Hugh Merritt didn’t know what to do to help his wife, Emily, during this sad time.
“Emily is heartbroken about her pappy,” Merritt told the Free Press.
Emily made headlines when she was born during a snowstorm in January 1982 on the side of Interstate 70 in a red 1979 Ford F-150 pickup. Her parents, Leonard and Marilyn Orr, were racing to the Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling, West Virginia.
For years afterward, that pickup was part of every family outing.
The truck represents a joyful time now lost.
No one expected Leonard Orr to die at age 60. Celebrating the remission of pancreatic cancer in March 2018, Orr, of New Philadelphia, Ohio, succumbed to kidney cancer on Sept. 18. It stunned the family.
And now Merritt, 43, of Moravian Falls, North Carolina, is on a quest to track down the old pickup in hopes of soothing his wife.
He has issued a plea on social media asking people to spread the word and help.
“Emily remembers riding around in that truck, and it connects her to her father,” Merritt said. “So this, what we’re doing now, is something for her. Lennie worked 60 to 80 hours a week as a mechanic and her mother was a nurse on the night shift. In the mornings and weekends, they would go for rides in the truck. Those were amazing times.”
Merritt offers a single clue in the F-150 search: The truck has a bug shield decorated with a picture of a bear on roller skates. That’s it. He doesn't know the vehicle identification number.
People pretty much just wish him luck, realizing the odds for success are grim.
Leonard and Marilyn Orr welcome Emily Dawn after her birth on the side of highway in a snowstorm in the family's 1979 Ford F-150 on Jan. 16, 1982. She weighed at 5 pounds, 15 ounces. (Photo: Hugh Merritt)
“Emily loved her pappy, like most daughters love their fathers,” Merritt said. “We just want to know what happened to that truck. Maybe take a picture of it now.”
Here’s what else he knows: The second-to-last owner was Leonard Warner of rural Uhrichsville, Ohio, an Army platoon sergeant who served in the Gulf War, who traded it to a Honda dealership in New Philadelphia, which in turn sold it to a classic car restorer from somewhere in the South, according to the Times-Reporter in New Philadelphia.
Warner said he had a chance encounter more than 20 years ago with the truck outside a parts store in Uhrichsville, he told the Times-Reporter. He spoke with the owner, but didn't have a reason to get contact information.
Warner told the Free Press on Friday that he has since moved from his home of 27 years to a more rural area to be closer to his grandkids. He plans to go through his moving boxes to try and find a VIN number or a way to track down the truck.
“That was an awesome truck. I sure wish I hadn’t sold it,” said Warner, 75, who is retired from coal mining and maintenance work.
“I got rid of that truck in 1992 or 1993, after serving in the Gulf. I wish I hadn’t sold it. But my wife couldn’t drive a standard. And It used too much gas. But it had big tires, good tread. My sons worked for a pizza delivery place and it was snowing real bad and everybody in town closed but my sons were delivering pizza all night in that truck.”
Ford sold 718,158 F-Series trucks in 1979. It was the nation's bestselling pickup 37 years ago and it remains America's most popular truck today.
Erich Merkle, U.S. sales analyst at Ford, looked through records and made calls Friday. When asked how many red F-150s were sold, he said, "I don't know. 1979 is a long time ago. I was 12. I mean, the Village People were hot at that time.”
Still, Merritt remains hopeful.
“We’ve kind of hit a block without the VIN number. It’s an uphill battle,” he said. “But my wife said in passing one night she would kinda like to know where it is. I can’t do a whole lot for her, but I can do this.”
Merritt squeezed an interview into his day after working at Tyson Foods where, he said, “I do chicken all day long.” His wife is a college nursing instructor, teaching online and in the classroom.
“She’s working two jobs and earning her Ph.D. Her father really impressed upon her to excel,” Merritt said. “That’s one of reasons I fell in love with her.”
As Hugh and Emily Orr approach their first wedding anniversary on Dec. 26, they realize now they had no idea how life could change so quickly.
Love on the internet
But they're managing. And if anyone believes in miracles, it's these two.
The couple fell in love over the internet. Each had bariatric surgery and went to a dating site specializing in the topic.
“It was one of those cheesy free ones. We tried Match.com and all the others and nothing seemed to work,” Hugh Merritt said. “The day before my birthday, I got a message from Emily. She said she worked online at a college and had a degree. But she would send pictures and they were always sideways. I thought, ‘How can she always get pictures wrong if she works on the internet? We’re going to meet and this woman is going to steal my kidney. I’m going to get catfished.'"
She stole his heart instead.
Emily Orr lived in North Carolina. Hugh Merritt lived in Texas. He wanted to be sure she was as "nerdy" as he was, so he invited her to meet at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"I sat down in front of Saturn 5 and I laid my heart on the line for her," Merritt said. "I told her about all my goods and all my bads. She said she was all in … and she invited me up after one date. I packed everything, and moved to North Carolina. The first present she gave me was a house key and a kiss.”
Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: email@example.com or 313-222-6512. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.