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Twelve children who lost parents a half century ago struggled to stay together

From left, Billy Plume, Helen Boeke, Irene Ann

From left, Billy Plume, Helen Boeke, Irene Ann Plume-Dee and Fred Plume get together Thursday, July 3, 2014, in Ronkonkoma. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

On the day their parents died in a car crash 50 years ago Saturday, 11 of the 12 Plume children were removed from their Lake Ronkonkoma house -- first to an aunt's house and later taken in by relatives, friends and even strangers.

They never returned home or lived together again as a family.

The youngest, a 9-month-old boy named Billy, went to live with an uncle. His sister, Jean, who was then 16, followed him because she declared she was going wherever the baby went. A family friend, a World War II veteran with a soft heart, raised another sibling.

Their exodus came on July 5, 1964, the day their mother, Jean Plume, 35, who was five months pregnant with her 13th child, and father, Clinton W. Plume Jr., 43, died in a two-car collision in Nesconset. Their oldest child, Clinton, who didn't live at home, was 17.

The 12 siblings have worked over the 50 years to preserve what they lost that night -- their family.

Some siblings didn't know for decades where several lived. A few siblings were forbidden by their new families to see the other children. Over the years, some moved as far away as Kentucky, North Carolina and Florida.

Over the years, some slowly rediscovered one another. They began to lean on each other for support, driving along lonely highways to memorials for siblings' spouses and even for one of the brothers. The slogan on a family reunion T-shirt proclaimed "We Survived."

"Life deals you what it deals you, and you just move on," said Fred Plume, 52, the second-youngest, who now lives in Frankfort, Ohio.

In 1986, 22 years after their parents' deaths, the 12 laid eyes on each other as adults for the first -- and only -- time at a reunion in Centereach. They took a group photo and visited their parents' graves in Mount Sinai. This weekend, several siblings are to again visit the graves to mark the 50th anniversary of their parents' deaths.

"We all went in different directions. We have different families. We . . . are the ones that tried to make sure we didn't lose contact," said Caroline Loomis, 55, the fourth-youngest, who was 5 when her parents died. "We found each other."


The fatal crash

Clinton Plume, a mechanic, and Jean Plume raised their children in a house where they ate a whole chicken for Sunday dinner. He liked to light fireworks on Independence Day.

But on July 4, 1964, the Plume children went without fireworks. Clinton Plume, a Lake Ronkonkoma volunteer firefighter, was working the department's fair, and the children's uncle couldn't get the fireworks to light at their house.

Around 1:50 a.m., as Clinton Plume drove his wife from the fair to a Smithtown diner, he collided with another vehicle on Smithtown Boulevard, killing a 17-year-old female passenger in that vehicle.

Helen Boeke was 12 that night and asleep, curled up on the couch waiting for her mother to bring back Funny Bones, chocolate-covered cakes with peanut butter in the middle, she recalled. A step-grandmother rustled her from her sleep and told her to wake the older children. Four confused siblings sat on the couch and learned that their parents were dead.

"I lost it crying," said Boeke, 62, a retired nurse who lives in Copiague.

Jean, 16 and the second-oldest, who was named after her mother, walked into the room. Her head down and eyes swollen in grief, Boeke recalled.


Children split up

The children stayed with an aunt, Pat Carmichael, who lived around the corner. A cousin fed and bathed them as they waited for their paternal uncle, Roy Plume, who was a Suffolk police sergeant. He learned of the crash from fellow officers and told his father, who suffered a mild heart attack in response.

The heavy voices of weary, grief-stricken adults swirled around the house that night as Roy Plume spoke with the aunt, who told him she had a big home and wanted to keep all the children, Boeke recalled.

But Roy Plume took baby Billy and his sister Jean with him to his house next door, where they would remain, she said. Kenneth Plume, 9, and 4-year-old Larry Plume were taken to their grandfather Clinton, also Roy Plume's neighbor, where they lived until he died the next year.

"We're going to keep the children together . . . The family is not going to be broken up," Roy Plume said the day after the crash, according to a Newsday story. He died in 2005 at the age of 80.

A couple, who learned about the family from a Lake Ronkonkoma Methodist church newsletter, later adopted Larry and moved away. So did 6-year-old Wayne's new parents, the church's minister and his wife.

Kenneth Plume's adoptive family moved to Virginia.

"The children that were younger all fared much better than the older ones because they were adopted into really good homes," Boeke said. She said the older ones usually bounced around.

"It was always hard for everybody because they had their own families, and times were hard to begin with," said Loomis, who was raised by one of her mother's friends in Kings Park.

Boeke said she still harbors strong feelings that the siblings were split up.

"We just didn't have a choice. I think it was horrible," she said. "It wasn't like you got on the phone and ever called anybody. Nobody ever told you where they were."

Frank Klemm, the war veteran, was Fred Plume's godfather and became his foster father. Klemm, who was also the elder Clinton Plume's best friend, had lost his right leg before the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. He was a quirky, 5-foot-2, blue-eyed mechanic, plumber and junkman with a wooden leg, who also sold car parts. Fred learned to fix cars in the junkyard.

"If you can make it run, you can drive it," Klemm would say, recalled Fred Plume, now a mechanic himself. "He's my father figure . . . He loved me unconditionally."


They find each other again

Relatives kept Fred and the five youngest children away from the wake and funeral, fearing they were too young to grasp the concept of death. Some still thought their parents were coming home.

The six oldest siblings went to the wake.

But only 17-year-old Clinton and 16-year-old Jean went to the funeral at the Lake Ronkonkoma Funeral Home.

"My father looked like he was sleeping with a lot of makeup on, and the same with my mother," Boeke said.

She cried herself to sleep for at least a year and tried to convince herself that her parents weren't really gone.

Hundreds of letters poured in from all over the world. One girl sent $1 of her baby-sitting money. Adults looking for children laid out their best case for choosing them as adoptive parents: Their houses had amenities like a piano and an organ, and the school bus stopped out front.

"When both parents go and there is a family of 12, you want to mourn, but there is too much work to be done," said Billy Plume, the youngest, now 50.

Loomis recalled she was allowed to see only her older sibling, now named Jean Root, who was 11 years older and married. But Root secretly would take her around to see other siblings who were living on Long Island.

Fred Plume, who as a child visited his brother Billy Plume at Uncle Roy's house in Lake Ronkonkoma, said he was lectured not to tell Billy they were brothers.

Around 1978, Billy finally learned that the relatives he thought were cousins were his blood brothers and sisters and his parents had died in the crash. Another sibling, Wayne Plume-Eid, whose adoptive parents had moved the family to Connecticut, called Uncle Roy and visited. He brought Billy Plume a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye."

Billy Plume said he understands why his adoptive parents didn't tell him right away that his cousins were his siblings, and why his older siblings felt alone.

"Sometimes it hurts because you . . . start saying, 'Was it the right decision? Was it the wrong decision?' " he said.

In the early 1980s, Larry Plume, who was called Larry Gorman by his adoptive family, found his sister Helen Boeke's number and visited her at her Lake Ronkonkoma house. No one knew he had been raised on Long Island.

He and Boeke were both married then. He had three young children and had been stationed in the Army in California.


Reuniting on Long Island

In 1983, nine siblings and their spouses held the first Plume family reunion in Southaven County Park in Yaphank.

Their spouses cut the tops off plastic bowling pins, filled them with sand and arranged them on a board and flung a Frisbee at the pins in a made-up game they called Frisbowl.

Seven siblings attended the next year's reunion at Cedar Beach on Fire Island, where one sibling, Irene Ann Plume-Dee, had white T-shirts made up that said what they all felt: "We Survived It All 20 Years."

In 1985, Wayne Plume, then 27, suffered a traumatic brain injury when a truck rear-ended his disabled car as he tried to fix it on a roadside upstate. He survived.

The next year, all 12 got together for the first time as adults for the weekend at one sibling's house in Centereach. They held sack races, slept in tents and filled piñatas with candy and toys for the kids. A photograph of them lined up side by side was proof that the family broken up a half-century earlier was finally and happily back together. Fred Plume and the eldest sibling, named Clinton after their father, handled the grill.

The last reunion was in Heckscher State Park in East Islip in 2012. Larry Gorman died of emphysema in 2013. He was 52 and left a wife and five children.

Some siblings said their parents' death and the ebb and flow of their lives afterward shaped and hardened them.

"I think we can cope with things that other people couldn't," Fred Plume said.

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