DALTON, Ga. — Sometime in the early 1970s, Sanford Dover’s brother Conrad, on leave from the Army, drove his new British MG convertible home for a visit.
Sanford and his wife, Mary, invited Conrad over for dinner and homemade ice cream the next night.
He never came.
And for the next 40 years, Conrad didn’t visit, call or write. Last July, the Dovers learned where he was but it was too late. There was only one thing that Sanford could do now for his brother: Have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
After that single visit decades ago, Conrad’s mother wore her legs out walking each day to the mailbox, hoping for a letter from her youngest son. She died in 1975.
Years passed. A sister died. A brother died. Nothing.
Then last July, the phone rang while Mary Dover, 80, was eating breakfast.
“I am Larry Hall with Homeland Security and I am looking for a Dover family,” the voice said.
A chill ran through Mary as she grabbed a napkin and began scribbling down some of what Hall was saying.
Veterans retirement home. Ventilator. Arlington.
Over the next few weeks Mary and Sanford would learn that Conrad had retired from the Army. He had worked for the National Security Agency for at least two years. He was a crack codebreaker. He loved NASCAR.
And he was dying.
Hall told the Dovers he had met Conrad over beer and a shared interest in NASCAR at a bar in Laurel, Md.
Over the next dozen years the pair would watch races at each other’s homes. Conrad was from East Tennessee. Hall was from Mississippi.
“He was a very good friend and I miss him every day,” Hall said in a letter to Sanford Dover.
But there were some things Conrad wouldn’t talk about.
Hall said occasionally he’d ask Conrad about his family.
“I kept asking him, ‘why don’t you get with your family?’” Hall said in a telephone interview this week with the Times Free Press. “He kind of stared at me and said, ‘Don’t go there.’”
So Hall stopped asking.
But when, after years of decline, Conrad was hospitalized and helpless, Hall decided someone had to take part in making medical decisions. Someone had to know.
After days of Internet searching he found the name Dover in Dalton and picked up the phone.
This handed 84-year-old Sanford an agonizing decision.
Sanford, the only known surviving sibling, wrestled for weeks over the choice. He never knew why his brother disappeared. Most of the family presumed he was dead. If there was a family problem, he didn’t know what it was. If something had happened between Conrad and his mother, brother or sister, Sanford couldn’t pinpoint it.
Then he made the call.
On Aug. 10, 2013, Conrad Dover died.
Sanford’s health is not good. He couldn’t travel then to see his brother, isn’t sure it would have mattered.
But he could help honor his brother’s wishes expressed through Hall, Conrad’s late-life friend.
“I do know this. His main wish was to be buried at Arlington and I’m going to honor my promise to my friend,” Hall said.
Today, at 10 a.m. at Arlington National Cemetery, the cremated remains of the Central High School graduate will be escorted by a military detail. Hall and a handful of people will be there to honor the Army veteran.
Through the years, Sanford made peace with his brother’s desire to let the family tie unravel. Eventually, he said, he stopped wondering.
Mary would prod.
“Mary, if he doesn’t want to be found, I don’t want to find him,” Sanford said.
“It was one of those voids, it was one of those empty areas that you didn’t know how to walk into,” Sanford said last week.
He has a memory before all of this.
It would have been during World War II. He was a child. Conrad was an infant.
The family traveled by train, first from West Virginia to Cincinnati, then changed trains to head on to St. Louis, Mo.
Everyone was carrying a bag, a suitcase or something.
Somebody had to carry the baby.
“That was me,” Sanford said. “I carried the baby.”
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...