‘It was like starbursts were exploding all around me’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 6, 2005

Suffolk News-Herald

Rae Perkins, 37, had long forgotten the pet rock she painted for her father when she was five.

But for more than two decades, Walt Haton has clung to the green-and-blue stone, one of the few tangibles remaining from life with his three oldest children.

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All that changed last week, when the Minnesota man – with pet rock in suitcase – flew into town for a long-awaited reunion with his kids: Perkins, who lives in Corapeake, N.C., and Chuck Haton, 34, and Laura Parker, 30, both of Suffolk.

&uot;It’s unbelievable,&uot; said Walt Haton last Thursday, hours after 19 newfound family members – including his grandchildren and ex-wife Gina Daughtry – met him at Norfolk International Airport.

&uot;I am so happy. When I saw them again, it was like starbursts were exploding all around me.&uot;

Walt and his wife, Mary, and their children, Jessica, 18, and Russell, 20, and the Virginia clan spent the next four days getting to know one another at his son’s Longstreet Lane home. Days were filled with endless talking and laughter, interspersed with hugs and occasional tears.

&uot;There is so much to say,&uot; Walt Haton said. &uot;We’re trying to jam a couple of years into three or four days. And the next time we get together, we’ll do another couple of years.&uot;

Before leaving Suffolk, Haton said he asked each of his children for forgiveness.

&uot;I was a lousy father,&uot; he said. &uot;I loved my kids but I didn’t keep in touch with them.

&uot;I didn’t think they wanted me in their lives. I guess I was afraid they would reject me.&uot;

The Haton family story began in Illinois during the mid-1960s, when Gina and Walt married. Before their marriage dissolved 10 years later, the couple had three children. After the divorce, Gina and the children lived in Michigan for five years before finally settling in Suffolk in 1981.

At first, Walt Haton kept in touch with the children, sending birthday cards, photographs and the like. But as the years slipped by, Walt and Gina each remarried, the children became adults and communication dwindled.

Although they haven’t see one another in 20 years, Parker said, she and siblings had occasional contact with their father – or at least knew how to reach him – until six years ago.

&uot;Then Chuck sent him a postcard that came back marked return to sender,&uot; Parker said.

Since then, all three kids have made occasional attempts to track down their father on the Internet. But they always came up empty-handed until early December, when Parker took anther stab and hit pay dirt.

&uot;The first time I typed in his name, the information just popped up,&uot; she said. &uot;Finding Dad was a God thing. He knew it was the right time in all our lives for this meeting.&uot;

There have been countless hours of conversation since that first phone call last month. Nonetheless, the family’s first meeting at the airport was &uot;a little overwhelming…in a wonderful sort of way,&uot; Chuck Haton said. &uot;It was a good way to start the new year.&uot;

Walt Haton’s grandchildren say they were somewhat nervous about meeting him.

&uot;I was excited and queasy at the same time,&uot; said Andi Perkins, a 14-year-old Gates County High School student. &uot;I didn’t really know who they were or how they would act around us.&uot;

Cousin Jenna Hatton, 10, agreed.

&uot;Even though I was excited, I was nervous,&uot; said the Mount Zion Elementary School fifth-grader. &uot;I didn’t really know how I should act.&uot;

Last week’s family gathering was just the first of many to come, as the Haton children and their families begin tightening the lifelong bond with their father, his wife and their siblings.

&uot;We’ll be doing this again,&uot; Walt Haton said, hugging Rae with one hand and gripping the pet rock with the other. &uot;This pet rock is priceless.&uot;