When Gary Klahr met Steve Barbin during a chance encounter in a Connecticut bar some twenty-seven years ago, something clicked. There was an immediate bond, a soul connection. "A guy could have no better friend," Gary wrote on the back of a photograph that he gave to Steve in 1988. "You are truly my brother." The men were so close that their wives often teased them about their degree and level of attachment. "You think alike. You talk alike," Carolyn Klahr, Gary's wife, used to marvel. "Sometimes you even finish each other's sentences!"
When Gary's construction worker father, Ben Klahr, died suddenly in 1979 after scaffolding collapsed on him, Steve's friendship helped Gary get through the grieving process. Gary had three other siblings, but Steve was an only child. Steve had always longed for siblings, and Gary-a couple of years older-assumed the role of mentor and big brother.
As Gary switched from athletic achievements (which included a brief stint in the National Football League) to acting triumphs (which included Broadway, TV, and parts in movies such as Married to the Mob, Big, Three Men and a Baby, Legal Eagles, and Quick Change), Steve steadfastly preserved the growing collection of professional clippings and mementos. When Steve married in 1988, there was no question that Gary would be his best man.
With Steve married, both friends' lives were now on parallel tracks. But on December 30, 1998, Gary received a phone call that changed both men's lives. "I'm from the Connecticut Department of Children and Families' Office of Foster and Adoption Services," the woman on the other line said. "Is this Gary Klahr?" The phone call threw Gary off balance. Had his wife put in an application for adoption and not told him?
"Do you have a chair nearby?" the caseworker asked. "You might want to sit down. I have something to tell you . . . Do you know that you're adopted?"
"It was a bolt out of the blue," Gary remembers. "All my life, for fifty-one years, I had been sure of my identity-that I was the firstborn son of Ben and Marjorie Klahr. No one-including them-had ever given me any indication to believe otherwise. I had no idea growing up that I was adopted."
The caseworker explained that her phone call had been prompted by a medical search initiated by one of Gary's birth sisters, a woman who had been adopted by another family.
"I've worked on almost four thousand adoption cases so far," the caseworker said, "but I've never encountered a situation like this. You were thirteen siblings, and nine of you were given up for adoption. Twelve of the siblings are still alive."
Gary had always maintained a strong sense of identity, of knowing exactly who he was and where he was going. Suddenly, in the course of just a few seconds, everything he thought he knew about his life was turned upside down. He had been raised Jewish in the suburbs. His biological parents turned out to be a Roman Catholic couple who lived in a public housing complex. During an eighteen-year marriage, they had had thirteen children, nine of whom they had given away because of dire poverty.
"Are they still alive?" Gary asked.
Gary was numbed by the bombshell that had suddenly been thrown into his lap. It was too much to absorb at once. Still, his optimistic spirit prevailed, and he said to the social worker: "You know, I have a best friend who's adopted, and he's a great guy. We share a lot of things, and so now we share this!"
"What's your friend's name?" the caseworker wanted to know.
When Gary told her, she fell silent. "Do you have his phone number?" she asked. "I've been looking for him, too."
"No!" Gary screamed. "You're not saying that . . ."
"Yes, I am," she said. "Steve Barbin is your brother."
That afternoon, Steve came home from work to hear a message on his answering machine from a woman who said she worked for the state of Connecticut. Unlike Gary, Steve had always known that he had been adopted. He had felt loved by his adoptive family, and had never speculated about his biological parents. But even if he had, nothing could have prepared Steve for what the caseworker told him next.
"Wow!" he exclaimed.
"There's something else I have to tell you," she said.
Something else? he thought. What more could there possibly be?
"Is there anybody in your life," she asked, "about whom people have said `You're so much alike you could be brothers'?"
Steve didn't hesitate." Are you telling me," he demanded, "that Gary Klahr is my blood brother?"
"Yes, I am," she said.
"Gar," Steve called his best friend after he had had a long discussion with the caseworker. "Do you believe this?"
"Steve," Gary said. "We've always lived our lives as if we were brothers anyway. Nothing's changed; it's only confirmed. This just makes our relationship more special than it was before."
Over the next few months, Gary and Steve were gradually reunited with four other siblings, and ultimately they fostered close ties with one another. And there were more surprises to come: One of the siblings turned out to be Richard, Gary's workout partner for the last fifteen years; another one was Micka, a woman Gary had briefly dated in 1979. Gary shudders when he contemplates the worst-case scenario that might have occurred with Micka.
"That coincidence is a true cautionary tale about the risks of private adoptions and sealed records," he says. "But the story I share with Steve is different. That's a story of love, friendship, and ultimately brotherhood. "