The first hint that Pat and Jill Williams's family is a little different comes at the door of their house in Winter Haven, Fla. At dawn—before the Williams kids head out to four different schools, before Pat goes to his job as the general manager of the Orlando Magic and before Jill is temporarily enveloped in blessed silence—there are almost 50 pairs of shoes waiting for feet: hightops, tennis sneakers, cowboy boots, baseball cleats, soccer shoes, loafers, moccasins and more.
The house is a fire storm of activity, even at 6:30 in the morning. In fact, it is a madhouse especially at 6:30 in the morning, breakfast time, which is usually the only time that all 18 Williamses are together, gathered around the table in the dining room of their 11-bedroom, eight-bathroom house. Breakfast is cold cereal and fruit. When you're feeding four biological children and 12 adopted children, as well as one French exchange student and two caddies from the PGA Tour, as Jill and Pat were one recent weekday morning, you just can't get into that pancake-and-egg thing.
"Our dining-room table is 16 feet long," says Pat. "So, picture a table one foot longer than the distance from the free throw line to the basket, lined on both sides with kids eating." He shakes his head at the thought of his six daughters and 10 sons, ranging in age from 18 to five, eating breakfast at the same time. "Positively frightening," he says.
Actually, Pat and Jill make it all seem quite manageable. Through practice and necessity they have gotten it down to a science. They put numbers on the kids' clothes for purposes of identification—there are five 11-year-olds alone—with the numbers assigned according to when a child arrived in the family. For example, their fourth biological child, eight-year-old Michael, is kid number 6 because he was born after his three blood siblings and after the first two adoptees, Sarah and Andrea, both 11 and from Seoul, South Korea, had joined the family. Each child's number is listed on a seating chart posted on the refrigerator. The positions are shuffled from week to week, "so we don't get tired of sitting in the same place," says 15-year-old Bobby, number 2 on the list.
Daily chores are broken into a.m. and p.m. duties, and if a kid screws up, his or her name is liable to end up on a big blackboard that hangs on the wall in the kitchen. "And you definitely don't want it there." says Jill. On this particular day, for example, someone (O.K., it was 11-year-old Thomas, one fourth of what Pat calls "our Korean division") had failed to stack the dirty dishes in the dishwasher. The two youngest children, six-year-old Gabriela (Gabi) and five-year-old Katarina (Kati), do not have chores, but the blackboard reminds them to "be good on bus" and "save lunch for lunchtime." Apparently the two little girls, both from Romania, have had trouble in those areas. The weekly bag-lunch menu is posted on the refrigerator, and there are no changes made for fussy eaters. If it says bologna sandwiches and carrot sticks on Tuesday, that's what you're going to get.
The talk at the breakfast table is of schoolwork, schedules and sports, especially schedules and sports. For instance, by 4:30 that afternoon—and this was not an atypical day—the Williams children were scattered thusly:
Firstborn Jimmy, 18, who had stopped in for breakfast, was back in nearby De-Land, at Stetson University. Bobby, a catcher, was at baseball practice at Edgewater High, while number 3, his biological sister, Karyn, 13, was working out at the Orlando Sports Medicine Center. Andrea was at an art lesson, and Sarah, who had the day off, was at home. Michael was auditioning for a TV commercial at Epcot Center. Numbers 7 and 8, Korean twins Stephen and Thomas, were at the Winter Park Little League warming up with the Cardinals; number 9, David, a 13-year-old from the Philippines, was there too, playing in a different league. Number 12, Sammy, 8, also from the Philippines, and number 15, Richie, 10, from Brazil, were practicing soccer at Ward Field in Winter Park. Peter. 12, and Brian, 11, both from the Philippines, were at practice for the Blue Dolfins, a swimming team, at nearby Rollins College. Gabi, number 13, was at a local gym practicing gymnastics. Kati was at home working with her English tutor. And number 16, Daniela, the 12-year-old from Brazil, was home studying.
Earlier that day, at the breakfast table, Pat had extracted the previous night's sports report from David. "So, David," Pat said, leaning down toward the boy, "tell me about the game last night."
"It rained," said David, "and we got in only two innings."
Five years ago David was running the streets on the island of Mindanao, living from hand to mouth.
"Richie, did you play?" Pat asked one of the two most recent Williams arrivals.
Richie's face brightened. "How do you say, when I hit it?" he replied, making a batting motion with his hands.
"That's it," said Pat. "Hit. That's the word."
"Yes," said Richie. "I got two of those."
Richie spoke only Portuguese on March 1, the day he arrived at Orlando International Airport from Brazil. Three months ago he was living in a construction site in S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo with his mother and her boyfriend, who had told the mother she had to give up Richie or he would walk out. She gave up Richie to an orphanage.
Gabi left her place at the table, walked over to a visitor and took his hand. Then she took his heart. "Did you sleep here too?" she asked him.
Two years ago Gabi was living with hundreds of other Romanian children in a state-run orphanage. One day when Jill passed by on one of the inspection tours she sometimes organizes, Gabi stuck her hand through the fence, and a few months later she was part of the Williams family.
This household is not simply some international version of the Brady Bunch. It's too much like real life for that. The day is filled with petty jealousies and squabbles, anxiety and angst, the normal grist for the family mill. But, somehow, it works. Jill's rules are obeyed, for the most part, because they have to be. The younger kids are in bed by 7 p.m., all the others by 9, which is the time that the nanny, Becky Quade, Pat and Jill's only outside help, leaves for the day. "You never saw a woman move so fast in her life," says Pat with a smile. In the Williams household, 99% of the television watching is done by Pat (mostly sports), and Nintendo is a no-no. Everyone pitches in on chores, everyone stays active, and temperamental outbursts are nipped in the bud. Even Bart Simpson would be broken eventually.
The result? The four biological children are almost abnormally normal, even though they've had to share their parents, their home, their love, their time, their baseball cards and their dolls with so many newcomers. And to one degree or another, the 12 adoptees are also well adjusted and well behaved. Oh, the Filipino division has its moments—you don't take kids who have lived on the streets, hand them a broom and dustpan, and expect them instantly to turn into Beaver Cleavers—but by and large the children have come around.
The two questions that Pat and Jill hear most often are, Why? and Are you finished? "I don't know if there's an exact answer for the first one," says Jill. "All I know is that when I was little, growing up in a white suburb in Chicago, I used to line up all my dolls, and I always wanted to be the mother of all of them, even the ones that didn't look like me."
Jill brought her desire for a large family to her marriage in 1972, but Pat, then the general manager of the Chicago Bulls, did not share it. "Basically, I tuned her out," says Pat. "She stopped talking about it because I gave her absolutely no encouragement and even belittled her."
Pat became general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1974 and nine years later had a championship ring, but by that time, according to Pat, "there were no championships being won in the Williams household." The marriage had hit the wall and was in danger of ending in divorce when Pat pounced upon the idea of adoption as a way of showing his commitment to Jill and the marriage. By September 1983, three months after the Moses Malone-Julius Erving Sixers breezed to the NBA title, two little girls from South Korea arrived at Philadelphia International Airport. The Williamses decided to give them Americanized names, Sarah and Andrea in this case, a practice they would continue with all their adopted children. "We figured there would be enough things different about them," says Jill.
In June 1986, two years after the birth of Michael, Pat left for central Florida to work full time at securing an NBA expansion team for Orlando. Jill, too, continued her efforts in the expansion area. "Sarah and Andrea were the bow that tied us back together," says Jill. "If they hadn't worked out, who knows what we would've done. But on we went." On April 22, 1987, the NBA awarded Orlando an expansion franchise; one week later twin boys arrived from South Korea wearing long woolen underwear. They were named Stephen and Thomas.
By this time adoption agencies, recognizing a soft touch, were seeking out the Williamses. In November 1987 Pat and Jill were told of four brothers from the Philippines, ages nine, eight, seven and four, who were living in a state-run home in Mindanao, after spending much of their lives on the streets. "We knew this one would represent an enormous transition in our lives, and we talked it over a long time," says Pat. "But we decided that if we didn't do it, we'd regret it."
So they welcomed David, Peter, Brian and Sammy. And it was an enormous transition. Accustomed to living by their wits, the four brothers were not so willing to accept the Williamses' ways. The oldest, for example, didn't want to surrender his given name of Leifvan and for a long while wouldn't answer to his new name, David. But Pat and Jill were adamant. His name was David, he would keep his room clean, he would check the board each morning for chores, and he would do those chores. "Jill has sergeant stripes on her pajamas," says Pat. "That's the only way this thing will work."
When Romania's communist government fell in 1989, so did Jill...for Gabi and another young girl she saw in an orphanage during her fourth goodwill trip to that devastated country. Gabi arrived in the spring and Katarina (after Witt) in the fall of 1991. The family now totaled two adults, four biological children and 10 adoptees. Not enough. Last year Pat and Jill heard horror stories about conditions in Brazil, where 39 million children live in poverty, seven million of them on the streets. The Williamses had to do something, and so, after a couple of visits to Brazil, a 12-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy became part of the clan. The boy, whose given name was Anderson ("like Anderson Hunt," says Pat), became Richie. Because the girl's name was Rita, Jill asked her if she would like to keep it.
"No," she said. "Rita lived in Brazil. I live in America." She is now Daniela, named for the Brazilian judge who granted the adoption.
Are the Williamses finished? "Who knows?" says Pat. "Every time we have completed one adoption, we said that was all, but here we are with 12 kids. We've adopted our limit [four] from both Korea and the Philippines. Personally, I'm always a little relieved when a country closes us out."
The heroes of this saga, says Pat, are Jill, on whom falls the brunt of organization, discipline and driving, and their four homegrown children. "I have never sensed resentment on the part of our natural kids," says Pat. "This thing would've been impossible if they hadn't bought into the process completely."
They have, and with only a few reservations. "What I've missed is being able to do things spontaneously as a family," says Jimmy, who understandably made an easy transition to dormitory living at Stetson. "You ever try to mobilize 16 people to go to the mall?"
Jimmy's number 1 ranking on the seating chart has been retired now that he's at college (actually, the number 1 spot has been temporarily usurped by Charlotte Preaux, an exchange student from Paris), but he returns home frequently for meals and family gatherings. "What I miss most is messing around with the kids," says Jimmy. "When you've grown up like I have, watching kids get their lives turned around, you kind of get used to it."
The adjustment has been a little harder on number 2, Bobby, a sensitive youngster who is now stepping into Jimmy's shoes as big brother in residence. The considerate Bobby worries about the restaurant that the Williamses stop at every Sunday after church. "That place has to be losing money on the buffet bar," he says.
The word energetic does not do justice to Karyn, an actress, dancer and singer who reminds one of a teenage Kathie Lee Gifford. "Being brought up like this has to help me later in life," says Karyn. "I'll have an advantage in getting along with different kinds of people and personalities, because that's what I do every day of my life."
How can one explain, with any degree of logic, what the Williamses have done with their lives? And why did they also open their doors to an exchange student ("Hey, we had an extra bedroom," says Jill) and to Blaine and Boyd Cornwell, the traveling, gospel-singing pro caddies who, after reading about the Williamses, gave Jill a call and came to visit? "They're remarkable people, and this is a remarkable home," says Blaine (or was it Boyd?). The Cornwells sleep in the pool house when the Tour plays in the central Florida area.
Pat makes a nice salary from the Magic, approximately $350,000 a year. But his weekly grocery bill, for example, runs about $1,500. College costs also loom for the 15 children remaining at home, all of whom, like college freshman Jimmy, are honor students. Last year, when the kids went to private schools, their tuition totaled about $60,000. This year, however, Jill and Pat put them all in public schools—even they make some concessions to sanity.
"People think we're a little nuts, and some, I suppose, see it as compulsive behavior," says Jill. "I can't help that. Pat and I have both had moments when we've wondered if what we're giving the kids is the right thing. And we always reach the same conclusion—it is. We've seen where they come from. Anything is better than what they had, even if we don't always do the right thing here. The most important word is potential. Every single one of these kids has unlimited potential, and that is something they would not have had in their own country."
It is in the presence of the surprisingly mature Daniela that one feels the essence of this extended family. Two months ago, as Rita, she was living in poverty in S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo, with no mother, no father, no future. Today Daniela converses easily in English. She brushes the hair of her Romanian-born sisters, hovers over her Brazilian-born brother like a mother hen, cheers her Philippine-born brothers at baseball games and soccer matches and looks with admiration at her American-born sister. "I miss my best friend in Brazil, but it is better here," says Daniela. "I feel like a lot of people love me."
It's hard to find the right word to describe what has happened to Daniela. But miracle comes pretty close.