"No one knows why my dad left," Smith said. "I assume it was a personal problem with him and my mother."
Smith's mother, afflicted with Alzheimer's and unable to communicate, was reluctant in years past to discuss Pierce's absence or reason for leaving.
"But," said Smith, "Mama admitted once that if he ever returned, she would take him back in a minute."
Relatives said Pierce was a quiet but happy man and a wonderful father and husband who took good care of his family.
"And they said he was a good cook," Smith said.
After Pierce left, Smith, her mother and older brother, Buddy, lived with her maternal grandparents.
"Granddaddy was a sharecropper. He and my grandmother were very poor, but they were wonderful to me," said Smith.
After a few years, Smith's mother remarried.
"The stepfather that raised me was lots older than her, but he always treated me good," Smith said. "My grandfather was wonderful to me, also. He died when I was pregnant with my first child in 1964."
Smith began the search for her father — and her roots — during high school. She wrote many letters over the years to various organizations asking for help in finding her father. The Salvation Army tried for several years to locate him but eventually closed the file.
Seeking new ways to find her father, Smith ordered books written by detectives but none of the information she used proved to be fruitful. She investigated railroad and retirement records, and searched birth and death records, to no avail. Letters to state and governmental agencies proved futile. She even wrote to TV talk shows, hoping to be featured and, by chance, find her father that way.
In 1963, Smith's brother, stationed in Texas, was killed in an accident. The Air Force offered to find Pierce to notify him of his son's death, but Smith's mother was adamant that they not search for him. This upset Smith because she had been searching for so long. But today Smith holds no ill feelings toward her mother or father. "In my heart, I just wanted to find him and get to know him," Smith said.
She credits her faith in God for getting through the rough times, and her church family has been praying for years that she would find her father. Smith attends the Oak Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Waycross, Ga.
Before Smith's mother became ill, she handed down a family Bible that listed the names and places of birth of Pierce's parents. "My husband and I went to White Springs, Fla., and found his parents' graves.
"We even found the graves of my great-grandparents," said Smith.
Thinking that she had a good lead, Smith quickly ordered a copy of an uncle's death certificate. Although she didn't find her father, she did locate two cousins, with whom she has been in contact. She also found information on her father's two stepsisters but has been unable to locate them.
Smith's family has been supportive of her search over these many years. Her husband, Donald, and she grew up together and have been married for 39 years. They have three sons, who, along with the help of their wives, began searching the Internet for information on Pierce. In January, a daughter-in-law found Pierce's death record at rootsweb.com. It was a terrible day when she learned that her father had died.
"I had been trying to find my daddy for so long — in my heart I felt like I'd meet him one day," she said. "I always believed he would be alive, but thank God I at least know now what happened to him."
With the knowledge that her father died in Imperial County, Smith ordered a copy of the death certificate and coroner's report. Because of information recorded in the coroner's report, Smith believes that someone dropped her father off at the hospital just before he died. Pierce's last usual residence, listed on the death certificate, was Arbuckle. Although Smith has no evidence that her father ever remarried or had children, she has searched for possible relatives in the Arbuckle area but has received no new information.
Smith credits the Internet and newfound friends for providing the most help with her search. In time, Smith met Stacy Vellas of Brawley over the Internet while searching local grave sites.
"Stacy has been wonderful and so helpful to me." Vellas took pictures of Pierce's grave site and mailed them to Smith. "Seeing the pictures was very heart-warming," said Smith. Although saddened she didn't find her father while he was living, Smith is excited about her visit to El Centro.
"I can't begin to tell you the feelings in my heart of knowing my dad was there," she said.
Smith finds comfort in believing that if her father hadn't died so many years ago — when she was only 8 years old — he might have returned. Pierce died in El Centro on May 1, 1952.
Now, more than a half-century after Pierce held his infant daughter, and what Smith estimates to be thousands of dollars that have been spent on her search, she and her husband will travel to their son's home in Houston. From there, Smith and her son will fly to El Centro to arrive at the meeting place with her father. At long last, they will be together. The date: June 17, 2001 — Father's Day.
KAREN WACASER is an administrative secretary at El Centro Regional Medical Center.