It was the voice Dora Fronczak waited 55 years to hear.
The exchange was brief, the words halting. What do you say to a son you last saw decades before, when he was still wrapped in swaddling?
But Paul Fronczak says that call — in late 2019 — was the most gratifying part of an odyssey that began seven years earlier.
That’s when a DNA test proved he wasn’t the biological son of Chester and Dora Fronczak, that he hadn’t been the baby who, at just two days old, was kidnapped from Michael Reese Hospital on April 27, 1964, leading to a manhunt that got massive news coverage around the world.
“I sacrificed a lot of my life to make my mom’s life complete, and I would do it again and again,” says Fronczak, now 57.
Fronczak’s story — and that of the man whose identity he has assumed for all of his adult life — is the subject of a new CNN documentary, “The Lost Sons,” airing at 8 p.m. Sunday.
It’s a heartbreaking, inspiring and, after all of this time, still baffling story.
Fronczak grew up in Oak Lawn. Even as a boy, he says, he felt like an outsider in his own family, to start because he didn’t look like either of his parents or his younger brother Dave.
But it wasn’t until he was 10, snooping in a crawlspace for Christmas gifts, that he discovered a box of old newspaper clippings. They told the story of baby Paul, who’d been kidnapped from Michael Reese in 1964 and of a desperate Dora Fronczak pleading, “Please return the baby.”
Other clippings detailed a happy ending: A toddler found abandoned in New Jersey who the Fronczaks said was their missing baby — a child they would later adopt because they had no proof he was theirs.
The story might have ended there. But Fronczak, now married, with a child of his own and living in Las Vegas, asked his parents to agree to a DNA swab in 2012. They did, reluctantly. It showed irrefutably he was not their child.
That set Fronczak on a quest to learn his true identity and the whereabouts of the real Paul Fronczak. It became an obsession that he blames, in part, for the breakup of his marriage and a three-year rift with his adoptive parents.
“I’m laid back, but I’m extremely driven,” says Fronczak, a college admissions administrator who also acts and once was a stand-in for George Clooney in the movie “Ocean’s Eleven.”
Painstaking detective work led Fronczak and a team of genealogists to find relatives on the East Coast — cousins, uncles, two older siblings. His biological parents, he learned, were dead. And his older biological siblings refused to talk to him.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” Fronczak says. “If someone called me today and said, ‘I’m your real brother.’ I would be, ‘Where are you? I’ll be right there.’”
Fronczak’s quest ultimately led to a little town in Michigan and the grown children of a man in his mid-50s. The children suspected their father might be the missing Fronczak baby. A relative provided a DNA sample. It proved the Michigan man was the real Baby Paul.
Fronczak since learned that the man — Kevin Baty — spent the first 10 years of his life living in Chicago.
But he still doesn’t know who kidnapped the baby or why. The woman who raised the real Paul died several years ago, he says.
Dora Fronczak — who repeatedly has declined interview requests — first talked with the child who’d been kidnapped in December 2019. They spoke twice, according to Paul Fronczak, who overheard the first conversation along with his middle-school-aged daughter Emma. The grandmother didn’t cry. She asked her son what kind of life he’d had. She did most of the talking, Fronczak says.
He says he and his daughter couldn’t help but eavesdrop.
“We were both at the top of the stairs,” says Fronczak, whose memoir “True Identity” (Simon & Schuster, $28) is being released Dec. 7. “Emma and I were high-fiving each other. We were so happy that they finally connected after all these years.”
Dora Fronczak and the son she last saw in 1964 made plans to meet. But it didn’t happen. He’d been diagnosed with cancer and died in April 2020.
“He ended up a being too sick, and then COVID happened,” Fronczak says. “It’s heartbreaking because all I wanted was for them to be in the same room together.”
But Fronczak says the phone conversations helped “close a chapter” in his mother’s life.
“I know she’s happy she got to talk to him and say goodbye,” he says.
WATCH THE LOST SONS’ TRAILER
APRIL 28, 1964, CHICAGO DAILY NEWS PAGE 1