LINCOLN, Ill. (AP) — For 29 years, four local sisters wondered about the identity of their older brother, who was given up for adoption before they were born.
This summer, the mystery was solved after a Logan County judge opened the adoption record, dating back to 1953, and united Rex Johnsen, of Princeton, in northern Illinois, with the family he didn't know he had in Lincoln.
In May 1988, after the death of the sisters' father, Marilyan Jackson sat her daughters down and revealed a secret -- she gave birth to a baby boy in 1953, when she was 18 years old, and gave him up for adoption because times were different and, in those days, society heavily frowned upon unwed teenage mothers.
Three months after that confession, Marilyan died, and every question the women had about their brother seemed lost to time.
What was his name? Was he alive? If so, where did he live? And did he know who his mother was?
"I looked around, but I couldn't find anything, asked family members and everything," Deniece Saylor said earlier this week.
She and her sisters twice petitioned the courts to open the file that contained their brother's name and that of his adoptive parents, but were denied each time.
Refusing to give up, they scoured through old birth announcements in the Lincoln Courier's microfilm archive at the Lincoln Public Library, looked through local yearbooks, searched online and even wrote to "The Steve Wilkos Show," hoping to narrow their search and find their brother.
"I went to the county clerk's office and I found out that there were five babies born that day and I had record of four of them, so I knew the one baby missing was my brother, so we petitioned the courts and three days later they called," Saylor said.
The file was opened and the family learned his name for the first time.
Saylor's daughter, Amy Thompson, was able to find her uncle, Rex Johnsen, on Facebook while the family was still at the Logan County Courthouse. Together, they looked at his photos for the first time, saw the family resemblance and cried with relief and joy.
"I cried for like a week after we found him," Deniece said with a smile.
"I was very ecstatic; it just felt like our family was complete," Thompson said of that moment. She sent a message to Johnsen's daughter, Lyndsey, explaining their discovery and hoped for a reply.
"My first response was shock," Lyndsey Johnsen said this week. "I left him a message saying, 'I have something to tell you and it's important.'"
"I thought she was going to tell me something really bad," Rex Johnsen said with a laugh over the weekend. "I was excited, but shocked."
Johnsen had always known that he was adopted but never felt the urge to find his birth family.
"I had a beautiful family, grew up on a farm. I never really looked (for my birth family). For an adoptive family, I couldn't have asked for any better," he said. "I felt very loved."
Helen and Vernon Johnsen raised their adopted son in the tight-knit community of Wyanet Township, in Bureau County, located about 120 miles southwest of Chicago. Rex was an athlete in high school and graduated as part of a class of just 45 students.
Helen had attended the Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing in Peoria with the wife of Dr. William Spaits, the physician who delivered Marilyan's baby in January 1953.
In those days, doctors were permitted to make adoption arrangements, and the Spaits knew the Johnsens to be a suitable match. The adoption paperwork was finalized and filed with the Logan County Clerk in July 1953. It would remain in storage for 64 years.
"God's timing was perfect, I believe it," Rex's wife, Brenda Johnsen, said over the weekend.
Three days after seeing the file, Deniece and Rex met for the first time on Aug. 5, 29 years to the day that Marilyan died.
They found that the connections between their families were not as far-removed as they assumed, and that, over the decades, they likely could have crossed paths without ever realizing they were related.
Rex's younger brother, Richard, who is five years his junior, also was born to a mother from Logan County. Deniece would later serve as a babysitter for the family of Richard's birth mother. Additionally, several of Marilyan's family members worked at Caterpillar Inc., where Rex spent his career.
"The more I find out, the more I want to know," Johnsen said of his newfound family.
After his retirement, Rex and Debra decided to travel the country in their RV, taking in the sights and going where the weather suits them. In late September, they'll head westward, possibly to Arizona, to escape the Illinois winter.
He plans to convert old eight-millimeter films from his childhood into digital files to share with his sisters. The siblings also have considered undergoing a DNA test to see if they also share a birth father (Marilyan's husband, Grover).
"Our plans are now just to love him and spend as much time with him as we can," Deniece said. "I mean, it's just amazing. I've always had this, like, hole in my heart as to where he was or 'is he ok?' or 'is he alive?' and now we know."
The siblings held a celebration on Sunday at Kickapoo Park to introduce Rex and his family to their relatives in Logan County.
"You know, they looked for me for 29 years and I just can't fathom that. A blessing that I have is that they didn't give up," Rex said, with his newfound family all around him.