'Don't give up': Decades after search began, sibling strangers unite in Anchorage

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) — Early one afternoon in Anchorage, Judy Deaver sits alone inside the city's international airport. Planes buzz. Passengers shuffle by.

She waits quietly.

Her anticipation, though, doesn't keep her silent for long.

"A little nervous about this, but I am so excited," she says. She twiddles her thumbs and looks expectantly at a nearby escalator. You see, she's waiting for the arrival of a long-lost relative, who never really was lost because Deaver hadn't yet been found. That is, until now.

"I didn't know about him until a year and a half ago," she says.

Her phone rings. At 75 years old, she prepares to welcome her half-brother, who's just landed in Alaska's largest city.

"Do I cry? Do I hug?" she asks rhetorically. "Just take it as it is..."

* * * * *

Neal McGregor's mother sent him a lengthy letter in the 1980's. She penned the note to include mention of a sibling McGregor hadn't previously heard anything about.

"I'll talk to her one day," he thought. But he never did.

"So that's all I knew," he says. "I'd searched, or I could. But where to start? I knew she was older than me - but how much older?"

McGregor knew his sister was born in Kansas City, a place he'd called home for 45 years. He thinks they'd crossed paths before, though neither of them knew it.

"I've been looking, and looking, and looking," he says. "And some days, I'd get so intense with it, it was almost just anguish."

For a large part of his life, McGregor was an investigator in the police force. A colleague of his had tracked down his own birth parents. So, McGregor thought, he would keep searching, too.

"I would've kept on looking one way or another," he says. "Don't know how long it's going to take, but hopefully we'll find each other before one or the other of us dies, you know?"

After spending half of his 70 years of life on this Earth trying to find his long-lost sister, McGregor's perseverance finally paid off.

* * * * *

The year was 1986. Judy Deaver had moved up to Alaska with her then-husband and child some years before.

Even far from her hometown of Kansas City, located in a state where adoption records remain closed, she was on a mission: That same year, the Alaskan legislature considered closing and sealing adoption records in the state. Deaver wasn't going to have it.

Born to her birth mother when the latter was 28, having been adopted once and then - only 12 when her adoptive mother passed away - gaining a stepmother after that, Deaver made her opinions known, testifying against the closure of the records: "I would like to strongly urge this committee not to seal the adoption records in Alaska, and also to examine - if this bill were to become law - would it be consonant with love and reconciliation?"

The legislature voted to keep adoption records open, the law being signed into law by fmr. Gov. Bill Sheffield in June of 1986.

* * * * *

Direct-to-consumer genealogy testing ballooned in 2017 and has surpassed 12 million records, according to industry estimates.

Deaver and McGregor are part of that massive number now, both having had their genetics tested and analyzed by different genealogy companies. The two groups, though, apparently pooled their data. With an investigator on hand, McGregor had a lead, but only if he didn't ignore it: He received an email about his family genealogy, but initially ignored it.

"And (then) I thought, 'Hey, wait a minute!'" he says. "It took him three-and-a-half hours to find me. So, he's pretty good, you know?

"That's out of 7.7 billion people," he laughs. "'Sorry to bother you,' he says, 'but I think we found someone that could be your sister.' I said, 'Yeah! I know exactly who she is! But I never met her!'"

The investigator called Deaver, too.

"I can remember being at work," says Deaver, who is on the Alaska Heart Institute team in Anchorage. "He says, 'Judy, you have a half-brother.' And I went, 'Huh?'

"It was kind of like, I don't believe it," she says. "I never knew about it."

McGregor contacted Deaver shortly after that. They talked every so often for about a year-and-a-half before they finally solidified plans for McGregor to visit Alaska.

* * * * *

Deaver, donning a bright orange jacket, lifts her hand high in the air. With the other, she covers her mouth in anticipation, as her half-brother slowly approaches.

McGregor walks toward the half-sister he's been looking for over the course of the past three decades.

"I've been looking for you for quite a while," he says, as they embrace in a big hug. "You're taller than me!"

"That's the way it goes," Deaver says. "Older sister!"

Video by multimedia journalist Beth Verge and photojournalist Rick Schleyer.