Earlier this year, Challis resident Tom Johnson, who served as Ketchum’s fire chief for 16 years until he retired in 2002, learned a shocking detail about his life—he was not who he thought he was.
Following his birth in a hospital in Michigan in December 1941, right after news hit of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Johnson was mistakenly switched with another baby boy, according to an article in the Challis Messenger newspaper.
In its April 18 edition, the newspaper reported the story of Johnson’s life and his discovery that he is actually Herbert Reibman. A hospital employee switched the newborn infants and the parents never learned of the mistake. Johnson discussed the story at the senior center in Challis in April, the Messenger reported.
“So Tom is actually Herb and vice-versa,” the newspaper reported. “Tom always thought he was born Thomas Edgar Johnson Jr. at 11:25 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, to Thomas Edgar and Dorothy (Brown) Johnson. It turns out he was born Herbert Benjamin Reibman at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, to Larry Reibman and Margaret ‘Peggy’ (Brouilette) Reibman.”
They lived their entire lives based on those mistaken identities, until Johnson and his sister Pat did a DNA test in 2018. Herbert Reibman died in the 1990s, and all four parents died not knowing the truth.
Johnson learned it through a test from Ancestry.com. It showed that he and Pat did not match.
“We did our DNA and it was not a match,” Johnson said, as quoted in the Messenger. “We thought there was some error. It wasn’t real. We dismissed it.”
But it was real, and an email in January with his biological cousin, Susan Reibman Groff, confirmed it. They exchanged their DNA test results and family photos, and Johnson learned that Groff’s aunt and uncle—his biological parents—were at the hospital in Michigan on Dec. 8, 1941.
Johnson, his wife, Linda, and their son organized a gathering with his biological family in Arizona in March. There, he met his two biological siblings—a brother named Richard and a sister named Sara.
A television news team from “CBS Sunday Morning” recorded their first meeting in Phoenix, according to the Messenger.
“It’s a brother and sister you haven’t met in 77 years,” Johnson said, as quoted in the Messenger. “It was very emotional and tearful.”
He plans to enjoy being a part of both families.
“The definition of family has expanded for Tom,” the Messenger reported. “For the retired Ketchum fire chief, it includes Linda’s family, firefighting brothers in Detroit and Ketchum, his Johnson and Brown family’s Irish-English heritage, his Reibman family Lithuanian Jewish roots and his biological mother’s French-Canadian ancestry.
“He hasn’t met all of his family members and probably never will. But he feels kinship with them and he now has a better feeling of his place in the world.”