On Friday morning, Steve Smith and his daughter, Julie, sat by each other on a loveseat at the Billings home Steve shares with his wife, Sue.
He frequently put an arm around Julie. The two talked and laughed as though they’d been doing it all their lives.
In truth, the father-daughter reunion has been more than 40 years in the making. That it happened at all is due to the international reach of Facebook.
Steve, 61, a Montana native, has lived in Billings for much of his life. Julie, 42, although born in Great Falls, has spent most of her life in the Netherlands.
“For years I always had a feeling that I wanted to know who my birth father was, and off and on I did a little research,” she said.
But life has a way of getting in the way, and Julie put off the search for a while.
“And then Facebook came,” she said.
Steve picked up the story of how the two became separated so many years ago.
He grew up in Kalispell and eventually moved to Billings. Steve met Julie’s mom, Patricia, in 1972 when the two were students at West High.
They got married in 1973, the same year their son, Shane, was born. Steve joined the Air Force, and he and his wife and son moved to Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, where daughter Julie was born in 1974.
“Then I got stationed in (the Netherlands) as a security police and my wife divorced me,” Steve said. “I wasn’t a nice person at that time. We’re friends now.”
Around that same time, Steve got into a car accident, sustained a head injury and was hospitalized for about a year. By the time he was released from the military hospital, he had lost track of his ex-wife, his daughter and son.
One side-effect of the crash was that Steve developed epilepsy. He received an honorable discharge and moved back to Billings.
Steve held a series of jobs, got remarried and had three sons, Josh, Will and Kenny. Steve and his second wife eventually divorced. The side-effects from the medication he took for his epilepsy eventually rendered him 100 percent disabled, and now he is basically retired.
He met Sue, a native of England and mother of one grown son, online in 1999. They got together in 2000 in England. The couple married and in 2001 and relocated to Billings.
But Steve always wondered about the children he never knew.
'I hope you find him'
Julie, who still uses her maiden name, Smith, spent much of her time growing up in Soest, the Netherlands.
“I really had a wonderful childhood and a really good time, and I grew up in a safe, warm house,” she said. “I grew up with a stepdad, who I called Pa.”
When she started her own family, she thought Soesterberg would be a nice place to raise her two boys, Sidney, who is now 17, and Nick, 13. That’s the same town where Steve had been stationed in the Air Force.
Julie grew up knowing her biological father lived in Montana. Once in a while she and her mother would talk about Julie’s desire to possibly track down her father.
“I’d tell her, ‘I’m curious.’ I said, ‘I’m going for it,’ ” Julie said. “She said ‘you have my blessing. I hope you find him.’ ”
Turning to social media
In the days before the internet and social media, locating a father using only a name could be daunting, especially if that name is relatively common. At one point a friend brought Julie a copy of a Montana phone book and she turned to the white pages.
“I looked up the name ‘Steve Smith’ and there was a whole list,” she said.
But Facebook opened up a whole new world of possibilities, despite the plethora of Steve Smiths on the social media network. Julie had another ally to help in her search.
Amy, a cousin on her mother’s side who lived in Billings, didn’t know Steve. But she tried to help Julie when the two talked via Skype and looked at Facebook profiles of Billings men named Steve Smith.
"I'd look at the profile and you think 'do I look like him? It could be him,'" Julie said.
She sent a Facebook message to one of the Steve Smiths, who it turns out wasn’t her father. She was vague in the note, telling him he might be the man she was looking for.
“He never responded, though,” she said.
Then Amy’s father, who knew Steve years before, looked at the Facebook profiles with his daughter and pointed one out.
“He said ‘this should be him,’ ” Julie said.
The first message Steve got about Julie came through Facebook from Julie’s partner, Maurice Verloot. Julie also sent a message, but Steve happened to open Maurice’s first.
“He said he’s living with somebody he thought was related to me,” Steve recalled. “He said ‘I think it’s your daughter.’ I had to look at the message two or three times before I responded.”
Steve checked out Maurice’s Facebook page, and Julie’s. One look at her and he knew it was his daughter.
“She looked almost exactly like her mom did when she was younger,” Steve said.
Sue remembers that day. The couple had tried a few times with no success to locate Julie and her brother Shane, not knowing Julie had retained her maiden name.
“Then he came in the room and said guess what?” Sue said. When Steve told her he had gotten a Facebook message from his daughter’s partner, “I nearly fell on the floor.”
Digital first meeting
The first time Steve tried calling Julie via Facebook messenger, “I freaked out,’ she said.
Though Julie had been searching for Steve, when the moment came to connect she panicked slightly and rejected the video call.
“I phoned Maurice and asked ‘what am I going to do?’ ” Julie said. “He said ‘give yourself a little breathing time.’ I did, then we decided to Skype all together.”
That first call, there were a couple minutes of quiet, “with nobody saying anything,” Maurice said, except a quick "hi" and a wave. Sue and Maurice got the conversation going.
“I think I was mostly scared,” Julie said. “I was thinking ‘what if he doesn’t like me?’ ”
And though Julie speaks fluent English, she grew up speaking Dutch. She has to constantly translate in her head from English to Dutch as she’s speaking.
“If you’re emotionally overwhelmed, somehow translation doesn’t work,” she said. “I was really a nervous wreck.”
Steve shared her nervous feelings, also worried what Julie would think of him. But after that awkward first online gathering, over the next year, they started Skyping on a regular basis.
'Hurry up and get here'
Then an opportunity arose for Julie and Maurice to use their KLM air miles to fly to Montana, with their only option to land in Great Falls. So Julie, Maurice, Sidney and Nick flew from Amsterdam to Paris to Minneapolis to Great Falls, arriving at 10:50 p.m. Wednesday.
Steve and Sue drove to Great Falls to meet them, along with Steve’s son, Will, and granddaughter Grace. Waiting was difficult, Steve said.
“I was thinking ‘hurry up and get here,’ ” he said.
Finally, Julie, Maurice and her two sons stepped into the waiting area.
“We had a big, big hug,” Steve said.
“I cried,” Julie said.
“Me too,” Steve agreed.
“Your heartbeat goes way up,” Julie said.
“When I got a hug from her, I didn’t want to let go,” Steve added.
The next 3-1/2 weeks will be spent together, getting together with family in Billings and traveling to Columbia Falls for a big family reunion. On Friday, Julie also planned to meet with Amy, the cousin who helped her connect with her father.
Julie is enjoying every moment of her visit.
“It feels good” to connect with family, she said. “All those times I was worried what they would think of me — it’s been awesome. They really make you feel like family.”
Nick, Julie’s younger son, shared an observation with her not long after they arrived in Montana.
“He said right away ‘your hands move the same way’ ” Julie said, referring to her and Steve. “I thought it was nice that my youngest son noticed it.”