The last time Robert Gibson saw his father, Harold Gibson, was when Robert was a 10-year-old boy peering through a schoolyard fence around 1936 in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. Robert died in 2013, but his son, former Green Hornets football commissioner Mark Gibson, continued the search until he made a startling discovery in March 2017: Not only did Harold start another family, but one of his daughters was living in Severna Park.
“I’m kind of a history buff,” said Mark Gibson, one of four children. “I was searching for my family’s history and it was one unanswered question, so I traced my descendants going back four generations.”
Before that discovery in 2017, these are the facts as Mark and Robert knew them: Robert’s parents, New Yorkers Harold Gibson and Clara Conrad, moved to Philadelphia after Robert was born. They divorced in the 1930s, shortly before that schoolyard encounter.
A 1987 graduate of the Naval Academy, Mark later moved to Severna Park. In 2012, Mark and Robert used Ancestry.com to trace Harold to Greensboro, North Carolina. The father and son learned that two of their ancestors, brothers, were torn apart when one fought for the union and one fought for the confederacy in the Civil War. But other than discovering that Harold died in 1984, not much was known about Robert’s father. Mark later learned that Harold married Alice Moran and had a family with her in Greensboro. Alice Moran had Parkinson’s disease and died of pneumonia in 1996.
“You get one clue and it might answer one question, but you get three more questions,” Mark said. “I knew there were people out there, but I was looking for ways to unpeel the onion.”
In 2014, Mark received a new tool to help him “unpeel the onion.” His kids presented him with a DNA test as a Christmas present. The only requirement: to give his saliva. “The test was simple, too easy not to do it,” Mark said. “It comes as a tube that you spit into and seal off.”
That DNA test led to an obituary for one of Alice’s children, Michael Hugh Gibson, and Mark discovered that Alice “Bitsy” Anderson, a daughter of Mark’s paternal grandfather and Alice Moran, was living in Severna Park.
Mark prepared a letter and sent it to Bitsy Anderson. Her reply came two weeks later when she returned from vacation.
“Yeah, it was a shock,” said Bitsy, whose niece was using Ancestry.com at the same time as Mark. “But it wasn’t a bad thing. The worst thing that could happen is that we have a bigger family.”
The two met at Brian Boru in April and started to unfurl the web of their shared lineage and Harold’s past. Harold worked for Iowa National Mutual Insurance Company while living in Philadelphia with his first family, and after marrying Alice in 1938, he moved with her to Greensboro, North Carolina, in the early 1940s to open a new field office for the company.
Along with two brothers and a sister, Bitsy was raised Irish-Catholic. She remembers her father fondly as a man of traditions and a parent who went out of his way to provide for his family. He was also a dedicated husband.
“They had fun together, going places, being social,” Bitsy recalled of her parents. “The insurance company was like a family. We would have these pig roasts … and dad would build a trench or a hole and fill it with coals and wood. He was quiet and reserved, but when he spoke, he had something important to say.”
Alice moved to Severna Park in 1990 so that Bitsy and her husband, Terry, could care for her. Yet Bitsy never heard her parents mention Robert Gibson, Clara Conrad or that her father had another family. Because Alice died in 1996, Bitsy will never know if her mom was in on the secret. “It was buried with him, whoever knew what,” Bitsy said.
Since meeting to share their familial knowledge, Mark and his Aunt Bitsy have shared their own personal lives. Bitsy is a retired reading teacher who was nominated for Educator of the Year in 2003. She now serves on the family patient advisory council at Johns Hopkins and coordinates a support group for inclusion body myositis, an autoimmune disease that she battles daily. As for Mark, he fit right into the family.
“Mark is as personable and friendly and as giving as I’d expect from anyone in my family,” Bitsy said. “I was not surprised that he is easy to talk to.”
The Severna Park connection is incidental but fascinating. Mark graduated from the Naval Academy in 1987 and later moved back to the area. Bitsy – whose husband, Terry, was in the Air Force – wanted to live somewhere on the East Coast and the couple settled in Severna Park after years of traveling the world. Only by coincidence did both families – who had no prior connection to Severna Park – end up moving into houses roughly five miles apart.
Bitsy, who attended the wedding of Mark’s daughter in October, does not dwell on her father’s past. While Bitsy was surprised by the outcome of Mark’s search, both family members expect some secrets to stay buried.
“I can’t imagine there’s anything else in the closet,” Bitsy said.
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