EVANSTON — After WWII, a civil servant and an English teacher adopted a baby boy. Born in Great Falls, Montana, on Dec. 20, 1946, that boy was Evanston’s Mike Conaway.
Always knowing he was adopted, Conaway didn’t realize what that really meant for him until his mother mentioned going to a baptism for another child. Then just 6 years old, Conaway asked, “Don’t they have to get adopted first?” That’s when Conaway realized what being adopted meant for him.
“I never really had much of a desire to find out who my natural birth parents were because I was happy the way I was,” Conaway said.
Still thinking about the adoption from time to time, Conaway continued on with his life, earning a degree in history from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. After he graduated, he was drafted into the Marines.
“That’s where I got serious about photography — because it was either a camera or an M16 — so, that’s how I fought the war,” Conaway said.
He continued to pursue photography for many years after getting out of the service but also pursued special education for adults and youth before returning to his pursuit of his past.
Shortly before Conaway’s mother passed away, she told him that his adoption papers were in a safe deposit box if he ever wanted to know more about his biological family. When he looked into it, he took the first step into the journey of his past.
“My first name on this planet was Little Baby Larry Appelhans,” said Conaway.
He said he thought it was a pretty strong German-sounding name. After Googling the name Appelhans, he discovered a Major Richard Appelhans who was shot down over Vietnam and declared MIA.
At the time, Conaway had retired as a principal and was renting a studio in Evanston’s old post office for his “man cave” — to store and work on his photography. He said Ancestry.com advertisements kept coming up on TV and he decided to try it.
In a short amount of time, the company provided Conaway results.
“Sure enough, I was German/English and it also said I was 25 percent Native American,” Conaway said. “That just rocked me back; I didn’t see that one coming.”
There were a lot of Appelhans on the list that came back, and he got his sealed birth certificate, which included his birth mother’s name, but not his birth father’s name.
“I always figured I was a product of a good night,” Conaway said, “… and that’s probably pretty close to the truth, and that doesn’t matter to me because I’m here.”
He reached out to many people listed in his Ancestry results, and received a response from a cousin in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She welcomed him into the family and offered to help Conaway find out more about his relatives.
“When I started all this I didn’t want to create any havoc intentionally,” said Conaway, “I was just curious more than obsessed.”
While going through the Ancestry message boards, Conaway saw one saying they were researching a few names, one of which was Appelhans.
“So I wrote to whoever this was, and within an hour or so I got a message back saying they wanted to talk with me,” he said. “… I gave them my phone number and the guy called me up.”
The man on the other line told Conaway that they were cousins from the Appelhans side and that he had been researching the name for years and never heard of them being from Montana.
Conaway learned the Appelhans were Germans from Russia. Catherine the Great brought German farmers to Russia to modernize Russian agriculture.
“It was a sweet deal for them,” Conaway said. “Shortly before the Russian Revolution, Czar Nicholas took all that stuff away. I guess being good Germans, they got pumped up about that and started to leave. Then the Russian Revolution made their mind up that they really needed to leave.”
Conaway’s grandfather migrated, ending up in Milwaukee. He had a child who had to stay in Russia for a few years until his grandfather had enough money to bring her over. They ended up in Dodson, Montana, bought a farm and had 11 kids.
“My birth mother was the youngest one, so that’s where that line of family ended up,” Conaway said.
The cousin he had been messaging asked Conaway who his father was. When he told him he didn’t know, the cousin offered to find him. He told Conaway he has a PhD in molecular engineering and is a leading forensics expert in DNA analysis in the state of Oregon.
Sure enough, not long after, Conaway learned his father was a guy named Warren Leo Adams.
Conaway got directed to another cousin in South Dakota to ask about his father. Turns out there was another cousin who was named after his father. Conaway contacted him as well.
He received a lot of information about his father and his Native American heritage. Later Conaway met his cousin from South Dakota and found out he has an older half-brother.
Switching to the other side of his biological family, Conaway had asked his daughter who lives in Montana to help him search for information about his mother.
A couple of days later, she found someone for Conaway to contact. Once he did, he told the woman everything he knew about his birth mother and her reply was, “Well, that’s my mother, too.”
Conaway said he was shocked, but the newly united siblings have become somewhat close. This helped him get to know about some of the rest of the family.
Conaway said he never thought he would get into his ancestry search as much as he did, or find out the things he did.
“I was bored one day, then I found all this stuff and got curious,” he said. “It’s nuts, it’s absolutely nuts.”
Conaway said his wife Lynn has supported him with his search.
And through all his findings and adventures, Conaway said the most exciting thing that has ever happened to him was the privilege of being present at his own children’s births.
“That’s the one thing you don’t put in the bank, but you know you’re going to take it with you wherever you go after this journey is done,” said Conaway.
Having beaten the odds at finding so much information about his birth family, Conaway said he’ll play a game of chance now and then.
“… I’ve been playing the stupid lottery,” he said. “I win the $4 and someone else comes to town and wins $600 grand, I kind of want to know that system.”
Conway has led an eventful life in many other ways as well. He has been many places outside of the states, and his photography proves it.
After he got out of the service, Conaway moved back to Billings, the city where he grew up, and worked at a portrait studio. He then went to a photography school run by the Professional Photographers of America.
It was then that he met someone from Ontario, Canada, who said he was going to start a studio of his own and told Conaway he needed another photographer. Conaway took the opportunity and worked as a photographer in Canada, where he lived for about four years.
“I basically starved, but I liked it,” he said. “I think about maybe once every month or every six weeks I could put a hot dog in my rice bowl for my meat supplement. But I did a lot of photography up there, and I learned a lot.”
Conaway said Canada is a great and beautiful place, but it just wasn’t home. So he moved back to Montana and earned a master’s degree in special education from Montana State.
“I worked at an adult habilitation center for about five years,” he said.
The habilitation center helped people get back out into the community.
During that time, Conaway worked for his father’s company, Camouflage Systems Incorporated, which manufactured and sold camouflage. He said he worked there for 10 or 12 years.
“It took me almost all over the world; it was a great business,” he said. “I found myself working on Christmas Day and I had two kids at home, and [I] thought something was wrong with that.”
Conaway decided he wasn’t cut out for that job.
“When I was in my 40s I realized I needed to change a few things about my life and my occupation was one,” he said.
That’s when Conaway decided he wanted to teach high school. He was in Fort Washakie at the time, where he met his “now wife,” Lynn, who had a daughter of her own. Together, the married couple of 20 years has one son and two daughters, along with seven grandkids, ranging from ages 6 to 11.
The only place that had a teaching position open was Rock Springs, which worked out OK, as his wife was moving to Evanston; it also explains how he eventually wound up in Evanston.
“I didn’t really appreciate the high school that much,” Conaway said. “Those kids would love you one day and hate you the next, but they like having you around.”
Lynn told him Davis Middle School in Evanston was looking for a special education teacher. Conaway got that job and taught there for eight years.
Lynn herself taught at Evanston High School, and she was involved with a fundraiser to build a school in Africa. So she and Conaway went to Kenya to help.
He said it was a really neat trip, and that seeing the culture over there really makes him thankful.
After Conaway retired, he took Lynn to a film festival in Salt Lake City. He said there was a big banner that said “Come join us in Cuba,” so he went to that as well.
“I used to travel to Germany a lot to do trade shows,” said Conaway. “I always carry a camera. It’s still an obsession [for] me.”
Costa Rica is another place Conaway has traveled. He said it wasn’t his favorite place but the spirit they carry there is a lot different, a “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy, that he said he wished we all had.
“We’re all going to end up in the same place anyway, so why don’t we just enjoy the trip?” he said.
Conaway’s photography studio, The F Stop Gallery, is located at 221 10th St., Suite 107, in Evanston.