Dale Mayland always wondered about his birth family. Now 88 and living in a Bloomington care facility with late-stage cancer, he figured he'd take those questions about his blood relatives to the grave.

Then serendipity merged with genealogy and Mayland walked into a Roseville community center in July, where 30 members of the extended Quernemoen family were holding their annual reunion.

"It brought tears to see all those people," he recalled, misty-eyed. "It feels great to meet them but I think of all the years I missed them."

Long before his years as a troubleshooter for the phone company, fixing crossed lines, and his days as a Korean War-era paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, Mayland was an orphan named Albert Phillip.

He was born Jan. 9, 1929, along with a twin sister named Alberta, at the Glen Lake Sanatorium in Minnetonka. Their parents both had tuberculosis. Their mother, Edna Bentley, was being treated at Glen Lake. Their father, World War I veteran Albert John Quernemoen, was at the veterans' hospital in Minneapolis.

With their parents unable to care for them, the babies became wards of the state. Like 10,633 other children from 1886 to 1945, they were shipped to an orphanage in Owatonna called the Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children.

They were called State Schoolers and lived 500 at a time in 16 cottages around a brick castle with a turret. It was supposed to be an upgrade from the county poor houses that previously tossed orphans in with adult derelicts.

"For some, it was a circle of hell; for others, a safe haven," according to the website of an orphanage museum housed in what became Owatonna city offices.

Little Alberta died at the orphanage just as she turned 2 from internal organ problems. She's among nearly 200 State School children buried at the cemetery on the grounds. The first 47 got tombstones. The next 151, including Alberta, had their identification number etched in cement.

During the Depression, a family in rural Douglas County adopted 4-year-old Albert. He became Dale Ellsworth Mayland and his adoption records were sealed.

Mayland married Ardis Ellefson in 1955. He had no way of knowing, but his birth mother recovered, remarried and died of Hodgkin's disease six months after Mayland wed.

Mayland and Ellefson had two children — Russell and Judy. Over the years, Mayland would talk about his hopes of finding his birth family. Russ, his son in Rosemount, joined the search but kept running into what he calls a "brick wall" of closed records.

He knew his father had a twin, though, and because Alberta died as ward of the state, her records were public. That led him to the unique Norwegian birth name: Quernemoen.

About a year ago, frustrated and desperate to find his father's birth family, Russ Mayland googled 411.com and made a cold call to the closest Quernemoen to where his father grew up in central Minnesota. Leroy Quernemoen, 91, answered in Fergus Falls. He pointed Russ to a few shirttail relatives who knew the family tree.

"Unbeknownst to me, [my father's] bloodline family on the other side of the 'brick wall' have also been searching for years for the long lost Albert Phillip who had been adopted away into an unknown life," Russ Mayland said.

Julie Glowka, a benefits analyst in St. Paul, had been the latest offspring of the extended Quernemoen family to dig into their genealogy. They've compiled a huge family book.

"But in 2002," she said, "I found these twins nobody knew about."

A documentary film about the Owatonna orphanage — "The Children Remember" — prompted her to dig deeper and she found Alberta's death certificate. But her twin's sealed records thwarted the search.

In 2013, she posted on a family Facebook page, "If Albert is alive, he would be 84," she wrote, asking for help. Last Nov. 7, a trio of Quernemoen family researchers wrote up their findings and said a little impromptu prayer that Albert would be found. That same day, Russ Mayland made his cold call to LeRoy and found the family.

"I told him there are forces out there that determined that this has got to happen now," Glowka said.

Gumshoe genealogy helped. In Alberta's file in the records at the Minnesota History Center, Russ Mayland found a Christmas Seals brochure. On the cover, a nurse holds two babies. Two four-digit numbers are scrawled above the babies' heads. No. 8619 is also the number on the concrete slab above Alberta's grave. The No. 8618 is crossed out, apparently signaling Albert had been adopted, his records sealed — only to be deciphered nearly 85 years later.

Today, Russ Mayland is "desperately searching" for any living family members who might have photos of his dying father's birth parents: Albert John Quernemoen and Edna Augusta Bentley. Briefly married, both recovered from TB and remarried others. Albert died in 1956 and is buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Edna is buried in the Crystal Lake Cemetery.

"I'd like my dad to see what they look like before his cancer dominates his life," Russ said.

He's taken his father to the graves.

"My son did a darn good job with his research and I can't thank him enough," Dale said. "But if we had known all this when I was younger, I might have met my dad."

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book "Frozen in History" at startribune.com/ebooks.