This is the image that changed Paul Lochray’s life: three Russian children standing stiffly by a large stuffed elephant.

They looked like Russian children, or the way an American might imagine them to look. The girls were in thick tights and clunky shoes. All three wore their hair cropped close to prevent lice, and their round faces didn’t smile. Andrew was 7, Natalie was 4, and Maria was 3.

The 44-year-old bachelor didn’t want three children, and some people thought he was crazy for wanting even one. He wasn’t sure he could afford it. In fact, he was pretty sure he couldn’t, not to mention all the time and energy three children require.

But he was certain of this–that those three children were his family, a family that started without him in a Russian village, a family that surely would be split apart if he didn’t claim it. A newly married couple was interested in Maria alone, the adoption agency said. Another couple wanted Andrew, and yet another wanted only the girls.

“It was my obligation to adopt all three,” he said. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it financially. I put it in God’s hands.”

Lochray sat at a table at the Ken-a-Bob Buffet in Storm Lake, trying to manage three children while he recalled how his family started. For the children, the story was easy to tell.

“He wanted to have kids,” Andrew, now 8, said between gulps of chocolate milk.

But for Lochray, the decision to become a father was hardly simple.

This happy family began, he said, after an unhappy ending; the death of his fiancée, Wanda. The two met in 1984 in Denver, where Lochray lived. They planned to marry in 1987. But in 1987, Wanda was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease killed her in 1992.

“For six months after her death,” Lochray said, “I was struggling to get out of bed every morning.” The horrible loss, he said, made him look closely at his life. All he saw was work.

Professionally, the Fort Dodge, Iowa, native was a success. After Lochray graduated from Creighton Law School in 1979, he taught law and business and wrote textbooks on financial planning.

“Everything I doing was work-related,” he said. “I didn’t have a personal life.”

Lochray knew then that he needed to do something. But he wasn’t sure what. He started with something small; a Russian language class. The course met for several hours a week and was an intense immersion in the language.

“It was something that occupied my nights and gave my life a little purpose.”

The course ended in December 1993, about the time Lochray took a job raising funds for a Colorado hospital. It was there that he saw a videotape of a Russian orphan age.

“For me,” Lochray said, “the next thing was going to be having a family.”

He decided right away to pursue an international adoption; his new language skills made Russia a natural choice.

The adoption process started with a three-month home study–a social services evaluation of his home, background, and income. When he was approved, he began working with an international adoption agency.

The adoption agency sent him videos of available children. It was on one of those videos that Lochray first saw his family.

“I could tell they were coherent,” he said. “They could speak. They weren’t deaf. They could walk.” And he could tell that Andrew, who curled an arm around each sister, was bright and protective.

Lochray started to sort through the paperwork. He bought bedroom sets and toys and clothes that he hoped would fit them. By May 1995, he was on his way to Russia to bring his children home. For them, the change came suddenly.

“They were told their papa was coming from America,” Lochray said. They had heard that word before, America, but they didn’t know what it meant or what it was. They were scared.

On the afternoon of May 22, Lochray came to the orphanage in the Kaliningrad province, where his adoptive children lived with about 50 other children and a few adults.

“I told them in Russian, ‘La tvoy papa,’” Lochray said. “I’m your papa.”

Andrew, then Maria, rushed to hug him. Natalie, ever the shy one, held back. But by the end of the visit, she couldn’t bear to see Lochray leave.

After the adoptions were processed, Lochray hit a snag. He had been granted immigration visas for “two or more” children, but immigration officials interpreted that as just two. Maria didn’t have a visa. The adoption had cost $36,000 in adoption fees, travel expenses, food, and lodging. But Lochray hadn’t planned for the immigration delay. He was out of food and out of money.

A man he had met on the plane to Russia came to the rescue. This friendly stranger let the new family stay on his farm for 13 days.

Finally they left.

“I knew when our plane landed in New York City that we were a family,” Lochray said. “I felt it. It was instinctive.”

Lochray now stands in his four-bedroom house, flipping through a photo album. On its pages are his children. Their hair grows longer and their smiles grow broader. They grin and pose for shiny 8-by-10 school pictures. They look like different children. For Andrew and Natalie and Maria, coming to the United States was like arriving on a different planet.

When Andrew saw his new home, he immediately asked how many families lived in the moderate-size house.

“The first time I took them to the grocery store, they ran around wildly,” their father said. “They were overwhelmed by choices.”

Compared to the average Russian, he said, the children were well fed. By American standards, they were undernourished. Natalie, now 6, and Maria, 5, had rickets. Their muscles were underdeveloped, and they lacked coordination. They needed good food and sunshine and play.

“For a long time, the girls would run and then fall down, just fall down,” Lochray said, watching Natalie ride a bicycle in circles around the garage.

The children seem to have adapted completely to their new home, but Lochray isn’t sure how deeply they were scarred by the neglect they suffered in Russia. He doesn’t know much about their lives before the orphanage. He had read court records that said the children lived in a filthy, insect-infested home, where they were seldom fed and often left alone. Andrew was the parent then, watching out for his two sisters.

It helped that Lochray spoke Russian. He used the language exclusively with the children for the first two months. Then he started saying simple things in English. Wash your hands. Flush the toilet. Time for bed. Today the children speak English flawlessly, without a trace of accent. Just a few Russian words have stuck, such as “chi” for tea and “babushka” for grandma. They don’t want to admit in front of strangers that they still can speak Russian. They pretend not to remember the Russian words for cat, dog, and doll.

Lochray doesn’t want them to lose their native language. He speaks Russian at home sometimes. He tells them Russian folk tales and has asked them whether they want to visit their homeland. No, they always say, it was bad there.

Eventually, the Lochrays moved back to Iowa and the children started attending a Catholic school. Now they live closer to extended family.  Lochray can call on them for extra support. His four sisters have been especially wonderful role models for Natalie and Maria. He considers adding a wife and mother to his new family, but it isn’t his top priority. That, he said, is being a good father.

He also considers adding a few more brothers and sisters to the arrangement.

Lochray tries to share his story with other families who are thinking about international adoption. There are so many children who need homes, he said.

Andrew and Natalie and Maria have changed Lochray’s life. His home is now cluttered with Barbie dolls and remote-control cars. His heart is filled with love and pride. He can’t imagine what his life would be like without his children, and he doesn’t want to, just like he doesn’t want to know what their lives would have been like without him.

“I think of the scores of children in that orphanage,” Lochray said. “There were little boys who grabbed my legs and begged me in Russian to take them with me. I think about those children. They haunt me.”