Happy birthday — and thank you — to Dr. Gil from all of us

To say I was thrilled to have a brief phone visit Thursday with the gentleman at left in this cool 1970s photo would be an understatement. Jan. 7 marks Dr. Gilbert Alonzo Ratcliff Jr.’s 83rd birthday, and he and his late wife Betsy have been the definition of family to my family since 2005. 

We keep track of birthdays the old-fashioned way around here — on a big calendar hanging on the side of our refrigerator — and I knew Gil’s big day was coming up. I really wanted to be able to call and wish him a happy birthday, and I knew I’d probably need to take time during my Dallas Morning News editing shift to do it. But it would be so very worth it.

I messaged Lenore, the oldest of his three daughters, this afternoon to ask if it would be OK if I called her dad. He’s been dealing with some health issues, and I didn’t want to bother or inconvenience him. I was so glad she welcomed me to call, which I did about 5 p.m. our time — 6 p.m. at the cozy little Ratcliff farm in Proctorville, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from my birthplace of Huntington, West Virginia.

It was even more wonderful to hear Gil’s voice, how clearly excited he was to talk to me, and how thankful he was that I remembered his birthday. His caregiver answered and didn’t say hello but handed him the phone, saying it was someone named Frank. When I heard him excitedly say, “Oh, it’s Frank Christlieb!” it warmed my heart to know he was so happy I’d called.

Dr. Gilbert A. Ratcliff Sr. with his sons, Dr. Gilbert A. Ratcliff Jr. (left) and Dr. Bruce Ratcliff, in the 1970s.

We talked less than 10 minutes, but it was enough time for Gil to tell me he’s eating really well and getting around fine with his walker, and for him to say (jokingly, I think), “It hasn’t shut down yet?” when I told him I was still working at the paper. Being of similar political persuasion and knowing we’ve had many discussions on that topic, I considered touching on politics with all that’s been going on … but I figure we can save that for another visit.

Gil, a native of Huntington and a 1963 graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, served his hometown as a beloved pediatrician/neonatologist for 49 years until his retirement in 2012. He co-founded the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cabell Huntington Hospital, where I was born in February 1961, one of over *10,000* babies delivered by his father, Gil Sr. (shown between his two doctor sons, Gil and now-retired OB/GYN Bruce, in the photo).

The elder Dr. Ratcliff practiced medicine into his 80s and lived to be 101 before his passing in 1999. Not only did he deliver me — he also was instrumental in arranging for my private adoption. My adoptive parents, Clark and Olga Christlieb, were so indebted to him for making it possible for them to adopt a second baby boy, they gave me two middle names — Lindsay and Gilbert, both of which appear on my birth certificate.

Brothers Gil Jr. (right) and Bruce, who are both retired from their medical practices.

I can’t tell you how enriched my life has been by knowing Gil Jr. He is one of the smartest, most charming, wittiest and most gracious people I’ve ever known. He’s also among the blessings I’ve lost count of during the life-changing adventure my birth family journey has been. In fact, without Gil and Betsy, who passed away in late 2017, there might have been no journey.

When Gil received a letter in the spring of 2005 at his office from some guy in Texas — who so badly wanted him to know his intentions were genuine, he enclosed a copy of his driver’s license — Dr. Ratcliff’s giving, compassionate heart opened yet again as it has been doing for decade upon decade.

The adopted stranger — having been familiar with the name of Gil’s father from the amended birth certificate listing him as the delivering doctor on Feb. 28, 1961 — wanted to see if he’d help him find the family he came from. The adoptee’s main question: Did Gil have access to any of his father’s medical records that might provide clues to the Texan’s biological mother? 

Gil Jr. with his beautiful daughters (from left, oldest to youngest), Lenore, Leah and Lynn.

The details are many. But the Ratcliffs did want to help, because that’s the kind of folks they are.

It took a lot of legwork and about three months. But by the time Betsy called me early that June, she had all the answers — names, dates and other details I’m certain I never could’ve found on my own, even as a journalist. That day, I learned I had two brothers and a sister who, mind-bogglingly, were 17, 14 and six years older than me.

By the next day, after I’d spent two hours meeting the oldest of them, my brother Crys, by phone, our lives had changed forever. Within a few weeks, we confirmed through DNA what we suspected — that we’re all full-blooded siblings, sharing both parents.

The most unexpected, joyous of reunions — all thanks to the Ratcliffs.

Gil and his late wife Betsy with their six grandchildren in a photo from several years ago.

So when I talk about how much Gil means to us, they’re not mere words. He and his beloved Betsy, who was a nurse and a longtime Red Cross difference-maker, changed the course of two families with their goodness and willingness to help others.

A million thank-yous to you, Gil. And a million wishes for this birthday and as many more as you can celebrate. We love you and will always have the deepest respect and admiration for you and your family.

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