Sixty years ago, a family split apart by circumstances was reunited in time for Christmas. Here’s where they are today.
CANANDAIGUA — Little Donny Blair had a nice Christmas surprise back in 1955.
His mother, Gaye, was in her native England and his father, Francis Blair, was in California, stationed at Hamilton Air Force base. Donny was in Canandaigua, being cared for by his paternal grandparents.
The likelihood of a family Christmas together didn’t seem likely.
But on Christmas Eve, Sgt. Blair arrived in Canandaigua early that morning by bus from New York, the road trip coming after a cross-country flight. Gaye Blair arrived at the Rochester airport later that evening.
As the Daily Messenger newspaper story dated Dec. 27, 1955, told readers, Donny rushed into his mother’s arms and he wouldn’t leave them.
Sixty years later — and now living in South Carolina — Don Blair, as he goes by today, remembers bits and pieces of that reunion. This also was the first time Gaye was to meet her in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Blair, who accompanied Sgt. Blair and Donny to the airport.
Don Blair remembers a politician being present, whom he said was kind of scary. And he remembers all sorts of pictures being taken.
“I remember my mother,” Blair said. “For a little kid, that was great. I got to have my mom for Christmas.”
Gaye (Rice) Blair was stuck in England about three weeks before Christmas in 1955. The Liverpool native — yes, the same place that unleashed The Beatles on the world just under a decade later — was unsuccessful in obtaining a visa.
She had married Sgt. Blair two years prior, according to the newspaper article. Shortly after their big day, she had tried to obtain a visa, but was refused.
The reason? During a doctor’s visit an X-ray turned up a medical condition, prompting the denial of her visa application. The kicker was, she was not sick enough to be treated in the hospital, the newspaper reported.
So that December she was stuck — and Sgt. Blair had been transferred to California and forced to leave his young bride behind. He was able to leave Donny with his parents until the thorny immigration mess was worked out.
The Messenger learned of the situation and contacted Rep. John Taber of Auburn, Cayuga County, who represented Canandaigua in Congress. Taber pulled some strings where others had failed, and Gaye was granted a visa — eight days before Christmas. The newspaper contacted Trans World Airlines and Boyce Motor Lines of Canandaigua, both of which arranged transportation for the reunion.
Meanwhile, the American Red Cross was able to get Sgt. Blair a furlough.
The holiday reunion was to be short-lived, as Sgt. Blair returned to duty shortly after the new year.
But the good feeling of that Christmas lasted decades. Even today, Canandaigua brings fond memories to Gaye Blair, who is now living in Cathedral City, California, near Palm Springs.
“I think back about how nice everybody was to me and helpful to me,” she said, with a hint of a British accent. “When anyone asks where I’m from, I say Canandaigua. My home is Canandaigua.”
Members of the Ontario County Historical Society Museum and Research Center recently found the article in its collection of bound newspapers. The article was reprinted in the December edition of “The Chronicles,” which is the organization’s newsletter.
Several people who received the newsletter wondered, as the old radio personality Paul Harvey might say, about the rest of the story.
“This was a Christmas story with a happy ending,” said Wilma T. Townsend, who is curator of the museum and research center on North Main Street. “We got curious about what happened to these people.”
Museum librarian Linda Alexander dug in with a few weeks of genealogical research, poring over old census data, obituary notices and even an English and Wales birth index, trying to track down names and locations of some of the Blair family members.
Some of them had died in the years since that Christmas reunion. Others had left behind clues in the historical record.
“Usually, people are coming to us to find out the history of their family,” Alexander said. “This is a little backward.”
‘An interesting life’
As Sgt. Blair, who served in Korea and Vietnam, was transferred throughout his military career, his family followed — to England, to Germany, to Illinois, to Ohio and to many, many other places.
He was buried with full military honors in Riverside National Cemetery in 2004. He was 75 at the time of his death.
Gaye, now 82, said she was in a state of shock for two years after his passing — they had been married for 52 years — and she suffered a heart attack afterward. But with the help of friends, she said, she pulled out of it.
She used to run three miles a day before she got sick, but still tries to walk daily. She reads a lot and while she had to give up golf — “I wasn’t very good at it,” she said — she enjoys watching it on TV.
And she still enjoys traveling, and may be returning to the Canandaigua area sometime next year to visit with family, she said.
“I’ve had quite an interesting life,” she said.
The same could be said for Donny Blair, a colorful guy who now lives in South Carolina with his wife, Rebecca.
Blair — a self-proclaimed “Air Force brat” who followed his dad around the country and the world with a duffel bag of belongings — attended Canandaigua Academy for a time and played basketball there. He followed his father into the military, joining the Marine Corps after receiving his draft notice, and served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War.
After his return stateside, he married, went to school and entered the mechanical engineering business.
Eventually, he made his way to South Carolina, working for a diesel engine company. Around the corner was a firehouse, which was looking for volunteers.
He was 39 at the time, but hooked. He said he doesn’t do drugs and he doesn’t drink, but adrenaline is his thing and the idea of rescuing people gets him going.
“I couldn’t get enough of it,” said Blair, now 63. “I was the oldest rookie volunteer they ever had.”
Now retired with three grandchildren and a great-grandchild and “soaking up sunshine,” he golfs and spends time working on motorcycles in his backyard “man cave,” he said.
At least once a year he hops aboard his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and makes the cross-country trip to see his mother.
“I am still traveling, since the day I was born,” he said. “I was born to travel.”
But for at least one Christmas, a family that traveled the world stayed right at home.