Lost for 12 years, a father is found

The e-mails arrived in March, within an hour of one another -- one from New York City, the other from Austin, Texas.

"My name is Ericka Dotson. I just received word of your story published in the LA Times about my father. My brother and I have been looking for him for over 12 years. This is the happiest day of my life!"

The other was from her brother, Tre:

"Eddie Dotson is my father. . . . Thank you very much for speaking so kindly about him; he's a great man!"

I had written a column two weeks earlier about Eddie Dotson -- a 67-year-old man living in an elaborate shelter under a freeway overpass near USC.

His sidewalk home had no electricity or running water. But he had matching curtains, artwork on the walls and a bowl of fresh fruit on a counter. His creation lent an air of elegance to the gritty street corner.

Failed business ventures and a broken marriage had sent him hitchhiking from Austin to Los Angeles in 1990. But his story didn't explain his homeless status. He was an Air Force veteran with a college degree who spoke proudly of his son and daughter, now 34 and 38. He hadn't left Texas, he told me, until "they didn't need me anymore."

His daughter's e-mail suggested otherwise: "PLEASE call me as soon as you receive this," Ericka wrote me. "I will book a ticket to LA right away to see him."

I printed out the e-mails and showed them to Eddie. His posture softened and eyes grew moist. I dialed Ericka's number and handed him my phone.

And when I heard the tremble in his voice, I wondered if the bonds between a father and his children were strong enough to draw him home.

::

Tre overnighted a cellphone for his father. I taught Eddie to use it, then snapped a photo of him and texted it to his son and daughter.

I visited him every few days and his children called just as often. But Eddie wasn't ready for them to come out. He planned to host them in his sidewalk shelter. He stepped up his scavenging, adding a desk, a plush chair and another bed.

Then a sign went up on a nearby wall. A city maintenance crew was coming to clear "trash and personal belongings" from the sidewalk. Four days later, Eddie's home was dismantled and hauled off.

When I arrived, Eddie was chatting amiably with a police officer. All that he had managed to salvage was piled on a rusty shopping cart.

I offered to get him a room at a nearby motel. Or take him and his little dog King home to the San Fernando Valley with me. He demurred, and for the first time since we'd met, I felt entitled to chastise him:

His daughter had already booked a flight to Los Angeles. "It's time to be accountable to the people who love you," I told him.

He promised to meet me later near the Sports Arena. But I was late and couldn't find him. I gave up, got back in my car and sobbed.

Ericka and Tre were counting on me to deliver their father. And I had lost him.

Then, heading for the freeway, I spotted Eddie. In the shadows under his overpass, he had already started building a new shelter.

::

Ericka began planning their reunion. She desperately wanted her dad back in Austin, but knew better than to count on that happening.

The last time he'd come home -- for a high school reunion in 1997 -- he had stayed a week, then returned to Los Angeles and vanished. His family hadn't heard from him since.

Tre couldn't leave Austin; he had just started a new job, running a restaurant owned by Carlos Santana. So Ericka asked her dad's best friend to come to Los Angeles with her.

Eddie was waiting for them on the sidewalk, shoes shined, shirt pressed and smelling fresh. I walked back to my car to get my camera -- and missed the moment of reconnection. By the time I got back, Eddie was yakking it up with his buddy and Ericka was fussing over his puppy.

She had booked a room at the Wilshire Grand Hotel, but presented it casually to her father: "You can stay there with me if you want," she said, "or I'll drop my bags off and come stay here." Eddie agreed to a night in the downtown hotel, and sneaked King in under his jacket.

Two days later, on Sunday, Ericka called me. "We're at my dad's place," she said. "Packing."

They planned to leave that afternoon for Austin. Eddie had no ID and couldn't fly; the trash crew had pitched his wallet. The train trip would take them 40 hours; no dogs allowed.

"I wonder if you could, maybe, keep King for a while?" Ericka asked, her voice straining for a breezy note. An hour later, we were loading their gear into my trunk.

In the back seat with King, Eddie was snoring. In the front next to me, Ericka shared her story.

Her father had disappeared after her parents divorced and she headed off to Washington, D.C., for college. Until then, she said, "I thought we had the perfect life."

They were the first black family in their neighborhood in Round Rock, an Austin suburb of quiet streets and spacious houses. Their dad was always puttering in the yard. He built a ledge around their pond and hung a tire from a tree in the backyard.

Their parents ran a janitorial service, with the city as a client. Ericka still remembers the ribbon-cutting, "and my dad standing next to the mayor."

But the business foundered and her parents split up. Her mother moved in with family in Austin. Eddie settled in an abandoned trailer on an acre in rural Manchaca.

It had no bathroom, so he built an outhouse. No running water, no television, no car, no job. But he had the company of his teenage daughter, who spent weekends roughing it with her father.

"We would sit for hours talking, like we always had." It was enough to be there, beside her dad.

Three years later he left, with no goodbye.

As I pulled into Union Station, she gently jostled him awake. Then I took King and Ericka took her father.

::

In Austin, Eddie moved into her furnished condo, empty since she had moved to New York. Ericka gave him the keys to her old Lexus and put the word out that "Junior" Dotson was back.

His life was a blur of resumed connections. He watched basketball games with his high school buddies, reminisced at barbecues and loaded his cellphone with friends' phone numbers.

We talked often on the phone, and I finally got the nerve to ask if he was going to stay in Austin. Eddie responded with a question: "How could I have forgotten how good my hometown is?"

Still, five weeks into his "visit," as Ericka called it, I had my doubts -- and Eddie's dog.

Could a man really slide so easily from sidewalk shelter to luxury condo? From solitary vagrant to prodigal father? I booked a ticket and headed with King to Austin.

We spent Memorial Day weekend touring Eddie's old haunts: The hospital where he was born, the house where he grew up, the church where the Anderson High football star -- voted "Most Ideal" by his senior class -- married the pretty majorette.

And everywhere we went, I was greeted by his friends with hugs and whispered thanks "for bringing Eddie back."

::

It has been three months since my column made its way to Ericka and Tre, passed along by their dad's network of classmates from Los Angeles to Austin. Two months ago, Eddie returned to Texas.

I asked Jihad Shakir -- who has known Eddie since they were toddlers -- what made him such a hometown hero. He gave me a simple answer. "He's always been a good person, with the right attitude. Eddie was the kind of dude that everybody liked. And if they didn't, it was because something was wrong with them, not because of anything Eddie did."

Eddie left Austin because he was in pain. He stayed away for reasons that no one has asked him to explain. His safe return has taught them something in Austin. "Good begets good. God had his hands on Eddie," Shakir said.

And our encounter has reminded me that a man is more than his circumstances.

His children have done well, and he never lost their love or respect. Tre works 16-hour days running his trendy restaurant. Ericka parlayed an Austin beauty salon into an international hair import company. From her father, she learned to take a risk. "I'm not afraid to fail," she said.

They were shaped by his presence, but grew in his absence, holding tight to the credo that he modeled: You are not beneath anyone. And there is no task that is beneath you.

"Whatever happened, he's still my dad," Tre said. "All the stuff he preached to us growing up, about respecting yourself, loving your neighbor. . . . That's instilled in me. I owe him the credit for my success."

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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