“Please help me find this Newmarket family,” said the email to NewmarketToday from a Billings, Montana resident who was compelled to pursue an act of kindness from thousands of kilometres away.
With dogged perseverance and the help of a free NewmarketToday classified ad and Newmarket resident Lisa Heckbert, Nathalia Collins was delighted to find the proverbial needle in the haystack — all without signing up for a Facebook account.
The story begins when Collins was packing for a move when she discovered an envelope containing photographs, a licence plate and vehicle insurance card.
When she questioned her husband, a former Montana state trooper, about the collection of items belonging to Ray Luff of Newmarket, Ontario, he recalled that he had gathered them up at the side of the road after the man died in a collision in November 2015.
According to a Montana newspaper report at the time, Luff, 55, was killed while travelling from Iowa to British Columbia. Montana Highway Patrol said he was driving a Jeep Cherokee with a camper trailer on Highway 200 when a 69-year-old man driving a semi-truck attempted to pass and Luff swerved into the truck’s lane. Overcorrecting, the Jeep slid sideways into a ditch, rolled and came to rest on its roof. Luff was pronounced dead at the scene. The other driver was not injured.
“Thinking the pictures would be retrieved by Mr. Luff's family, my husband collected them and put them in a very large envelope,” said Collins. “No one ever came to collect Mr. Luff's personal property.”
Her husband had forgotten about the envelope until she stumbled upon the precious items and decided she would try to find the family or friends of the man whose online obituary stated he was buried in Newmarket and whose widow was Valerie Luff.
“There are precious pictures of family trips, holidays and graduations. An entire life well lived in photographs I just cannot manage to throw away,” Collins said.
“You're probably asking: why don't you just look them up on Facebook? My husband and I are probably the only two people on Earth that don't utilize Facebook and don't have active accounts,” Collins added, and so began her determined quest, despite a busy life with a five-month-old baby girl — “who’s rolling over now” — and a full-time job.
Her attempts to locate Luff’s family included calling the Canadian border patrol in the hope of leaving the envelope at the border, but they rejected that idea.
She emailed the insurance agent on the insurance card, dated 2010, but didn’t receive a reply.
A letter sent to the home address on the insurance card didn’t receive a response either.
She hit “dead end after dead end” but didn’t give up.
Despite her aversion to social media and its “rabbithole of drama,” she asked her cousin in California and niece in North Carolina if they could help using their Facebook accounts.
“We discussed the pictures at length,” she said, but they eventually got sidetracked with their busy lives and didn’t reach out to any potential family members, ultimately thinking ”if we did contact them, they'd probably think we're crazy people or scammers.”
She posted a Craigslist ad, however it was flagged and deleted for some reason, she said. Another dead end.
Back to scouring the internet, she discovered Luff ran for public office, had a “huge social media presence, had a website, had a radio show online.”
Luff, a software consultant, ran in the 2014 Newmarket municipal election and as a candidate for the Christian Heritage Party in the 2008 federal election.
The findings spurred her on.
Fortunately, a happy ending was just around the corner.
Collins sent an email to NewmarketToday and next posted a free “lost and found” classified ad on NewmarketToday.ca.
“I am in possession of personal photographs belonging to a gentleman named Ray Luff who passed away in Montana, USA, in November 2015. I believe he resided in Newmarket at the time of his death. If anyone knows his family, can you please show them this ad so that they may contact me. I would like to reunite them with their family photos. Thank you.”
That’s when Heckbert becomes the true hero of the story, Collins said.
Heckbert happened to be checking NewmarketToday’s classified ads as she was attempting to do another good deed — she had found some money and was hoping the person who lost it may have posted an ad.
She recognized the name, recalling Luff from his election bid for Newmarket council.
“I thought, I bet you I can help figure it out because I’m good like that,” she said.
Sure enough, she was able to quickly find a connection, Ray Luff Jr. — using Facebook.
Collins and Heckbert communicated by email about the discovery.
“Wow, this young woman .. she had such a story. She was so excited,” Heckbert said.
“She saw the ad and knew the family, through a friend of a friend. I honestly hoped she wasn't a scammer — and she wasn't — and she sends my info to Ray Jr., who then sends my info to Ray Sr.'s sister. Thank God, I finally have contact with the family!” a thrilled Collins said.
Brenda Green, Ray Sr.'s sister, who lives "nearby" in Nebraska, responded to Collins’ email and she promptly sent her the photographs by mail two weeks ago.
Green said she initially felt curiosity, and some apprehension that disappeared when details confirmed these were her departed brother’s belongings.
“Nathalia's kindness and perseverance in finding my brother's family is truly the touching part of this story. She went above and beyond to do what was right and good and meaningful,” said Green in an email to NewmarketToday.
“Her story and journey with this has a happy ending. My brother's son said, ‘it is amazing.’ These precious preserved photo memories will be a treasure for him and his sisters.
“I'm hoping they will be part of the healing process, as this unexpected gift truly was for me. Loss is one of the hardest things to come to grips with in this life, but I believe in a future reunion with my brother on heaven's shores — that will be my happy ending one day.
“Nathalia's valiant effort will be remembered by me and my family. She is a wonderful person. Days ago I found out that my daughter and her husband will be moving to Nathalia's city! Perhaps they will meet and be friends. God truly works in mysterious ways.”
Collins is celebrating the happy ending, too.
“It's kind of nice to have some closure since my husband has had these pictures for such a long time and he's no longer with the Montana Highway Patrol. We're just glad we kept them and didn't give up,” she said.
“Miraculously, I was able to find them, without (signing up for) Facebook, can you believe it!” Collins added with delight at being able to add “Personal photographs Found and Returned” to her NewmarketToday classified ad.