TYLER, Texas -- Kris Wilson had tears in her eyes as she hugged a stranger from California who helped reunite her family and connect them to their history.
That stranger, Ken Hooper, a history and archives teacher at Bakersfield High School, this week brought a long lost Purple Heart, earned by her uncle in the attack on Pearl Harbor, to its rightful owners.
Wilson's uncle, Robert Bates, was onboard the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941 when it was attacked by Japan, and the United States was plunged into World War II. Robert Bates' remains are still entombed with his shipmates and only the Purple Heart was returned to his family. It had been missing for 71 years.
Wilson's brother, Mark Bates, said their father, Herbert Bates, also in the war, but he never talked about it. Mark Bates said his father wouldn't even watch movies about war.
"He never got over the loss of his brother ..." Mark Bates said. "My dad loved his brother a great deal, and every time he spoke of him, he would almost cry because he loved his older brother. He said he was the smart one in the family."
Wilson, of nearby Edom, Texas, said Robert Bates was studying to be a pharmacist. She said the Purple Heart likely was presented to Robert Bates' mother.
"She died in 1945, and I think it was presented to her, and after she passed, it ... was lost," Wilson said.
Danny Sides, a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 604 in Bakersfield, said the medal was found by a truck driver on the side of the road next to the local Veterans of Foreign War Post, among a few other items.
"He is sitting there holding a Purple Heart in front of a VFW post ..." he said. "I'm glad he did it. ... And we got to bring it home."
Hooper said his archives class has worked with veteran organizations several times in the past. He said the medal was found in mid-February and within five days, they knew the descendants of who it honored.
But, he said, there were several bumps along the way.
"The official Pearl Harbor website says 'Tobert Bates' and even the official historian for the USS Arizona said that Robert Bates ... was from Indiana," Hooper said. "When I checked my (special websites) there is no record whatsoever of Robert Bates being from Indiana, but he does pop up as being from Kamay, Texas in the National Archives."
The editor of the Times News Record in Wichita Falls found 1930 Census records with their family name. From there, the students kept digging. After another dead end, a genealogist friend of Hooper's found Kris Wilson's name.
Wilson said the family had been working to connect with an estranged branch of its family for 20 years, but the students managed to do it in five days.
"We researched it for over 20 years, and we couldn't make any progress because his name was misspelled," she said.
In addition to returning the medal to the family, the search for its owner also connected two sides of the family.
Dwight Leon Bates, of Athens, met his two cousins on Tuesday.
"Our side of the family has been wondering all these years what became of them," he said. "They are like the lost children of Israel -- we knew they existed, but we didn't know what became of them. I guess we wouldn't have unless this hadn't of happened. But we have been talking about 'Tobert Bates' since 1945. It's a constant topic of conversation in my family."
Wilson said her son attends Trinity Valley Community College in Athens where Dwight Leon Bates teaches. She said the two have passed each other in the halls and never knew they were family.
Wilson and Mark Bates also found out their grandmother, Lou Griffith, was buried in Longview.
She said the two sides already are planning a family reunion.
"If you never know your family, you always look for that," she said.
The Bates family members said they would be forever grateful to the VFW post, Hooper and his students for their reunion.
Hooper said tracking them down was the right thing to do.
"Teachers get paid in strange ways," he said. "This was payment in full -- to see her reaction -- I knew we did the right thing. ... And my students knew that, my family knows that -- that's why it had to be done.
This (Purple Heart) was not going to be mailed. ... It was something that needed to be personally delivered and explained and a connection made, and the ripples keep rolling."