Walton Baby Abandoned At Christmas — What Happened to Christopher Noel?
Hazel O’Dell walked out of McLean’s Food Store in Walton two days before Christmas, 1976, carrying a sack of potatoes. She had just finished some last-minute shopping before her family, which included seven children, came together for Christmas.
She loaded the potatoes into the back of her car and noticed what she thought was a crumpled blanket left by a passerby on the front seat.
This is the story of Christopher Noel, the baby boy who for five months captivated a rural town in upstate New York and whose story endures today.
“I went to move the blanket and saw blood on it,” Mrs. O’Dell told a local newspaper then.
Pediatrician Dr. Gary Preiser estimated at the time that Christopher’s life began two hours earlier, when a woman gave birth to a 9-pound, 11-ounce baby boy somewhere in Delaware County. She tied off the umbilical cord, which was still attached at the time Mrs. O’Dell found him, wrapped him snug in a blue blanket and either drove or was driven to McLean’s Food Store.
The baby whimpered when Mrs. O’Dell reached for the blanket, and she realized exactly what was actually on the front seat. She rushed back inside and sought help from employee Robert Kemp, who then asked another to call the police. He and Mrs. O’Dell brought the baby inside, placed him on a desk in the office, and waited for the police.
The baby started turning blue as it choked on remnant fluid from the birth. Police Chief Paul Peterson arrived and told Mrs. O’Dell to hold the baby upside down while he cleaned out his mouth. This likely saved Christopher Noel’s life.
Dr. Preiser was next on the scene and took the child to Delaware Valley Hospital. Chief Peterson began calling the baby “Chris” because “it was so close to Christmas.”
“Noel” was later added.
While nurses tended to Christopher in the hospital, police searched for the mother who left him on Mrs. O’Dell’s front seat.
Chief Peterson concluded that the mother was prepared for the infant’s birth and likely planned to abandon him. Christopher’s umbilical cord was secured with a clothespin, and he was wearing a used yellow sleeper.
Due to the baby’s size, concerns turned toward the health of the mother and an alarm was placed at area hospitals to report any incoming patients who were experiencing internal distress. None came.
What did were countless Christmas presents and toys for the newborn, who spent Christmas with nurses, doctors and a thousand well-wishers (photo at right: Chris on Christmas Day).
Legally, he was in the custody of Child Protective Services in Delaware County and its supervisor Sally Campbell, whom began an exhaustive search for a temporary foster home.
Nora Fitch and her husband Bryan were well-known foster parents the day Christopher Noel was found inside Hazel O’Dell’s car.
The Fitches have been taking in foster kids – they adopted three of them – nearly since the day they were married. Today, Mrs. Fitch estimates they have fostered around 350 children.
“Everybody in the area and I guess for many, many miles around heard about Christopher,” Mrs. Fitch said. “When we heard the news about the baby being abandoned, everybody was just horrified and just shocked and sympathetic for the baby. There was such compassion for that type of thing.”
The story became national news when a brief appeared in The New York Times. Television stations from New York City also picked up the story of baby Christopher.
Nearly a week passed before Dr. Preiser agreed to let Christopher leave the hospital and go to a foster family. The baby had a mild fever that took time to break.
During that time, Ms. Campbell looked for a home. Mr. and Mrs. Fitch were at the top of the list.
But they didn’t know it.
“Our family was hopeful that we would be the foster family,” Mrs. Fitch said. “We read in the newspaper before we had gotten a call from Social Services – we read that a foster family had been picked. I remember being very disappointed.”
A day passed. Then, Ms. Campbell called the Fitches.
“We got the call that we were the family that they had chosen and would we like to take him in,” Nora said. “I was just elated and thrilled and honored. It was quite an honor to be the person that would be taking care of the baby.”
It did not come without a hitch, however. Due to the nature of Christopher’s discovery, and the publicity that ensued, Mrs. Fitch was told her family would be unable to adopt the child.
Initially, police and investigators were still hopeful of finding the baby’s mother – that perhaps she was forced to abandon her baby. Then, as the media began getting hold of Christopher’s story, Social Services thought it would be best to have Christopher adopted out of the county. Anonymously.
“There was always that little bit of hope that they might change their minds,” Mrs. Fitch said. “They did not want to place Christopher in Delaware County because of the circumstances. He was so popular at the time.”
People would ask the Fitches to visit the boy, marvel at him. Families would approach them at dinner and ask about Christopher, despite the fact their names were not released as the foster parents.
“People figured it out. We were a foster family with an infant,” Mrs. Fitch said. “He was a marvelous boy. He was just beautiful and a very, very good baby.”
As days turned into weeks, and the mother never found, the adoption process began, and soon baby Christopher would find a new Mom and Dad.
Attorney Carl Becker handled the adoption case, which to this day has remained confidential.
“It was a high profile issue,” said Bill Moon, Director of Social Services in Delaware County. “The department wanted to relocate him outside the county.”
Listen to our interview with Nora Fitch:
Social Services knocked at the door of Mr. and Mrs. Fitch in the spring of 1977. Christopher Noel’s adoption had been finalized just over four months after his discovery.
“We lost contact with him at that time,” Mrs. Fitch said. “(The adoption) was very confidential. Now, the biological parents are a bit more involved. We knew only that he was not placed in Delaware County.”
Mr. Moon describes the 1960s and ’70s as a transitional period for adoption and social services. In the decades that preceded it, adoption information was tightly guarded and strictly protected. Files were locked away and only accessible to a select few.
That began to change in the 1980s, and today the Open Adoption Registry allows adopted persons or biological parents to be reunited by filling out a form with all known information. This has proved fruitful, according to Mr. Moon, in reuniting and finding matches.
Christopher’s case is unique, however. He was not put up for adoption by a biological parent, and it is unlikely that his name remained that given to him by Chief Peterson.
The adoption papers, filed in 1977, are in possession of whichever county Christopher’s adoptive family resides. Mr. Moon does not have that information.
It is likely that during the social services transition to digital filing Christopher’s papers, wherever they may be, remained buried inside a file cabinet that hasn’t been opened in 30 years.
Rumors at the time pointed to Albany County as Christopher’s new home. But Albany County’s Department of Social Services split 20 years ago, which makes Christopher’s file that much more difficult to find.
So where is “Chris Noel” today?
Nobody seems to know. He left the lives of those he touched as quickly as he came, as if he were just a dream.
He would be 36 years old now. He will remain anonymous until perhaps he reads this story and steps forward. He may have never been told of his magical beginning.
“It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” Mr. Moon said. “We have no idea where he went.”
And if we never know his whereabouts, that is fine, too.
They say the power of faith is mightier than the strongest chain. Wherever Chris is, he must feel a special tug in his heart around the holidays. There are far too many wishes, thoughts, prayers and memories of a thousand people he will never know that come his way each Christmas that, well, he must feel them.
And they come to him from a wide array of honorable people who all did their part in the tragic Christmas pageant that unfolded more than 35 years ago in little Walton, N.Y.
Good and decent people who all simply did the right thing.
Hazel O’Dell, mother of seven, who stopped by McLean’s Food Store in Walton to get some peanut brittle that Thursday morning, December 23, 1976. She didn’t dally on her way; she was in and out of the store in 15 minutes. In that short time a desperate young woman deposited a newborn baby, “dressed in swaddling clothes” as she remembered, on the front seat of her car. Hazel O’Dell did the right thing.
McLean’s employee Bob Kemp came to Mrs. O’Dell’s aid and brought the baby into the warmth of the grocery store. He told another employee to call the police. They did the right thing.
Walton Police Chief Paul Peterson raced to the scene. He recognized the baby was in severe distress and turned the infant upside down to open up the baby’s airways. It was he who dubbed the abandoned infant “Chris Noel.”
The Walton Emergency Squad acted with efficiency. Pediatrician Dr. Gary Preiser of Delaware Valley Hospital arrived and supervised the emergency care of the baby. Mrs. Carl Beardslee, along with Nurses Cecilia Kilmer and Betty Murphy, stood vigil over their tiny charge in the hospital’s nursery. They all did the right thing.
Sally Campbell, then the county’s Child Protective Service Supervisor, appeared and began to guide baby Chris through the county bureaucracy.
Nora and Bryan Fitch stepped in and took on the role of temporary “Mom” and “Dad” to the tiny baby. Ultimately, Chris found a new, permanent Mom and Dad when he was finally adopted outside the county.
All of these people, with hearts filled with kindness, gently moved baby Christopher Noel along the beginning of his river of life. And they remember him, each year, in their own quiet way. They continue to send out silent Christmas prayers to the baby who appeared out of nowhere on the front seat of Hazel O’Dell’s car in the parking lot of McLean’s Food Store 36 years ago, just hours before Christmas.
“Like many people in the area, we always think of him at Christmas and try to imagine him as a big, grown-up individual now,” Mrs. Fitch, now 66, said. “He’s always in our mind. We’ve never ever forgotten him.”
“Thanks be to God for His unspeakable Gift” 2 Corinthians 9:15
A special thanks to the following people, who were instrumental in our research and writing of this story:
Sally Cranston, Director of William Ogden Free Library, Walton
Bill Moon, Director of Social Services in Delaware County
Mark Simonson, Oneonta Historian
Members of the Walton Historical Society