Byington, Mark

Mark Wesley Byington was a broadcaster who really got around! During his twenty-three years in the industry he served at seven different stations.

It all started in 1951 when, on a dare, he auditioned at CJAT, Trail, B.C.

He was hired and from there went on to CKOV, Kelowna; CJIB, Vernon; CFCN and CFAC, Calgary; CHAT, radio and TV, Medicine Hat; and CFRN radio and TV, Edmonton.

His positions included chief announcer, assistant sports director, radio and television newscaster, and Provincial Affairs reporter.

Mark’s career highlight was a commission to cover the first-ever-televised Premiers Conference in Ottawa in 1971. He was the only Alberta radio or TV news reporter in attendance, and had an exclusive interview with British Columbia’s colourful W.A.C. Bennett.

Now retired, Mark remembers his broadcasting career as a “rewarding and enjoyable adventure”.

filed 2006

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Secret Siblings

Abandoned under a caragana bush, an Ontario woman needed sleuthing, science and sheer luck to discover her Saskatchewan roots
Pamela Cowan
Regina Leader-Post

Jean Fish’s lifelong search for the missing branches of her family tree began with a common caragana bush on a street corner in 1931 Regina.

It was the Depression, a time of struggle and poverty, and desperation. Fish, who was actually named Lane — after the alley near which she was found — was likely a product of her times.

It took her 85 years to eventually discover the roots of that tree, a trail that had as many twists and turns and knots as a caragana. It was so extraordinary that when her grandchildren would write about their grandma in school assignments, teachers labelled the stories fiction.

But for the woman whose life has been entwined in the tale, she at last found a truth that proved elusive for so many decades. After a combination of sleuthing, science and sheer luck, Jean finally discovered the roots of her existence.

With a bit more luck, Jean and those branches of her life that she never knew will connect this fall in Regina.

The baby abandoned all those years ago has found the embrace of a family lost to her.

Abandoned

A baby dressed in clean, but shabby clothes and wrapped in a blanket and quilt under a caragana bush — that was how Jean’s story began.

She was only two days old when 11-year-olds Jean Corke (Stowe) and Roy Burden found her behind a caragana hedge at 1456 Montague St. in Regina on Sunday, Aug. 9, 1931.

Playing outside the Stowe home, the children heard what they thought was a kitten mewing and raced toward sounds coming from under a wriggling blanket. Burden lifted the blanket with his toe and uncovered a newborn.

The kids tore off to their respective homes yelling: “We’ve found a baby.” The Burdens handed the infant over to nurses at the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers, near Montague and Dewdney Avenue.

Nurses at the home believed Jean had been in the yard for about four hours before she was found.

Staff searched for laundry marks on her clothing or store tags that could have identified her parents. All the doctors in the city were questioned, but it appeared the foundling was born without medical attention. Despite extensive inquiries, nothing could be learned about Jean’s mother or father.

At a Child Welfare Court hearing on Sept. 16, 1931, Jean was made a ward of the Children’s Aid Society of Regina and named by the judge.

“Jean was after the girl who found me, Margaret (her middle name) because the judge liked it and Lane because they said I was found near a lane,” Jean said in an interview from her home in Collingwood, Ont.

She remained in the Children’s Shelter in Regina until July 1932 when she and two other children were taken to Prince Albert.

“The guy who was head of the Children’s Society and his daughter loaded me into a car, and they peddled me around until they got a taker,” Jean said. “A neighbour who lived a half-hour from where I grew up, he desperately wanted me, but his wife didn’t — so he couldn’t have me.”

Half a mile up the road, Jean finally found a home with Gertie and Daniel McRae, a childless couple who adopted her.

“I was alone,” Jean said. “I didn’t have any siblings, but they were good to me. I never wanted for anything.”

A lifelong search

Jean was happy growing up on a farm near the hamlet of New Osgoode, about 180 kilometres east of Prince Albert. Still, she wondered about her family origins. As soon as she turned 21, Jean wrote the Child Welfare branch of the Department of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation to get answers.

She was crushed by the response she received on Oct. 21, 1952 from supervisor Lorraine Gerrie.

“You will realize by this time, Jean, that we do not know if your parents were married, nor what religion and nationality they were, nor whether you have any brothers or sisters,” Gerrie wrote. “There is no one else who could give you this information. We are unable to say why your parents could not keep you, Jean, but we do know that it was during the depression when many parents found it difficult to keep their children.”

Jean was at a dead-end for decades. Then, in 1978, her story appeared in a number of papers, including the Leader-Post.

The headline in the July 8 Regina paper was: Her identity is a mystery. Underneath was a picture of smiling little Jean surrounded by dolls.

The story described Jean’s unorthodox start to life and noted records kept by the Regina city police, which investigated the abandonment, and the Salvation Army were incomplete for the 1930s.

Jean told reporter Will Chabun: “I’ve had a very happy and busy life, with wonderful adoptive parents and I bear no ill feeling to anyone. But I would dearly love to know my medical and biological background, as would my five children. And, of course, if some members of my family should contact me, it would indeed be a once-thought-impossible dream come true.”

The story ended with Jean’s contact information.

Within days, she received a letter from a now grown up Jean Corke, who was then living in Guelph, Ont.

It took longer, but a response from Roy, her other rescuer, who was living in Port Moody, B.C., followed. Learning Jean’s whereabouts and how she’d fared over the years “caused no end of excitement at this end of the world,” he wrote.

In Roy’s first letter to Jean, he tried to console her by noting the grinding poverty most faced during the Depression.

“I’m just saying all this to show how terribly hard it must have been for your natural mother at that time,” he wrote. “It would be beautiful if your ambition is realized and you are able to get together with the lady who bore you. I do think that with all the publicity your story has recently received that that lady might finally know what became of the baby she had to give up so long ago.”

The two Jeans and Roy became fast friends.

When they met in Regina, Roy took Jean to the exact spot where she’d been left. As fate would have it, the wooden sidewalk leading up to the house was being torn up. Jean took home a board as a keepsake and had it made into a frame. Filled with photos, it hangs proudly inside her front door.

Jean treasured the friendship she shared with Roy and Jean until they passed away. They’d provided some answers about her early beginnings, but questions about her birth family continued to haunt her.

Jean didn’t have a clue how or where she’d ever get information about her biological family or why they’d abandoned her underneath a hedge.

“It was 85 years of wondering,” Fish said.

Another branch of the family searches for connections

While Jean was at a standstill in her quest to find family connections, on the other side of the country, Faye Viergutz, was beginning a search of her own.

Faye grew up in Ogema with her parents, Evelyn and Allan Cross, and two brothers, Mervin and Dean. Their sister, Glenys, was born with cognitive challenges. She went to Valley View Centre in Moose Jaw when she was nine and lived there until her death in Dec. 2014.

It wasn’t until 1990 that Faye learned she had another sister.

The startling revelation came during a chat with her mother. Faye’s girlfriend had just told her a daughter she’d given up for adoption had contacted her.

Surprised at the news, Faye told her mother she hadn’t known her friend had given up a child. That’s when her mother dropped a bombshell.

“She said, ‘What would you say if I told you that you had a sister?’ ” Faye said. “It was quite a shock.”

Faye had many questions, but her mother was tight-lipped about the baby’s birth. Evelyn would only say the infant was born in a field and then left on the steps of the Salvation Home for Unwed Mothers in Regina.

“I said, ‘Where is she?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Faye recalled.

Evelyn opposed Faye’s suggestion they look for the child saying: “No, it’s too late for that!”

Repeatedly, Evelyn made Faye promise she’d keep the family secret.

“I did tell my husband eventually, but I didn’t tell my two brothers that I grew up with,” Faye said.

It was tough staying silent. It was just as tough not knowing who or where her sister was. Every time Faye passed a woman on the street, she’d think: “She kind of looks like me. I wonder if that’s her?”

After her mother died in 2004, Faye felt free to tell Dean and Merv they had a sister, and she wanted to track her down. Neither brother took part in the search, but Faye was determined to find the sister she never knew.

In June 2008, Faye travelled from her home in Vernon, B.C. to Regina and headed to Social Services to look for documents that would lead to her sister.

She left empty-handed.

“I thought, ‘That was the end of that. There is no sister.’ I thought my mother was throwing a curve at me,” Faye said.

But her search wasn’t completely fruitless. Faye was astonished to discover records that led her to a brother, Mark Byington, who was born in 1930 at the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Regina. However, all identifying information about him was redacted in the 27 pages of his history.

“I had to send a letter to Mark through Social Services, and he had to be the one that decided if he wanted contact,” Faye said.

She waited on pins and needles until a social worker notified her that Mark wanted to make contact. It was a bittersweet time.

“I found Mark and four days later Dean died,” Faye said. “I found a brother and lost a brother within four days.”

Was a sister still out there?

The missing links

On the heels of the stock market crash in 1929 came the Dirty Thirties. Poverty and pessimism went hand in hand in 1930, the year Mark Byington was born.

He was born in an era when people who had children out of wedlock were social pariahs.

His teen parents must have felt desperate times called for desperate measures.

After his birth, they left Mark on the doorstep of Grace Haven, a Salvation Army Hospital and Home for Unmarried Mothers, which leased space in the North-West Territorial Government Buildings at 3304 Dewdney Ave.

Mark grew up in Robsart, a tiny community in southwest Saskatchewan, 72 kilometres south of Maple Creek. The community began to decline at the start of the Great Depression and finally lost its village status in 2002.

He always knew he was adopted, but he didn’t care because he enjoyed a good life. Unlike Faye and Jean, he didn’t feel the need to look for his roots. Not even after his adopted mother died when he was 10 and his adopted father died when he was 18.

But make no mistake, family mattered to him.

Mark Byington, the oldest child and the one that was born at the Salvation Army Home in 1930 the year before Jean Fish was abandoned, Faye Viergutz and Mervin Cross, the youngest siblings of the five are with him. Photo courtesy Sandra Bonney.

When the Edmonton resident received a letter on Sept. 9, 2008 from Social Services in Saskatchewan informing him a sibling was attempting to contact him, he called the social worker in under a minute.

“She said to me that we need to prove that you are who you say you are,” Mark said. “I said, ‘Does the name Ronald Kennedy mean anything to you?’ ”

A gasp at the end of the line indicated he’d provided tangible proof of his identity. Only Mark could have known his birth mother named him Ronald Kennedy, a name he went by for the first two years of his life.

“I always wondered if my mother thought much of me at all, but she must have because she named me,” Mark said.

In early October of 2008, Mark connected with Faye and her husband Mert and learned he had other siblings. Several weeks later, Mark and his wife Frieda, travelled to Vernon to meet the couple and learn more about the missing branch of his family.

“It was pretty exciting when they drove up, to see them and give them a hug right there,” Faye said. “We spent two or three days together. I had a lot of pictures to show him of the family.”

The brother and sister then reached out by phone to Merv in Saskatoon.

“As soon as he heard my voice, he said, ‘You sound just like dad,’ ” Mark recalled.

When they met, Merv was struck by Mark’s resemblance to his father, in looks and actions.

“You watch him eat and I’d swear to God that my dad was sitting across the table,” Merv said.

When Merv visited Mark in Edmonton, they discovered uncanny similarities within the family. Both Mark and Dean had pursued broadcasting careers and were working in the field at the same time.

Mark began in broadcast in 1951 in Trail, B.C. and ended his career at CFRN radio and TV in Edmonton. His positions included chief announcer, assistant sports director, radio and television newscaster and provincial affairs reporter. Meanwhile, Dean was on the other side of operations with CKCK-TV in Regina where he’d worked for more than 35 years. Dean was named director of engineering in 1990.

Merv, Faye and Mark looked forward to finding further connections. Little did they know later in life, they’d find one more big one.

The family tree branches out

On Jean Fish’s 85th birthday in August last year, the family gathered to celebrate. Her grandchildren gave her what would turn out to be the present of a lifetime — a DNA kit from Ancestry.ca.

Years earlier, Jean thought about buying a similar test, but it cost hundreds of dollars. Uncertain the results would be accurate, she didn’t pursue it.

But this new test held promise. So with her family cheering her on, Jean sent a saliva sample away on Aug. 23 and waited for the results.

“Our chances of solving the mystery of my mom’s beginnings was three in a million!” said Sarah Bonney, Jean’s daughter.

Then on Sept. 15, Jean learned she had three possible family connections.

Jean’s granddaughter Becca sent a message to all three potential cousins asking if any of them knew of family members with a connection to Saskatchewan — in particular in the Regina area in the 1930s.

One of those messages went to Alissa, Faye’s granddaughter.

Just like that, after decades of searching, Jean found her family.

Soon after, Jean spoke to her new-found brothers Mark and Merv.

“Talking to Jean was one of those adventures in life,” Mark said. “I said to myself, ‘This doesn’t sound terribly in line with reality, but I know it is.’ It’s very obvious that DNA doesn’t tell lies. I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

Merv is stunned that just a few years after losing his sister Glenys, he’s found another sister.

“It’s a huge thrill,” he said. “Our family isn’t getting smaller.”

None of them can change the course of history. Although separated for decades, they understand why their parents felt they had to give up two children.

“Back in those days, it was a no-no to have a child before marriage,” Merv said. “It would just not be accepted, especially by my dad’s parents. They were very religious; it would have been a real shock to them. I believe to this day, my mom and dad did the only thing they could do.”

“They did leave Jean where she would be found. And there’s no doubt in my mind, knowing my father, that he stood there day and night and watched over her.”

In spite of her lifelong search for answers, Jean isn’t bitter about being left under a caragana bush.

“My mother gave me life,” she said philosophically.

Now the siblings are focusing on the present and planning a reunion.

“It’s a must in my opinion,” Merv said.

Jean can’t get over how modern technology unlocked the mysteries she’d been seeking answers to her entire life. Like roots of a tree, the branches of her family were difficult to find. But now the search is over and she’s grounded in the knowledge they will reunite soon.

Her dream of finding family that she once thought impossible has come to pass.

Published on August 18, 2017.