WINTER HAVEN, Florida — For 30 years, Beverly Freeney feared her father was buried in an unmarked grave.
The Winter Haven resident longed for her daddy, although he’d never been a fixture in her life. Her hopes ebbed and flowed after years of unsuccessful searches. But she never imagined her father was about three hours away living as a homeless man in Tallahassee.
He roamed Frenchtown for more than a decade. Without a place of his own, he slept nights at the former West Tennessee Street shelter.
A cousin, who never met Smith, stumbled upon online voter information profile with scant details that seemed to match Jimmy Smith: a full name, an age, his race, his birthday and an unfamiliar address — 2650 Municipal Way, the Kearney Center, Tallahassee’s new homeless shelter.
Although he didn’t receive traditional services, case managers occasionally checked on Smith. Just a few weeks ago, after Linda Williams, the cousin, matched the address with the shelter’s contact, staff exchanged calls and direct messages on Facebook with Freeney’s family.
They eagerly wanted to meet the man they’ve searched for all of these years. The rail thin, 73-year-old man tearfully agreed.
On Nov. 5, Freeney stood at his door.
Smith lives in a small one-bedroom apartment at Casa Calderon, a public housing high-rise on Virginia Street. He moved in about two years ago with the help of Unhoused Humanity, a social service startup geared toward helping the homeless.
Freeney wasted no time. She needed to see with her own eyes. Was her father really alive?
Thunderous knocking filled narrow hallways.
More knocking was followed by more silence. Smith wasn’t answering. A building security guard was given permission to enter the room. She said, “Security,” and waited several seconds before entering. She left the door ajar. Freeney crouched, leaned in and pressed her ear to the door and waited for signs of life.
Frustrated and crushed, Freeney stormed off. Maybe he fled, she thought. How could he, knowing she was coming to see him after all these years?
And not just her. Four generations of nieces, Freeney’s close friends and relatives climbed into two SUVs and drove from High Springs to Tallahassee for a reunion of a lifetime.
But it didn’t happen at Casa Calderon.
It happened a block away.
Freeney, assisted by a Tallahassee Democrat reporter and photographer, began hunting for her father at his two hangouts in Frenchtown. She found Smith pushing a rusted shopping cart at Carter-Howell-Strong City Park, about two blocks north of Tennessee Street.
She was in one of two SUVs. Freeney flung her door open and headed straight to Smith. He gingerly turned around and spotted his only daughter walking toward him. They embraced and erupted in tears. The rest of the family huddled around Freeney and Smith, forming a cocoon.
“I love all, y’all,” Smith said through muffled tears. “I love all, y’all,” he repeated again and again.
“I feel good,” he said, in the loudest voice he could muster. “I feel good. I love all y’all.”
‘That’s my daddy’
The reunion that was supposed to happen in a living room occurred on a Frenchtown sidewalk.
Smith didn’t look like the father Freeney remembered. She said, “I’m not used to seeing him with all of that stuff on his face.”
But she was excited. There was no mistaken identity. The 54-year-old knew instantly, “That’s my daddy.”
His scruffy gray beard covered half of his drawn, mahogany face — a stark contrast to the clean-shaven appearance Freeney always remembered. Smith wore faded, loose-fitting black jeans splashed with bleach stains. An insulated black hat with ear flaps, a heather gray thermal sweatshirt and an orange and black Harley Davidson motorcycle jacket kept him warm.
Freeney, overcome with emotion, had the moment she prayed for and dreamed about. She showed Smith photos of her own three children and a grandchild. She then unfolded an obituary. It belonged to his younger brother, Clarence, known as “Gaiterbait.” He died last year.
Smith’s relatives soaked up the moment. They captured it all in cell phone videos and pictures. Caught up in the emotion, those gathered on the sidewalk were oblivious to the neighborhood men and women who walked by or sat down on park benches. One niece called Smith’s only living brother, Leroy. Smith seemed to recognize him. How are you doing, he asked.
Tears didn’t stop falling. Smith wiped his face with his long, thin fingers.
“He got a little lost out there thinking he didn’t have anyone,” Freeney said. “But all this time, he had this angel looking for him.”
‘Oh my God, oh my God’
Freeney retreated to the passenger seat of one of the SUVs. Smith remained surrounded by family members. Some hadn’t seen him in more than 50 years. Others never met him, but that didn’t matter.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” Mae Rodgers wailed and cried. “Ain’t nobody left but the two of them now.”
Her daughter, Linda Williams, the one who found Smith, cried just as hard as her mother. She cupped her hands over her face and slowly regained her composure. Williams told Smith she wanted to take him back to High Springs so he could meet the rest of his family, a family waiting to receive and love him.
“I want him to come home,” Williams said. “I want him to come home so he can experience the love we have for him. He needs to know he has a family; he has grandchildren, a great-granddaughter.
“We have lost a lot of time with him, and it’s time you can’t make up,” she said.
Williams asked her great uncle if he wanted to go out to eat. Smith seemed a bit overwhelmed; he politely declined. They respected his wishes. Family members were already looking to the holidays. They wanted to bring Smith to High Springs for Thanksgiving.
But Williams didn’t want to wait.
“It’s already Thanksgiving to me,” she said. “I have Thanksgiving in my heart right now.”
‘I’m complete now’
Freeney has her father’s eyes.
She studied his face and hands wrinkled by time and street life. Freeney’s long burgundy locs cascaded down her back. Reading glasses hung around her neck on an aqua beaded chain. Dressed in jeans and red and royal blue plaid shirt, Freeney looked comfortable. She was at peace for the first time in years.
“It’s like your heart is together now,” Freeney said while standing under the shade of towering oak tree.
Smith sat on a bench within earshot of her conversation. She kept her eyes on him as if she didn’t want to lose him again. For years, she wished she could talk about her father the way her siblings, who have different fathers, could. Her mother died more than 20 years ago.
Freeney, a dietary aide at a nursing home in Winter Haven, felt like she’d discovered missing pieces to her personal puzzle.
“Where’s my daddy, where’s my daddy?” Freeney said she thought over the years.
Freeney was in her early 20s the last time she saw him. She was in Tallahassee for a Florida A&M University commencement ceremony and went to a nightclub later that night. She thought, for some strange reason, she’d see her father that night. When he appeared in the door, they greeted one another; he introduced her to some friends.
That was the last time she saw him.
“Now, I feel good,” Freeney said. “I can actually say. ‘I’m complete now.'”
That moment on the sidewalk was a turning point for Freeney and Smith. They now talk every day after a lifetime of unanswered questions and longing.
Certain details stick out in her mind: Smith pushing a shopping cart like others who lived on the streets. The cart rumbled across the pavement and over the park’s grassy lawn. Inside the cart was a dusty piece of carry-on luggage with a worn away brand name.
Smith suffers from knee pain, Freeney learned. The cart is like his four-wheeled walker. He is seldom seen without it. She understood. Freeney freely accepts all that comes with being a caretaker to her elderly father.
She also sensed he may be suffering from some form of dementia. Freeney and her father had quiet time, talking on the bench. At one point he inquired about his brother Clarence and wanted to know how he was doing. Freeney, in a low voice, said she had to remind her father that his brother was gone and she had shown him his obituary just a few minutes ago.
Her mind raced when thinking what her dad was going to need in order to be home for Thanksgiving. She, along with the family, is committed. Whatever he needs, they’ll get it.
On Nov. 12, one week later, Smith went home.
“He was ready to come home,” Freeney said of their phone conversations. “He kept saying, ‘Daughter, I miss you. I miss you. I miss my family.’”
Freeney had to work. She was on the phone the entire time Williams and another niece traveled to Tallahassee to bring Smith home for good. His face was freshly shaved, like the old days. His clothes weren’t as worn and haggard. He climbed in the car with the clothes on his back, his important papers and not much else — just love and a renewed sense of family.
This year, Freeney said, Thanksgiving Day will be surreal. Family members who traveled to Tallahassee and other relatives will gather at Mae Rodgers’ High Springs home. Freeney spends every day learning a little more about the man who has been a mystery for three decades. All of that time seems insignificant now.
“It’s real now,” she said, “he’s here.”