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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: For family split by 1941 tragedy, reunion is finest Christmas gift

Sean Kirst

For many years, Kristen Sikorski sensed that something of deep meaning was missing in her family.

As a young woman in Kenmore, with seemingly no close relatives beyond her two sisters and their parents, Sikorski knew vaguely that her maternal grandfather was killed in a plane crash.

She had no idea that disaster, involving an American Airlines flight from Buffalo, was the worst of its time in Canadian aviation history. She was unaware that her grandfather was a labor hero who had just won a major union victory that should have been a joyous pivot in his life.

Instead, the tragedy caused a long family breach. In Buffalo, more than 75 years ago, it pulled apart an 11-year-old brother and his sister, only 3, a separation their own children are only beginning to understand.

That gap is bridged. Earlier this month, in one of many recent meetings, Sikorski and her mother, 80-year-old Janet Kuebler, joined James Barnett Jr. for lunch at Kostas restaurant. Barnett, 65, is his grandfather's namesake, Kuebler's nephew and a first cousin Sikorski never knew.

It is a result, they agreed, that defines Christmas.

“I have family,” Sikorski said. “I have cousins. I grew up saying I had none. I was wrong. Now I do.”

All of this happened through AncestryDNA, one of many tales of people who use genetic testing to solve family mysteries. Barnett's father, Jim Barnett Sr., was a retired warehouse worker who died in 2013. Years ago, he told his five children how he and a half-sister were split up when they were small.

Accounts of losing her grandfather in a 1941 air disaster surprised Kristen Sikorski - but brought a family back together. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

The tale was painful. That was as much as he offered. After he died, his children were left wondering if they had close relatives they never met.

Barnett, aware of how DNA testing can sometimes fill these holes, submitted a sample in 2017 to AncestryDNA. A few months later, he received an alert that a paternal first cousin had joined the list.

This was it. A thrilled Barnett learned Sikorski was after the same answers.

He is from West Seneca. She grew up in Kenmore. She explained that she came to an understanding of the story only after the 1995 death of her grandmother, Mabel George Cohen. Sikorski and her sisters, while cleaning out an old chest at their grandmother's home, found a yellowed copy of The Buffalo Evening News from Oct. 31, 1941.

Jim Barnett: Namesake of a grandfather, a labor hero, his curiosity led him to AncestryDNA. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

A front page story described how an American Airlines plane called "The Flagship Erie," en route from Buffalo to Detroit, crashed in a field in Lawrence Station, Ontario. In 1941, it was the worst air disaster Canada had experienced. Twenty people died, including James Cairns George, 43, of Buffalo.

With a jolt, Sikorski realized George was her grandfather.

She and her sisters pieced together a tale confusing at first even to them, because of changing names. Their grandfather, James George, came here from Canada to work at Buffalo's old Ford Fuhrmann Assembly Plant and help organize the union.

George and his first wife, Irene Barnett George, had a son, Jim, born in 1930. Irene died a few years later, and the widowed George later married the former Mabel Gorth. In 1938, the couple had a daughter, Janet George, now 80, who eventually married Herman Kuebler.

Kuebler's older brother, Jim Barnett Sr., was father to Barnett and his five siblings. He died in 2015, meaning the hardest part of this reunion is that Janet Kuebler missed seeing him by only two years, after a long separation.

DNA reunion stories? At The Buffalo News, we'd love to hear them

She can only guess at how that came to be. In 1941, after the plane crash, a reporter interviewed Kuebler's mother, Mabel George, who spoke of having two young children at home. She explained how her husband was secretary of Local 425 of the UAW-CIO, at the Ford plant.

His union efforts led to a retaliatory firing by the company. James George and Frank Snyder, another union officer in Buffalo who was aboard the plane, were among the workers who challenged those dismissals before the National Labor Relations Board. In 1941, the board ruled in their favor.

Both men received checks for more than $3,000, worth more than $50,000 by today's standards. They were still rejoicing when they left Buffalo on a commercial flight to a Ford conference in Detroit.

The plane exploded into flames and crashed. Mabel George told The News it was her husband's first trip by air, and that he had no wish to fly.

"What good is the money to me now?" she said. "We've struggled along for four years without asking for any help. When he got the check for $3,112 last Saturday, we thought our troubles were over. I guess they are just beginning."

Family reunion at Jim Barnett's home in West Falls, 2017; Janet Kuebler is right front, center, in pink. (Family photo)

Historians say investigators were never able to establish a definitive cause for the disaster. As for James George, his own daughter did not learn exactly that he died in such a way until the moment 23 years ago when Sikorski pulled the clipping from the chest.

Janet Kuebler told Sikorski she grew up knowing only broad details: Her father was killed when a plane went down, and she had a half-brother who left when she was barely beyond toddling. Kuebler's children grew up without knowledge of their cousins, in West Seneca.

“We were in shock,” Sikorski said, of the newspaper in the chest.

She and her sisters, like Barnett, kept reading of families brought together by DNA testing. In 2017, Sikorski's husband Mike bought her a kit for her birthday. It led to the online match, and this digital message to Barnett:

“I believe,” Kristen wrote, “your dad was my mom’s half-brother.”

Kristen Sikorski: A birthday gift of a DNA kit unlocked a family mystery. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Of the separation, Jim Barnett Jr. ventures this guess: For several years after the death of James George's first wife, their young son – Barnett's father – was basically raised by his maternal grandmother, Rose Barnett, in South Buffalo. Barnett speculates that after his grandfather died, both families agreed the younger Jim, then 11, might be more comfortable in that household.

Whatever the reason, "Grandma Rosie" took in the young James Cairns George Jr., and his last name was legally changed to Barnett to match his mother’s.

Kuebler, Barnett and Sikorski see the timing of their reunion as fate. In 2017, they held a family picnic at Barnett's West Falls home that brought everyone together. Reconnected, they began looking for information about the crash in Canada.

James George (second from left) with other Ford union members and their checks for back wages. (Family photo)

They learned, by coincidence, that civic officials and historians in Lawrence Station were holding a ceremony in September of this year to unveil a plaque honoring those lost in the 1941 crash.

Kuebler, surrounded by both sides of the reunited family, was there to remember her father. She took home a program that recalled how the disaster not only claimed 20 lives, but stole countless “hopes, dreams and future plans.”

Certainly, that was true for two young siblings in Buffalo pulled apart by tragedy.

At Christmas, the cousins say they think a lot about James George. If there is a gift in all of this, it is the thought Sikorski shared with Jim Barnett Jr. on the day all the cousins came together for the first time, as one family.

Imagine how happy, she said, that our grandfather must be.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News, who wants to hear from readers who have powerful stories of reunions caused – or mysteries solved – by DNA testing. Email skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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