ship survived five kamikaze attacks.

After the war, he joined the Air Force, where he served for 20 years. He retired as a master sergeant and moved his family to central California, where he became a farm labor contractor.

His children knew their father was an Arizona survivor, but the depth of responsibility that came with that was something they didn’t quite understand, said youngest son Bob Hetrick, a 43-year-old butcher-turned-information technology student from Las Vegas.

“My whole life I grew up being the son of an Arizona survivor and for a lot of years, I didn’t know what it meant,” he said. “We went to parades, but I didn’t understand what it meant until my 20s, that surviving the Arizona was a big deal.”

The Arizona crew suffered 1,177 casualties in the attack, including an estimated 900 men who still are entombed in the hull. It is something none of the survivors can forget, a responsibility that brings them back.

But the salvaged section of the battleship — a length of sagging steel not much longer than a city bus — isn’t part of any Pearl Harbor tour. And it isn’t a memorial, either. It’s stored at the end of a dirt road on a restricted section of Navy property. It’s only real purpose is to provide pieces of memorabilia for small memorials across the country.

The Hetricks had heard stories of its existence, but not how to secure a visit. Last December, however, they were told to call the Navy, which arranged for access.

For nearly a year, the trip was a source of excitement. Family members were prepared to quit their jobs if they were denied time off.

So when they found themselves actually standing before it, their feet crunching on rusted flakes around them, the Hetrick clan was humbled.


When he first saw it, Ben Hetrick swirled with emotion. A Vietnam War veteran who can’t bring himself to visit that war’s memorial, the oldest of the Hetrick sons viewed the salvaged Arizona section with a touch of fear.

It took his breath away.

“I don’t know how to explain my feelings,” said Ben Hetrick, a 59-year-old tax consultant from Modesto, Calif. “When I first saw it, it sent chills down my spine. Now that I’m closer, it’s almost friendly.”

After a few minutes, tears slid down Bob Hetrick’s cheeks.

“It’s incredible that it’s still here,” he said. “It’s a piece of history and I’ll never forget it and I don’t think my family ever will.”

He had been to the memorial with his father, but to touch the ship himself — even a section as ordinary as the boat deck and the galley — was entirely different.

“The memorial is a place of remembrance and to pay homage to those who did lose their lives,” he said. “To me, this is more of something to celebrate the survivors. This is the original Arizona survivor. I liken this to my dad and the rest of the survivors.”


“This is the sight of my life. I never dreamed I’d see it again.” — Clare Hetrick when he saw remnants of the battleship USS Arizona in 2006. 

Throughout the visit, Clare Hetrick was stoic. He’d viewed this as a homecoming of sorts, but what he saw was disturbing.

“Is this what you thought?” said Jeanne, his 78-year-old wife.

“No,” he said.

Nothing was recognizable anymore. What was left of the ship was falling apart — just like the old survivors, he said.

But the steel embraced him nonetheless, took him back to a time when its interior was slathered in white paint and he was agile enough to race to his battle station on two good knees.

“I didn’t realize it is as tore up as it is,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m not disappointed. I’m proud to be here. It gives you a pit in your stomach.”

Reach Mike Gordon at 525-8012 or mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.


Where I surf


Photo shot Nov. 27, 2016

This is where I surf. It was the place where I learned to surf. It was the only place, really, that I ever surfed. It was a mile from my home. If I wanted to walk there, I could, but I always drove.

I’ve been out there on beautiful, sunny days when the water was like a pane of glass and I’ve been out there when the wind ripped the tops off waves like a screaming banshee.

I’ve been out there with my friends and I’ve been out there by myself, wondering if I was really alone.

The lineup is a lengthy paddle from shore, about 10 minutes, so that keeps the crowds away on all but the biggest days. When you are out there, the shore seems like another world. You watch the ocean rise up from the horizon as you jockey for the right spot to catch a wave, arms windmilling you into it.

That moment when you realize you’ve caught a wave, that moment when it takes you and you stand, crease its aqua face and streak away — that moment is pure bliss.

I’ve always said two things about this place. First, the waves are always better than you expect and second, you will always have more fun than you expect.

Brother, ain’t that the truth.