Throughout his 79 years of life, James Robert Pryor Jr. was dogged by the lingering uncertainties of his father, who — aside from a pair of scuffed photographs tinged yellow with age and his own name — existed as little more than question marks in his mind.
Life can have an odd sense of timing when it offers closure, if it does so at all, and when it happens, final closure can still remain elusive, with only more questions than answers. This was certainly true for Jim Pryor, who discovered in his golden years he had an entire lost family of siblings and cousins through the wonders of modern technology and a bit of detective work by his son Jeff Pryor.
They also discovered they may have a genetic affinity for the names James, Mary, Toy and Stephanie, but we’ll get to that.
“My dad grew up never really knowing who he was,” said Jeff Pryor, 40, who served as the spokesman for his parents. “He was born in May ‘42. He was only told by his mother that he was named exactly after his father, that she met him in Chicago, and that his dad had come from Kentucky. And he had two little wallet sized photo booth photos of his dad, and he was in a military uniform. That was all the info he ever really had.”
That wasn’t to say Jim Pryor would have lived an incomplete life, even if he never found another iota of information regarding his father, Jeff Pryor said. Seasoned members of the Brainerd lakes community may recognize the names Jim and Mary Pryor as the original proprietors of WJJY radio, one of many such ventures through which they’ve left their mark in the lakes area since they established themselves here in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Through the years, Jim Pryor created a place for himself, got married, had three children — Jeff, Mitchell and Stephanie — and, in many respects, carved a little slice of the American dream.
Still, those lingering uncertainties remained. Jim Pryor’s mother, also Mary, once told him when he was a boy she wanted to take him to see his father’s family in Kentucky, but that trip was never realized before she died in the ‘70s.
Throughout his own childhood and adolescence, Jeff said, his father occasionally looked into the matter himself, flipping through phone books and newspapers, making phone calls. On one occasion, he went so far as to scour courthouse records and visit cemeteries in Calhoun, Kentucky, when they were passing through on a cross-country trip, because he was led to believe Calhoun was the seat of his father’s family, but nothing came of that either.
“It was always this ongoing quest for my father,” Jeff said. “Before the days of the internet or DNA tests or anything, the options for finding that info was a phone book or maybe calling different courthouses and that was about it, but he certainly tried those things.”
Perhaps the most constant and haunting reminder of Jim Pryor’s lost father was his own son Jeff, who’s lean, angular features, proud chin, deep-set eyes and pursed lips seemed like a living, near-identical replica of the man Jim Pryor had never met, never heard, and never communicated with, but shared an indelible connection.
However, life remained uncooperative and little, if anything, came of this quest. A debilitating stroke in 2013 effectively ended Jim Pryor’s search and, now aging into his late 70s with all his leads either lost, erased or dead, it looked like the mystery of his father’s identity would remain just that, an unresolved mystery.
Ultimately, it was this physical resemblance that inspired Jeff to dig into his family background, this time armed with modern tools like social media and genetic research through 23andMe and Ancestry.com. There was the perplexing element of his grandfather, Jeff said, but there was also more commonplace curiosities, like the makeup of his ethnic or national ancestry, as well as whatever genetic predispositions may be hidden in his DNA.
“I thought, ‘Hey, it connects you with people, and we will match up with someone who matches with our DNA,’” Jeff described his thought process when he started sleuthing in 2017. “Who knows? Maybe we can find out who grandfather was.”
It was a methodical process characterized by trial and error. Sometimes it was as simple as searching names on Facebook and lining the person’s age, hometown and appearance with what little the Pryors knew about James Robert Pryor Sr. Sometimes it was as simple as checking the results of an ancestry test and making phone calls to people who popped up as a genetic match.
“I came up with maybe about five candidates, not all of them had the middle name Robert, but there were, I think, about three that did and a couple that seemed like good matches,” Jeff said. “I narrowed it down to maybe three or so different guys, but there wasn’t really a way to confirm it. I poked around and found some contact info for people who were related to those guys who were deceased. So, the next best thing to do is try to track down maybe brothers they had, or children, or any kind of relatives. I tried calling.”
It was slow going. Leads were tenuous at best. Many calls were not returned. As it turns out, Pryor is a relatively common name, especially in Kentucky, and so it wasn’t until the summer of 2020 that a real breakthrough occurred. Through 23andMe, Jeff and Jim Pryor had a strong match with two individuals.
One was a woman named Addy Casey, a resident of Kentucky whose surname wasn’t Pryor, but whose maiden name was Pryor. In addition, Addy had an aunt by the name of Toy — a distinctive name, said Jeff, who recognized his own great-grandmother’s name was Toy Pryor.
Jeff seized upon this. He sent a message to Addy, but for over a month the message went unanswered. Either she never saw it or she ignored it, Jeff said, or she saw it and, for whatever reason, the dots didn’t connect.
“I thought, ‘Hey, it connects you with people, and we will match up with someone who matches with our DNA. Who knows? Maybe we can find out who grandfather was.”
— Jeff Pryor
Then Addy did respond. Yes, her name had been Pryor and her mother’s name was Stephanie Pryor-Mayes, she told him, and what’s more, there were a few James Pryors in the family. James, nor Pryor, is particular rare by any stretch of the imagination, but this presented an intriguing lead, Jeff said, so he sent Addy and Stephanie a photo of his father. Upon showing it to her relatives, Stephanie confirmed the truth, whoever the man in the photograph was, he wasn’t just a Pryor, he looked like one of their Pryors. The revelation, evidently, led to an outpouring of tears among the Kentucky Pryors.
Stephanie, it turned out, was Jeff’s first cousin and Jim Pryor’s niece by way of a lost half-brother, also named James Robert Pryor Jr. In an odd twist of fate, two men named James Pryor, separated by time, ignorance, and hundreds upon hundreds of miles, had each named their daughters Stephanie.
RELATED: A deadly DNA mystery, solved
This second James Robert Pryor Jr., unfortunately, wasn’t alive, as was another lost half-brother, Donald. However, three other half-siblings — brothers Hal and Rick, and sister Toy — were still alive and open to meeting their lost brother. And it wasn’t Calhoun but a place called Owenton, Kentucky, that James Pryor Sr. called home.
The Kentucky Pryors were unable to shed much more light on the situation than Jeff and Jim Pryor already knew. Jeff said Jim Pryor was told his missing father in Kentucky wanted to see him, but his paternal grandmother wouldn’t allow it. How much of that is true, or can be verified to be true, remains undetermined. For their part, the Kentucky Pryors told Jeff their dad was a good father and didn’t seem like the type to abandon a child who was his. The fact James Robert Pryor Sr. also named his second son James Robert Pryor may back this up, Jeff said, but it’s largely speculative.
In a vague, murky timeline that fits this opaque mystery like a glove, it appears James Pryor Sr. arrived in Chicago in ‘41 to undergo military training with the expectation he’d be shipped out soon, probably January of ‘42. At some point, he met Mary Sockich (or, at least, that’s the most common spelling of any number of spellings she used), an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, now Croatia.
This may have been one reason why she named her son James Robert Pryor, so as to grant him a common American name in a time when ethnic distinctions — and prejudices — were much more pronounced. Or, it could have been a simple matter of giving the boy a sense of personhood, of roots. Again, that’s speculative, Jeff noted, because at a fundamental level it was a different world then and an easier one in which to vanish, to slip through the cracks. All that’s left to the Pryors now, Jeff added, are a few fragments of truth, and yet more questions that may not have answers.
It’s impossible to say what kind of relationship the two had, whether they dated briefly for a time, or whether it was a chance meeting at a dance hall or something of the sort, said Jeff, who described the encounter as “ships passing in the night.” That’s an apt description in many respects, but it’s also apt in regards to the state of the nation at that time.
The bloodshed of World War II was imminent, James Pryor Sr. was being shipped out to Europe, and here were these two people caught up in powerful, terrifying forces beyond their control that would kill tens of millions and alter the world forever. It’s impossible to say exactly what James Pryor Sr. and Mary Sockich were thinking at the time, but it’s possible to guess and empathize at an intrinsic, human level.
In the midst of that, Jeff said, with a chance encounter between two souls passing through, Jim Pryor came into being. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What’s no longer speculative, thanks to these revelations, are the familial connections that Jeff and Jim Pryor now enjoy that have been elusive to them for decades.
In mid-February, a band of Kentucky Pryors (and one Kentucky-transplanted-into-Ohio Pryor) gathered together, drove up, and visited Jim Pryor at his home in Brainerd. There, they talked together, at a breakneck pace, for more than six hours, connecting over lost histories, shared similarities, and an assortment of people named James, Mary, Toy and Stephanie, who occupy the past and present.
“I thought it was going to be something that would bring closure,” Jeff said. “It’s really opened up a whole new portal into my family that we didn’t expect, so almost the opposite of closure. Suddenly, there’s all these family members we didn’t know about and they’re really wonderful people, they’ve been so welcoming to us. There’s this whole life that we never knew. That’s hard to wrap your head around.”
From the perspective of his father — who, after the 2013 stroke remains sharp although struggles to communicate, so he spoke through Jeff — it’s been a dizzying experience to go from being one of two sons, along with his half-brother Gene Sockich, in a small family for the lion’s share of 80 years, just to realize he’s one of a whole gang of siblings and many, many cousins.
“He said ‘It’s just unbelievable!’” Jeff said. “He said to me, ‘For most of my life, I only had like four people. I had my mother, I had a grandmother and I had my brother. That was all the family I had. Now, I have all these other people.’”