On Sunday, July 2, 1944, a slender, neatly dressed blonde woman checked into the Robert Fulton Hotel in downtown Atlanta, giving the name Mrs. Richard Parker, of Salt Lake City.
Later that day, a housekeeper entered the woman's room and found a several-weeks-old baby. The woman presumed to be the mother was gone.
Also left behind was a blue canvas bag containing a few clothes and a note with instructions on preparing the baby's formula and how often he should be fed.
Although World War II was raging in Europe, with the D-Day invasion of Normandy still fresh, the Atlanta Constitution newspaper ran a two-column photo of the baby boy on its front page, right next to the war news.
By then police had determined "Mrs. Parker" was a false name and had taken the baby to a hospital.
It was a sensational human interest story, with newspaper readers eagerly wondering who the parents were.
In time, so did the baby.
But it wasn't until 2018, about 75 years later, that the baby who grew up as Richard Cole learned through DNA testing that his mother was from Davenport. She was born Mildred J. Benton but was widely known in the Quad-Cities as Ben Sunday, a prolific and respected area artist who died in 2015. Most of her work was created in the 1950s through the early 2000s.
Contemporaries remember Sunday as a movie-star beautiful and strong-willed creator of hundreds of oil paintings, some representational, some abstract, and of ground-breaking collages using mixed media. Many are in private collections, including one owned by Deere & Co.
They also remember that she helped originate the precursor to today's Beaux Arts Fairs that support the Figge Art Museum, and helped establish Studio 15, an art gallery. In 1991, she received the Harlequin Award for lifetime achievement in art from Riverssance.
Baby Boy Cole's father was the handsome Wayne Earl Brooks, also of Davenport, who died in 2000.
Documentation discovered this past summer revealed that Benton and Brooks married, apparently in secret, when Benton was still in high school. But they went separate ways after that, married other people, raised families.
As it turns out, Cole has four half sisters living in the Quad-City area, three who share Brooks as their father and one who shares Benton as her mother.
And as far as is known, neither Benton nor Brooks ever spoke about Baby Boy. It's possible Brooks didn't know of his existence.
How Benton, who was only 18 at the time, came to leave the child in a Georgia hotel just five months after graduating from Davenport High School in 1944 remains one of many unanswered questions in this story. The people who might have answered them are gone.
"We don't know what went on," Cole said. "There's some interesting mysteries left to solve."
But for Cole, finding the identities of his mother and father and meeting sisters he didn't know he had has been a joyous experience.
How Cole found his father
Some weeks after he was discovered in the hotel, Baby Boy was placed in foster care and eventually adopted. He grew up, made a life and raised a family, settling in Kennesaw, Ga., a northwest suburb of Atlanta.
His adoptive parents told him his father had been killed in the war (more than 400,000 servicemen died, so that was plausible) and his mother in a traffic accident. "I don't think I ever believed that," Cole said. "But it didn't matter. That was who I was."
Nevertheless, from time to time, he wondered about his birth parents, as all adopted children do.
During the late 1990s, Cole contacted the Georgia state archives and learned his pre-adoption records could be released because his adoptive parents had died by then and his birth parents were unknown. With the information provided by those records, he found the stories about "Baby Boy" that had appeared in the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, which were separate papers back then.
They included a story titled "Dear Mommy," a fictional letter written by a reporter of what "Baby Boy" might say if he could talk.
"The hospital social workers will find somebody to adopt me and give me a regular home and a full-time mother — but what about you?" the letter said.
"The room clerk at the hotel said you were awfully young, just 18 or 19 years old, and that you looked terribly tired when you walked into the hotel and asked for a room. He said, 'I never saw anybody who looked like she needed a room worse.'
"Please take care of yourself, mommy, wherever you are. And don't worry about me. I'm going to be all right. Love, Baby Boy."
While interesting, the information didn't help Cole identify who his parents were. That would take another 20 years and would happen only because of the convergence of three factors:
• Some 800 miles away, a woman named Pamela Williams, of Eldridge, got a DNA test to find out more about her ethnic heritage with the results posted on Ancestry.com.
• Cole hired a woman named Gerri Berger to help him with his search. Berger, also of the Atlanta area, is a "genetic genealogist" who founded a business that helps people track down their families. For her, it's a passion spurred by her personal journey of finding her own birth parents.
• Cole, who had already taken two services' DNA tests that revealed only very distant cousins, took a DNA test with Ancestry DNA, at Berger's request. "Gerri looks at family trees, triangulating back, filling in the gaps," Cole said.
Berger found Williams' genetic information online and realized it was a close match to Cole's. She contacted Williams and urged her to contact Cole, which she did.
It was determined that Williams and Cole shared the same father, Brooks, but different mothers. Brooks, an only son, was a January 1942 graduate of Davenport High School who left for the service in World War II, was wounded, recovered in a Denver hospital, and was released in June of 1943.
In September of 1946, he married Williams' mother.
None of this gave any clues about who Cole's mother was, though.
How Cole found his mother
Finding Mildred Benton also came through following the threads of DNA tests. As unlikely as it sounds, a sleuth like Berger can find two or three people who share bits of DNA and trace them back into the past to find a common ancestor, Cole explained. Then, that same sleuth will follow the threads of the common ancestor the other way, into the present.
That is what Berger did to find Mildred. And from there she found Mildred's daughter, Suzanne Mann, of Davenport.
At the request of Berger and Cole, Mann submitted a DNA test and the results confirmed that she and Baby Boy Cole shared the same mother, Mildred Benton, aka Ben Sunday.
"As a detective, she nailed it," Cole said of Berger. And the DNA test "wrapped it up."
Suzanne Mann declined to be interviewed for this story and said in an email that she objected to an account of what she termed a "deeply tragic part of mom's life" that would leave a smudge on her memory. In the 1940s, there was no real birth control and having a child out of wedlock was considered by many to be shameful.
A new discovery raises new questions
When Cole visited the Quad-Cities this past summer, he learned that his mother and father had actually been married, "which no one knew," he said.
That realization occurred when one of the sisters, going through Brooks' papers for a keepsake for Cole, found a divorce decree dated September of 1946 — just days before Brooks married Williams' mother — from a Mildred Benton. It stated they had married on Dec. 5, 1943.
None of the sisters knew that their dad had a wife before his marriage to Williams' mother.
The marriage between Benton and Brooks apparently was a secret that came to light only because Brooks later needed a divorce to legally remarry, and the divorce created a paper trail.
But even that is not the most bewildering part.
More bewildering is that on Feb. 16, 1944, Mildred Benton (while pregnant and still legally married to Brooks) married a Lt. Ralph J. Bartholomew, of Moline, in Congregational Church in Boston.
The announcement in the Feb. 22, 1944, Davenport Democrat newspaper also reported that the bride had graduated Davenport High School the month before, while the groom graduated from a Springfield, Ill., high school, and they were to live in Falmouth, Mass.. Bartholomew was stationed at Camp Edward, Massachusetts.
A Feb. 21, 1944, article in the Daily Times reported that Mildred's mother accompanied her to Boston for the wedding.
All this raises questions that neither Cole nor his siblings can answer.
How did Benton know Bartholomew? Why did she marry him? Were her parents behind it? Did Bartholomew know of her pregnancy? Where was the baby born? How did Benton happen to travel to Atlanta, where she left Baby Boy, five months after her marriage to Bartholomew? Atlanta is nearly 1,000 miles from her supposed home in Massachusetts.
Going back one more step, how did Benton know Brooks, Cole's father? Did they meet in high school? Where did they marry? Why? What happened that they did not stay together? Did their parents know of the pregnancy or marriage?
Mann, Mildred's daughter, declined to be interviewed for this story, but her husband, Jim Mann, said that she was blindsided by the information about her mother.
Suzanne Mann and her mother had a close relationship and never once did her mother hint at any other child, Mann said.
Berger said that, based on her years of experience tracking down families, that is not unusual.
"Some people will say, 'We were so close, I would have known' (about a child). No, you wouldn't."
"Sometimes birth mothers lie," she said. "Sometimes people lie. DNA doesn't lie. That's what we adoptees love about it. If you have 50 percent of someone's DNA, they are your parent. God bless DNA."
As Jim Mann said of Benton, "she took all the knowledge with her when she passed on."
But Cole is grateful.
"She left me in a good place," Cole said of his mother. She left him where he would be found and cared for, and she went on with her life.