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Decades later, Bradenton man reunites with daughter

Robert Hamilton clutched a dozen red roses in one hand, a handkerchief in the other.

He hadn’t felt butterflies this big in decades.

Like when he quarterbacked coach Eddie Shannon’s Lincoln Memorial High football powerhouse back in the early 1960s.

“It’s almost like before a game,” said Hamilton, 62, standing in the terminal Thursday at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. “It’s different.”

It was different, all right.

Joined by his wife, two sisters and a nephew, he awaited Jeri Witherspoon, the daughter he hadn’t seen since she was a little girl, conceived during a college romance.

Now a gray-haired, great grandfather, Hamilton was 20 then, the star quarterback at Allen University, a black college in Columbia, S.C.

“I kept trying to find her for so many years,” said the Saint Paul Missionary Baptist Church deacon, retired Lincoln Middle School gym teacher and father of four sons. “I did everything I could, then I left it in the hands of the Lord.”

His prayers have been answered.

After her long walk down the SRQ corridor, Witherspoon and Hamilton shared a long, loving embrace while other arriving passengers smiled and made their way around the reunited daughter and father.

“I can’t describe what I’m feeling,” he said afterward, wiping his eyes.

His daughter’s radiant smile spoke for her.

“This is the culmination of years and years of curiosity,” said Witherspoon, a 42-year-old accountant in Columbia, S.C. “It’s like the circle is complete now. I’m glad to be here.”

Her newfound family was glad, too.

Lucille Hamilton, especially.

“We’re married almost 30 years and I kept telling him, ‘You’ve got to find her. That’s your blood,’ ” said Hamilton’s wife.

Cynthia Washington was also happy for her brother.

“We’ve always talked about finding her,” she said. “That’s my niece. We’re a close family and we want her to be part of this.”

Hamilton and his daughter found each other on Facebook three months ago, thanks to her mother, Brenda Wallace, and they’ve spoken weekly since.

“He asked me how I felt about it being such a long time,” Witherspoon said. “I said I’m too old for that — to worry about what could’ve been, what should’ve been and what didn’t happen. I said let’s just go from here.”

It promises to be a joyous weekend.

“We always have a big time on July 4th,” Cynthia Washington said. “But this year it’s going to be even better.”