A worksheet for English class was the last place the daughter of a Fort Mill Marine would ever have to write her name as “Taylor Wood.”
Taylor, a 14-year-old Jacksonville, N.C., resident, went 13 years with “Wood” as her last name.
As of Friday, Taylor’s new surname is “Dudley” – a tribute to the man she called “dad” all her life.
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That man was Fort Mill’s Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas “T.J.” Dudley, who died while serving his country in Afghanistan last July. He served as crew chief with the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264 – ”The Black Knights.”
He died on July 7, two weeks before he was scheduled to return home to his family: his wife, Mary, his 5-year-old son, Thomas Carter, his 2-year-old daughter, Jenna Robyn, and Taylor, the 13-year-old who biologically was not his daughter.
But, in every way that mattered, T.J. was Taylor’s father.
“When people think of Taylor’s dad, T.J. is the one people think of,” said Mary Dudley. “He’s her dad; there is no question about that.”
When Mary was pregnant with Taylor, T.J. “used to rub my belly,” Mary said. “Of course, back then, we were just friends, but he was bonded with her before she was even born.”
When T.J. and Mary began dating, T.J. “instantly” took on the role of Taylor’s father.
The two went everywhere together. They kicked soccer balls together. They watched their favorite TV shows, “Cops” and “Wipeout,” together.
“Their relationship didn’t look any different to me than it did with T.J. and his biological children,” Mary said. “If anything, it was more special because they chose to love each other.”
T.J. gave Taylor direction. When she was wrong, he corrected her. When she did well, he praised her. He took his role as her father very seriously, Mary said.
In 2009, Mary and T.J. began the adoption process. They signed papers, filed documents and conducted home interviews so T.J. could legally call Taylor his own.
In December 2010, T.J. began his sixth deployment.
Two months later, the couple found out that the Onslow County, N.C., court system didn’t have their paperwork.
In July, their efforts to try again were cut short.
In November, Mary began an online petition and made appeals to the N.C. General Assembly, asking lawmakers to allow the adoption to go through.
It didn’t work.
“I was not able to legally have the adoption go through,” Mary said on Saturday. “Legally, the adoption could not go through because a deceased person cannot file paperwork.”
Based on advice from lawyers who saw news coverage of T.J.’s death, Mary decided to pursue a name change for her daughter instead.
Mary’s lawyer legally terminated Taylor’s biological father’s parental rights. Then, they petitioned the court for a name change.
“The name change was granted because T.J. had started the process of adoption,” Mary said. “It was shown and proven that his intent was to adopt Taylor.”
For many months, family and friends gathered around the Dudley family in support.
Taylor admitted that there were times she became discouraged when it didn’t seem like the adoption would go through.
Her friends and family helped push her through, she said, encouraging her to be patient and ensuring her that “it” would happen.
On Friday, it did. Taylor became a “Dudley.”
“I’m excited and glad that I can be called by the name of the person I was raised by,” she said.
Taylor’s name change brings welcome change to the family.
“When I told her that it was final and she was now a ‘Dudley,’ she jumped up and down with a smile I had not seen on her face in close to a year,” Mary said.
Robyn Dudley, T.J.’s mother, shares in their joy.
“I’m thrilled,” she said Saturday. “(Taylor’s) been my granddaughter since she came into the family.”
The same can be said for Jameson Dudley, T.J.’s brother and a Marine himself.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “It’s kind of a shame that he’s not here anymore to finally see that it went through.”
Stationed only an hour away from Mary and the kids, Jameson said he visits them when he can, goes to the kids’ soccer games and tries to lend a helping hand.
“It’s definitely nice to be so close now and spend some time with them,” he said.
As for T.J., Mary is sure what his reaction would be.
“I think if he was still here today, he would have had the same reaction to her name being changed as Taylor did,” she said. “He would have just been thrilled that she would carry his name.”
The name change is official, but the work is far from over.
Mary will have to get Taylor’s name changed in every office and on every document or record that has her daughter listed as a “Wood.”
“She is officially a Dudley now; Taylor Marie Wood no longer exists,” she said.