IU’s Pechac meets long lost sister at Nebraska

A hole in Leslie Gaylord’s heart was nearly filled. Her long-lost brother was about to walk into a hotel coffee shop in Lincoln, Neb., offering an embrace she had waited nearly 41 years to receive.

Leslie’s hands were sweating. Her armpits were on fire. Her companions, Sharr Pechac and Michelle Smith, seemed mostly concerned with the seating arrangements for their Hallmark moment, moving Leslie from table to table, just so her back would be turned to her brother when he arrived.

“I have a family and this is my brother,” Leslie said, “and you want me to sit here and look at curtains?”

They just wanted the reunion to be as extraordinary as the story itself.

For years, the sons and daughters of Benjamin “Wayne” Smith-Owens were apart. One, Mike Pechac, the director of player development for Indiana football, didn’t know his biological father’s name until he was 13. In fact, when he was a junior at Roosevelt High in Kent, Ohio, he got in a tussle with a rival from Ravenna during a basketball game. Turns out, Mike was fighting his uncle.

Wayne was in the stands, watching.

“I even told my friend on the team, ‘I think I’ve seen my dad,’” Mike said. “The crazy thing about it, I told my friend, and his family and his dad are from that same part of town. It could have been so easy to put things together, but nobody really did.”

It took time, but Mike eventually met his half-sisters, Rachel and Katie Smith, who were just minutes down the road. A third set, Leslie, B.J., and Heather, were harder to find. They bounced from place to place with their mother, a branch completely snapped off the family tree. It wasn’t until last year, shortly after Wayne’s death, that Sharr and Michelle’s searches on Facebook turned up a matching trio.

A message led to phone calls and texts. B.J. came to a family reunion last summer. But Mike’s hectic schedule was harder to align with Leslie’s. That’s when Aunt Michelle, a native of Nebraska, decided on a “girls weekend” trip to the IU-Nebraska football game, an item that’s been on her bucket list since she beat cancer.

Mike was told his aunt was bringing a “friend.”

The night before the game, as Mike wrapped up team meetings in the hotel, Sharr was texting. “Your aunt’s friend is kind of annoying, but you might like her.”

Mike was confused. ”Who’s this friend?” Down in the coffee shop, Leslie was nervous. ”What if he doesn’t like me? What if this isn’t good?”

Leslie had talked with Mike on the phone. They’d seen photos of each other. Mike’s son, Kristian, had even visited Leslie in Colorado. But Mike and Leslie had never met, eye to eye.

Once Mike entered the room, she heard the warm greetings of a big teddy bear as he hugged his aunt. “How are youuuu? Thank you for comingggg.” Sharr and IU cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby — who had raced out of a meeting to beat Mike down the stairs — pulled out their cell phones and recorded everything.

“I’d like you to meet my friend,” Michelle said, pointing to an anonymous woman in a red, long-sleeved shirt.

Just glancing at the back of Leslie’s head froze Mike in his tracks. He knew.

His sister jumped out of her chair, speed-walking towards him, arms spread wide.

They embraced tightly, finding only a few words at a time.

“Oh my god,” Mike said. “How are you? … Oh wow … “

• • •

Leslie can now place herself next to her brother and see the resemblance. Their laugh is the same. They both have a prominent “butt” chin, as she unflatteringly describes it.

She knows a little bit more about who she is and why. At the same time, Leslie can’t help but think back to where she has been, including an endless list of times and places where these connections could have been made but weren’t.

Living a military life, Leslie and her husband were once stationed at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, two hours from Wayne after he settled by his brother James “Bernard” Smith and Michelle. Leslie was in Pensacola, Fla., just 30 minutes from her youngest half-siblings, Katie and Rachel.

Bernard had his own close encounter. One day, many years ago, a 10- or 11-year-old boy named B.J. knocked on his door selling candy. He just knew.

“I’m betting that’s Benjamin James,” Bernard asked the boy.

Wayne’s son was named after his father and uncle. They weren’t just brothers. They were best friends.

This B.J. was, in fact, Benjamin James.

Bernard kept going, adding B.J.’s mother’s name.

Again, yes, that was his mother.

“I’m your uncle,” Bernard said. “Let me know where you guys are at. Let’s talk.”

The next day, Leslie, B.J., and Heather were gone.

Their mother wanted no connection with Wayne’s family. They moved between Litchfield, Phoenix, Mesa, and Tucson, staying in women’s shelters or the back of her truck.

After that encounter with Uncle Bernard, they relocated to Colorado. Their names were changed.

Despite every effort to cut the cord, Leslie didn’t let go. She fondly remembered a brief moment in time when she was 6 years old, nearing 7, and Wayne lived next door. She woke him up every morning for two scrambled eggs. Her toast was cut in half. Wayne then taught her how to dance.

He may have had issues with drugs and alcohol for much of his life, but Wayne was sweet and tender toward Leslie. Right before they were split apart, he was going to throw his daughter a birthday party. They went to order a cake, and Wayne offered to buy Leslie a pink doll. She wanted the one with a mint-green dress and smelled like peaches.

Before the party was thrown, Leslie’s parents got into an argument. Mother and children bolted to another women’s shelter. Through the years, Leslie’s memories of her father stood in contrast with everything she was told about him.

“If he wanted to have a birthday party with me, how is he this horrible person?” Leslie said. “We didn’t have the best of lives. Maybe he would love me.”

Mike’s search for his father was different because he already had one. His mother, who worked in a flower shop, was happily married to his step-father, a factory worker. To this day, Mike calls Wayne his “biological father” very intentionally.

His father is his father — the one who raised him.

There has only ever been one point of confusion: his parents are both white, and Mike is half-black. A sort of color-blindness helps in his role with the Hoosiers now, where he is essentially a mentor and “uncle” figure for players of all kinds of backgrounds.

But as the years passed in rural Ohio, he realized something wasn’t quite right.

“People in town treated me so good, like any other kid, I didn’t pay attention to those things,” Mike said. “But when I was about 13, I was like, ‘I’m different.’ I’m just different.”

Mike’s mother explained. She provided him with the names of Wayne and his mother, Carrie Priester. It wasn’t until later in high school, after that tussle on the basketball floor, that Mike started scanning the phone book, calling every Priester he could. Eventually, he found the right one.

“Are you my grandmother?” Mike asked.

“Yes,” she said, “and I think I know someone you would like to meet.”

Mike found himself walking into a house with all these familiar faces from Ravenna, many he considered friends. They were actually his relatives.

He also met Wayne, but their relationship didn’t flourish.

“You are more standoffish at that age,” Mike said. “You are filled with a lot of anger and a lot of whys and a lot of questions and you are just upset.”

In Colorado, Leslie kept pushing her mother for more answers. Questions about Wayne boiled over into heated arguments. Horrible things were said, like the time Leslie’s mother claimed she didn’t want her daughter in the first place.

“Then why didn’t you let me stay with my dad?”

“Because nobody wants you.”

Leslie didn’t believe that. Her quest for Wayne only intensified when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, shortly after giving birth to her second daughter.

“What if these treatments don’t work?” Leslie said. “You live by these shoulda-woulda-couldas. Well, this isn’t going to be my last fight and it sure as hell wasn’t my first one.”

She submitted everything she knew about her father to a people-finding service. They sent back 37 pages in the mail, listing individuals by the name of “Benjamin Smith” or “Benjamin Wayne Smith.” She called one person after the next.

One had a mother named Carrie Priester.

Leslie dialed Carrie, who, again, ushered in another grandchild. The call happened to come on a Saturday during a family gathering, so the phone was passed around. Mike shared a few words, which he can recall. Leslie can’t remember if they spoke or not. She was too overwhelmed.

At that point, Leslie wanted to find Wayne. And she did. Her youngest daughter, Zaria, was able to meet her grandfather. But it was another brief moment. The military was sending Leslie to Germany. This was the early 2000s, before everyone had an email and a Facebook account.

They lost touch.

Then Leslie’s mother told her Wayne had died, which she later admitted was a lie. That scare prompted Leslie to find a contact for Wayne and message him, trying to re-establish a connection.

She never heard back.

It wasn’t until last year that a Facebook message popped onto her phone, addressed to Leslie and her siblings. Their Aunt Michelle regretted to inform them that their father had died — turns out, Leslie had messaged Wayne one month after his actual passing. But Michelle wanted to talk to them, meet with them, bring them into the family.

On the phone, Michelle’s first words were “Hey, baby girl.”

“That’s what my dad called me. He was the only one that called me that,” Leslie said, “and it ripped out my heart.”

• • •

In the end, lung cancer took Wayne from this world. But shortly before his death on Sept. 8, 2018, he was consumed by a different kind of pain.

He knew he hadn’t always been there for his kids.

“It was killing him,” Bernard said. “He didn’t want to leave with a bad taste in his mouth.”

While in hospice care, Bernard helped connect Wayne with the children they had found, Mike, Katie, and Rachel. As much as these Skype calls were about mending fences, they were more to show Wayne his children had turned out OK. They were happy. They were good, decent people.

Mike came to learn good things about his biological father, as well. He was an addictions counselor later in life, helping pull people from the depths that had consumed him.

Mike just wishes he could go back and invite Wayne to an IU football game. He wishes they had another moment. It’s a lesson he’s learned and now passed on to his athletes.

“I tell our guys all the time, don’t be bitter, because you can’t get that time back,” Mike said. “As hard as everything is, and people have problems, my dad had issues, but I know my dad helped a lot of people.”

“Life isn’t perfect,” Mike added.

Leslie didn’t get to have that same goodbye with Wayne, but her father’s death did spur Michelle and Sharr to keep digging. And when Leslie held Mike in her arms at that hotel in Lincoln, what was once a fractured family felt quite different.

“I’m telling you, I saw him and … ,” Leslie said, pausing, searching for the only word that fit.

“ … it was perfect.”

“So for the first time I feel like that hole in my heart is finally healing,” Leslie continued, “and just holding my brother, not guessing it, ‘Do I have siblings out there? Would they want to meet me?’ That reality is physically holding him and just looking at him that entire moment, like a pinch-me moment.”

Leslie isn’t much of a football fan, so she wouldn’t quite grasp the enormity of what came next. IU went on to beat Nebraska for the first time since 1959.

She just spent the afternoon watching Mike walk up and down the sideline, interacting with his players. When the Hoosiers came away winners, Mike came rushing toward Leslie, Michelle, and Sharr’s seats in the 15th row.

“The team is going crazy and Mike runs over and he’s just throwing out kisses and he’s screaming at the top of his lungs that he loves us,” Leslie said. “I was the only one screaming back at him. (Sharr and Michelle) were both smiling at me. They were like ‘That’s your moment.’

“I don’t think you can write a movie script better than that.”

It’s an unbelievable story, for sure.

But Mike hopes it’s a story that inspires all the brothers and sisters out there, mothers and fathers, unsure if they will ever find one another, to never stop looking.

“If you have family, you can find them,” Mike said. “You can put the pieces together.”