Police were called to the house at 32 Deering St. in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, home to Dr. and Mrs. Eugene O’Donnell.

A baby had been found abandoned in the back seat of a car that was parked out front. A boy, just a few months old, by the look.

There was no note. Nothing to identify who the baby was or where he came from. But he was clothed and swaddled and nursing a bottle of still-warm milk.

Ronald Perreault rests his hand on the folder he keeps with documents about his young childhood in Maine. Staff photo by Derek Davis

While police began their investigation, which went nowhere, the infant was taken to a nearby hospital where nurses in the maternity ward bathed him and fed him.

The bizarre find made the front page of the Portland Press Herald, complete with grainy, black-and-white images of the boy nurses had nicknamed “Billy Sunshine.”

It was March 1937.

***

Billy Sunshine is 82 today. His real name is Ronald Reed Perreault – or at least that’s the name that was given to him by his adoptive parents, Arthur and Hazel Perreault of Sanford. He doesn’t know if he was given a name at birth.

Ronald hasn’t lived in Maine for decades, but last week he came back to search for clues about his origins. Any hints about who left him in that car in the middle of downtown Portland, why they did it and what happened to them.

The quest hasn’t been an obsession for him, the way it sometimes is for others who go looking for relatives, but as he’s gotten older, he’s realized time may be running out.

“I may never get answers,” he said.

***

The front page of the Portland Press Herald from March 25, 1937, is seen on microfilm at the Portland Public Library on Thursday. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Ronald grew up in an old farmhouse in Sanford, with animals all around and orchards. The Perreaults had raised twin girls and then opened their home to foster children. A stable of them came and went, he said, but he was the only adoptee. Arthur worked in the textile mill until it shut down in the mid-1950s. Hazel was a homemaker.

They told Ronald he was adopted but didn’t give him too many details, in part because they didn’t have many to give. And he never questioned where his birth parents were. Arthur and Hazel were the only family he knew. Arthur died in 1965 from lung cancer. Hazel passed in 1988 at age 87.

Ronald graduated from Sanford High School in 1955 and shortly thereafter enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

From basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, he was stationed all over the country, including briefly at the now-closed Loring Air Force Base in Limestone. He also served overseas, in Turkey and later Germany.

During one of his assignments, at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, he met a local woman named Willie Mae Hilburn. They were married in June 1958. Two boys followed. Ronald Jr. and Jeffrey.

He was discharged from the Air Force after 20 years, nine months. Shortly thereafter, he moved his family to Woodbridge, Virginia, south of Washington, D.C., on the Potomac River. He still lives there today, in the same house they bought in 1978.

***

Ronald started a second career as a civilian for the Department of the Army. Willie Mae worked at CVS and taught Sunday school at the First Baptist Church.

He sometimes wondered about his strange start in life and once, 30 years or so ago, he started doing some digging. But he quickly hit a dead end and gave up. It didn’t matter all that much.

He and Willie Mae retired for good. They traveled a little and spent time with their five grandchildren.

Willie Mae died a little over a year ago, a few months shy of the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary. She was 81 but her death was sudden. She went into the hospital with an aneurysm and died a week later.

“She put up with me almost 60 years,” he joked. “If you want a cause of death, I guess that was it.”

Ronald found himself with unexpected time on his hands.

***

At some point last year, Ronald made the decision to renew his effort to find out something, anything, about his birth parents.

He had been talking to a friend, Jim Gravelle, about it and Jim offered to accompany him on the 12-hour road trip to Maine.

“He said, ‘Let’s go check it out,'” he said.

That’s how Ronald Perreault, also known as Billy Sunshine, ended up at the Portland Press Herald offices last week.

He had already been to the police station. They told him they’d try to find the investigative file from 1937, but it was in storage and might take time. He went to the local offices of the Department of Health and Human Services. They told him they would try to find any records that might fill in some gaps. When he was officially adopted, there would have conceivably been a record. Maybe his birth parents were notified then.

He came to the newspaper because one of the only clues he had was a photograph of him as a baby, which his adoptive mother had clipped from the pages of the Portland Press Herald and given to him when he was old enough. But there wasn’t a date.

***

Ronald Perreault has always wondered what happened to his parents and how he ended up abandoned. Staff photo by Derek Davis

With the help of a librarian, Ronald searched old newspapers that had been stored on microfilm. He started in January 1937 and found what he was looking for on March 25. There on the front page was a series of photos of him, the abandoned infant and a story with details he had never known.

“This was quite a find,” he said. “We could have easily missed it.”

The car where he was found belonged to Joseph Topolosky, the brother-in-law of the doctor who owned the home. He was just visiting and made the discovery when he returned to the car to leave, about an hour after he arrived. The baby’s clothes were “clean and of medium quality,” the police inspector said at the time, and included a white and blue bonnet and a flannel blanket.

But there were no follow-up stories. No one knew anything.

***

Ronald said he learned just enough new information during his trip to Maine to keep going. He has lots of questions.

Had his mother simply been too young to care for him and decided to leave him outside a doctor’s home, knowing the doctor would do the right thing? Was the fact that he was left inside a car at a doctor’s house just a coincidence? Did his mother go on to have other children?

“I might have been kidnapped, who knows?” he said.

He doesn’t even know how much time passed between when he arrived at the hospital and when the Perreaults adopted him.

A few weeks ago, before his trip north, Ronald did take a DNA test through an online service. When the results come back, he’ll authorize their release to a public registries (the “universe,” he says) to see if anything comes back. People find out every day about long-lost relatives.

“I wish I did it before,” he said. “It’s kind of late, all this stuff is. Everybody is gone.”

All he can do now is wait, knowing full well that his own time left is finite.

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