On Sunday, Oct. 6, 1985, Duane Smith was traveling east on Illinois 161 in a black 1975 Chevrolet Camaro when he lost control of the car.
It was 3:15 a.m. He’d just crested the hill at Carson Drive in Belleville when he drove through the guardrail and down the hill into the woods, according to a BND story published shortly after.
Both Smith, 21, and a passenger were ejected from the vehicle. Smith died; his friend did not. Thirty-two years later, a part of Smith came back.
Jessica Nielsen’s mother was very honest with her when it came to the story of her father, telling her that he’d died when she was very young. But Nielsen had never known his family, and his family had never known about her.
“I’ve always had a curiosity,” Nielsen said. “I think most people would.”
Nielsen’s mother had been stationed with her family on Scott Air Force Base, but they moved to California when her father was reassigned. There, she gave birth to Nielsen six months before Smith died but never told his family about the baby.
When she was a teenager, Nielsen searched for her dad online, but his first name was often misspelled, and there were a lot of dead ends, she said. Years passed, and in her 20s, Nielsen thought that she would have to hire a private investigator to find her relatives, who still live in the area.
In January, Nielsen found the BND story about Smith’s accident at the Belleville Public Library, and the librarian sent his obituary with it. Finally, she had the names of her grandmother and uncle and typed them into Google.
“I didn’t even know the little girl existed,” said Sharon Smith Robinson, Smith’s mother. “Now we’re just so close and so positive, and everything is just so perfect.”
Their first conversation was short, Nielsen said. She can’t even remember most of it, only leaving with a sense of joy. Smith Robinson was sure about their relation — “I have that feeling in my gut,” she said — but they wanted to make sure.
When the DNA results came back, she knew. She had found her lost family.
“It doesn’t matter whether I’ve known them all my life or just a couple months,” Smith Robinson said. “There’s just no words that can describe how I feel.”
Since first reaching out to Smith Robinson, Nielsen has remained in constant contact, preferring to exchange texts to avoid the tears of conversation.
Every small detail from Smith’s life has been exciting to learn for Nielsen, down to his favorite color, band and movie.
According to his obituary, Smith had been a member of the Belleville Boxing Club, Boy Scouts of America, the O’Fallon Jaycee Football Team, the Belleville YMCA Karate Club, and the First Baptist Church in Fairview Heights.
After graduating from Belleville East in 1982, he studied auto body repair at Belleville Area College, now known as Southwestern Illinois College, and later worked at East Side Auto Body in Belleville.
But knowing small details wouldn’t suffice, and after learning more about her new family, Nielsen, who works in real-estate marketing and still lives in California, decided to book a flight to St. Louis.
Nielsen practiced saying “Grandma Sharon” before her arrival. She and her husband, Alfonso, touched down on St. Patrick’s Day and took a rental car out to Smith Robinson’s house.
Smith Robinson said she couldn’t wait for her to get inside, so she rushed out and embraced Nielsen in the driveway.
“We were instantly connected family,” Nielsen said about the meeting.
Smith Robinson, who’d told her granddaughter she was part Irish, had prepared corned beef and cabbage in honor of her new roots. Later, she asked for the recipe, Smith Robinson said.
Appetizers and entrees were laid out, Nielsen said, but the first course was the old pictures on the coffee table.
“We spent the entire evening just talking about stories and going through pictures,” Nielsen said.
The next day, the family visited Smith’s grave site at Valhalla Cemetery, and later, Nielsen met all her cousins and other relatives. On March 19 they hosted a party at Cutter’s in Belleville, where dozens of people gathered to meet Nielsen, who absorbed stories about her father’s life.
In the week after meeting, the family went sightseeing, taking in an Anheuser-Busch brewery tour, the Gateway Arch and the St. Louis Science Center.
“It couldn’t have been more perfect,” Smith Robinson said. “We just had a ball.”
Neilsen left on March 24, but she and Smith Robinson continue to text often.
“My life has changed forever,” Neilsen said.