finding your roots

Adopted, at age 40 discovered that I’m from a famous American family

Phil Ballman March 21, 2012
Phil Ballman left John Basinski (right)

Phil Ballman left John Basinski (right)

I was born in Philadelphia in 1970 and adopted at birth. Growing up, I always knew that I was adopted, and was naturally curious about my heritage. Luckily, the lawyer who handled the case was a family friend and through him we gleaned a few tidbits of information. Supposedly, my birth parents were young college students, enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. They were a couple who planned on staying together but were not ready for children. The rumor was that one of my parents was a member of the famous Biddle family.

I treated these clues more as fable than fact, though the knowledge did guide my early attempts to find my roots. Starting in late high school I began an informal search, but with little luck. The Hospital for Unwed Mothers, run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where I was born, had closed and their records were in deep storage. I looked in the Philadelphia phone book and found page after page of Biddles listed….it seemed hopeless. Every few years I tried to do something, however. So in 2004, I created a profile on the International Soundex Reunion Registry. I mentioned everything that I thought I knew: Penn, the Biddles, etc. Nothing happened, and I soon forgot all about it…but creating that profile turned out to be the most important step that I took.

Flash forward to April 2010. By now, I was married, with two children. My family was a blessing but I was struggling financially. My professional life hadn’t turned out as I’d hoped; my dreams of being a professional musician had been frustrated, and my attempt to start my own small business had floundered. I was at a crisis point.

Then- I got the email I’d been waiting for for so many years (actually, in my imagination it was always a letter, but no matter). It was from a psychologist in Philadelphia, who was representing a client who was searching for a child he’d put up for adoption. He explained that he’d found me on the Registry, and that my details closely matched his client’s situation. Could I please call him if this sounded familiar? Of course, I called immediately.

As it turned out, everything I’d been told was true. My parents had been students at the University of Pennsylvania when they’d had me. They were a couple- and after giving me up for adoption, they stayed together, got married…and never divorced. Though they tried, they were never able to have any other kids. I was their only child. My mother, who had not wanted to search for me, had died in 2008. My father, a widower with no children, had always wanted to look for me.

My adoptive father had also died in 2008, within months of my birth mother, as it turned out. He’d struggled with alcoholism all his life and hadn’t played much of a role in my life after my parents split up when I was 5. My mother and I had moved to Florida, where I grew up. So when my birth father came looking for me, I was ready to accept the Dad I’d never had.

It was exciting (and confusing) enough to have finally found my birth parents. The fact that they’d been married and that I was their only child added drama to the story. But even more unusual was the Biddle connection. My father, John Basinski, was a Polish-Irish boy from Buffalo who had won a scholarship to Penn, where he met my mother, Alexandra “Bimmy” Biddle.

Bimmy was a member of the famous family that had arrived in the United States in 1681. To my shock, I discovered that my ancestors included Revolutionary War heroes, an Attorney General of the US, a Commandant of the Marine Corps, President of the Second Bank of the United States, an Ambassador, famous artists, an infamous madam, and many other fascinating figures.

No one knew of my existence. John and Bimmy had kept it a secret all these years. After finding me, I was finally introduced to John’s three brothers, my uncles, and to a never-ending stream of Biddles, who embraced me warmly as a long-lost member of the clan. I found to my delight that I now had family in my adopted home of New York City. My Great Aunt Sheila Biddle lives on the Upper East Side. My cousin Eve Biddle lives in Brooklyn. And my step-grandmother, Flora Miller Biddle, also lives on the Upper East Side.

I’ve become especially close to Flora and Sheila. Flora is the granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Flora herself was the President of the Museum for many years. How strange that I’d chosen to marry a painter! Who had attended the Whitney Independent Study Program. And that wasn’t the last unusual coincidence (if coincidence is the right word) that I discovered.

Sheila was educated at Columbia and had worked as a teacher and at the Ford Foundation. At 80, she is one of the smartest, most open-minded and cultured people I have ever met. We meet for regular lunches and I’m only sorry I didn’t grow up knowing her , even though I feel as if I’ve known her all my life.

My father, John Basinski, is now Grandpa John to my children, his grandkids. He lives in a suburb of Philadelphia and we are slowly building a close relationship. I’m proud that my children will grow up knowing that they come from a great American family- and that they are part of a great American story.

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  • Donna

    March 21, 2012 at 11:47 am

    Great Story!

  • Angela Jones

    March 26, 2012 at 12:53 am

    That is a wonderful story…I was also adopted and have found my biological parents also…along with 10 other siblings..a huge family.

  • Dashan

    April 1, 2012 at 4:36 am

    Touching story!!! Is there anything I could do to find my brother that was adopted when he was 1 year and I was 8 years old. My 8th birthday was the last time I saw him and I’m 27 now. I live in the state of California so the law may be difficult to around. If anyone could help I would appreciate it.

  • Lynn

    April 12, 2012 at 10:59 am

    Great story. You are so lucky! I was born in the state of Florida and adopted at 5 days old. It is extremely difficult to get birth certificates showing birth parents. I’m curious to find my birth parents more for medical history than any other. I was very fortunate to have wonderful adoptive parents.

    Have fun with your new family!

  • Sharon

    April 24, 2012 at 2:16 am

    God is good! Thank you for sharing your miraculous story with us and best wishes on the future.

  • Richard Slaughter

    May 7, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Great story. Congratulations!

  • Phil Ballman (Biddle-Basinski)

    July 15, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Wow, just realized that PBS “published” my story here! Thanks everyone for your warm, supportive comments. I feel very lucky. And grateful to my father John who was brave enough to look for me, not knowing what he’d find.

    To those who asked about help searching for adopted family members, I’m no expert, but the International Soundex Reunion Registry was the solution for me. I’d recommend creating a profile there as a first step. Finding adoption support groups in your area might be a good way to discover resources for searching. Good luck!

  • December 4, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    Hi Phil!

    Was looking you up to tell you I was going to be up in New York for talks and such in May and came across this fascinating story of your discovery of your parents. Wow! Anyhow, let’s plan to connect. Email or give a call at 850-216-0510. What’s your phone number?


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About the Series

The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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