Photograph by Stephen Voss

The stories within us

May 19, 2021

Lives Of Purpose

Last fall, Chris Smith, ’98, took a DNA test to help him piece together his genealogy. It reshaped everything he thought he knew about his roots, his family, and his connection to UR.
By Kim Catley

In a photo accompanying a Feb. 4, 1998, article in New England’s Valley News, Edwin M. Knights Jr. holds a palm-sized white plastic container. He prepares to insert a vial containing a sample of freeze-dried blood.

A retired pathologist, Knights had recently founded Life Science Inc. and its GeneSaver division with a business partner. For less than $100, consumers could order a blood sample kit, collect a few drops in a vial, and return it to Knights. He would then freeze-dry the sample in his basement lab and return the vial in an engraved keepsake box.

Knights believed everyone should preserve a sample for future genetic analysis. He argued that the sample could be used to determine the source of diseases, help genealogists conduct research, or — in the case of adoption or egg or sperm donation — allow a child to track down their biological parents and genetic history.

In the article, Knights acknowledged that he and his business partner were perhaps ahead of the curve. Direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits wouldn’t hit the marketplace for another two years. They faced an uphill battle convincing people of the value and safety of collecting and preserving their genetic code.

Among the people he did convince was his son, Edwin B. Knights, who provided a few drops of blood for his father’s burgeoning business. As the years passed and at-home DNA testing grew in popularity, more and more people’s genetic material eventually made its way into the growing databases where users could discover their traits and ethnicities and connect with long-lost family members.

That’s where Chris Smith, ’98, discovered the biological family he never knew he had — and an unexpected new connection to the University of Richmond.

Chris

Between the time Smith was born in 1977 and when he graduated high school, he lost two fathers.

His father at birth, who was 66 at the time, died while Smith was still an infant. His mother remarried several years later, but his stepfather died before he graduated high school. Children from both fathers’ earlier marriages were largely grown, and some would occasionally come to stay for stretches of time, but for most of Smith’s early life, it was just he and his mother.

“We became very close and still are,” Shirley West says. “We discuss everything.”

Last year, Smith started researching his family history on ancestry.com. The search was partly to fill in the gaps left behind from his birth father’s early death and partly simple curiosity: Maybe there is a president or historical figure or other famous person in his family tree, he thought.

It was easy enough for Smith to trace his parents and grandparents, but more distant generations proved trickier to confirm.

“It gives you suggestions based on research that exists in the database,” he says. “I wasn’t sure that all of the data and records were accurate. Some people put information in, but you don’t know if that person really knows that. I thought maybe if I did my DNA, it would help me figure out the family tree. I could figure out my ethnicity and make sure I’m on the right track with who I thought was my sixth great-grandfather.”

So he spit into a tube and sent the sample to a company for analysis. Based on his known family members, Smith thought the test would show he descended from people in the British Isles — mostly English, Irish, and Scottish. The results largely confirmed his suspicions, but a few details were unexpected; the test also showed Smith was 8% German and 10% Jewish.

“There were no German names [in my family tree] that I was aware of,” he says. “And I wasn’t aware of any Jewish relatives.”

Even more surprising, the results showed a strong, very close genetic link to a doctor in Spain he’d never heard of. Smith sent the man, named Daniel Hayes, a Facebook message. “Could we be half-brothers?” he asked.

I thought maybe if I did my DNA, it would help me figure out the family tree. I could figure out my ethnicity and make sure I’m on the right track with who I thought was my sixth great-grandfather.
Chris Smith, '98

Chris Smith and his half brother Daniel Hayes facing each other, smiling, standing outdoors
In April, Smith met his biological half-brother Daniel Hayes, left, in person for the first time.
Photograph by Stephen Voss

Daniel

Hayes was born just a few weeks after Smith in Baltimore, Maryland. And like Smith, he had been researching his own family using DNA databases.

Hayes’ curiosity was sparked by the birth of his first child seven years earlier. He wanted to learn if he carried any potential for transmitting genetic conditions — information that was difficult to trace since Hayes was conceived through the use of a sperm donor. Over the years, he made several attempts to track down his paternal relatives but always came up empty.

“I kind of accepted that I would probably never find out because [the donor] was anonymous,” Hayes says. “And it didn’t seem that important to me because I had a dad that was very present in my life.”

Hayes had decided to live with the mystery of his biological father until he learned that the number of people ordering at-home DNA tests had grown dramatically, and more people were finding new relatives. Last fall, he uploaded his DNA results to several websites and databases. Smith’s Facebook question arrived two weeks later.

Around the same time, Smith learned the truth of his own conception when he asked his mother several times if she knew who Hayes might be. Maybe, he wondered, his father had another child from outside their marriage.

Shirley West was hesitant, but she knew the time to explain had come. Smith’s dad, the man he thought was his biological father, had five children with his previous wife and then underwent a vasectomy. After West and Smith’s dad married, they used a sperm donor from Johns Hopkins University to conceive the child who became baby Chris.

West says she didn’t intend to hide the story of his birth, but she never found the right moment to share it, either. When Smith was born, DNA testing was very new, and it seemed unlikely that he would ever be able to trace his biological father.

Revealing the truth to her son “was very emotional,” West says. “At the same time, it was somewhat of a relief to know that he finally knew the whole story.”

Smith doesn’t blame his mother for keeping the secret. In fact, he says it would have been harder to hear when he was younger, with little chance of learning more about his biological father. He says he would have spent years wondering whether he would ever meet him.

However, the conversation still felt like having a rug pulled out from underneath him.

“It changed my world,” he says. “It didn’t change who I am or how I grew up or who my dad was. But it changed a little bit of my identity to know that, biologically, I have a different background than I thought I had.

“I was also [thinking], the person that was my dad, he died and I never knew him. Now there’s another person who is my biological father. Is he alive?”

Smith had all of these questions when he reached out to Hayes, who confirmed that it was very possible the two were half-brothers. They connected and shared stories about their lives.

“It was a very emotional moment,” Hayes says, “just crying and laughing all evening. For Chris, it changed his whole conception of who he was. For me, it had an impact, but it was more clarity about a mystery that I knew about.”

The two also compared notes about their genetic research thus far.

Just as Hayes was helping Smith unlock a mystery about his past, Smith was doing the same for Hayes. Hayes had conducted a Y-DNA search, which traces the Y chromosome that passes almost unchanged from father to son. He and his mother got chromosomal DNA tests, which provided a clearer distinction between his two genetic lines and allowed him to more easily identify maternal relatives. His mother had also contacted Johns Hopkins University but learned any paperwork about the donation had long been destroyed. Every step had yielded no results, until Smith reached out.

Working together, Smith and Hayes zeroed in on their biological father’s identity. On Ancestry, Smith looked at his DNA matches to identify people he shared with Hayes and eliminated those who matched with his mother. From there, he homed in on closely related cousins, searching for commonalities and differences. That allowed him to pinpoint his biological grandparents and follow the line to their children.

At one point, Smith thought he had identified his biological father, but it turned out to be a stepson of his grandmother’s sister. That left only his true grandmother and one possible male descendant: Edwin B. Knights.

“It all added up,” Smith says. “He was a doctor, and I looked him up. He went to Hopkins, and Daniel — his donation came from Hopkins. Everything fit together.”

After the earlier mix-up, Smith and Hayes wanted to be certain they had identified the right person before making contact. Hayes had previously worked with a DNA angel to assist with his research, but she was sick with COVID-19 and not immediately available. Impatient, Smith sought out the assistance of Laura Leslie-Olmsted, executive director of the nonprofit DNAngels.

DNAngels works with adoptees, people who were conceived through donors, and people who discover through DNA testing that their parent is not their biological parent — people, in other words, just like Smith and Hayes. It combines DNA mapping with ancestral research and interpretation — typically an expensive service — at no cost.

Within hours, DNAngels confirmed what Smith and Hayes suspected: Knights is their biological father.

They could easily see online that Knights is a primary care physician in Massachusetts, and his contact information was readily available. Smith tried emailing and calling but didn’t get a response. They thought Hayes, who is a doctor of tropical medicine and epidemiology, might be able to get through by reaching out as a fellow doctor.

“I managed to get through to him at the hospital at a moment when he didn’t have any patients,” Hayes says. “I introduced myself as Dr. Hayes from UCLA and said, ‘I have some questions around genealogical research.’ Then he said, ‘Oh, you mean that I might be your biological father.’”

A graphic DNA helix showing Chris Smith, his biological half-brother Daniel Hayes, biological father Ed Knights, and biological great-grandfather K. Brooke Anderson (UR class of 1916)

Ed

Shortly after speaking with Hayes, Knights picked up the phone and called Smith.

“I don’t know that I had any expectations,” Smith says. “But if you’re doing this [research] and invested in it, you hope that your biological family will want to connect with you, get to know you, and develop a relationship.”

Knights and Smith spent more than an hour talking. Their conversation helped Smith put more pieces of his history into place.

In the mid-1970s, Knights was a medical student at Johns Hopkins University. The first successful pregnancy using frozen sperm had been reported two decades earlier, and the first birth from in vitro fertilization was just a couple years away. Sperm banking was beginning to take hold as a commercial industry, and medical students at Johns Hopkins were encouraged to donate.

“We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do to help people conceive who couldn’t otherwise,” Knights says. “It wasn’t that I felt like I wanted to create a lot of people like me. It was more like donating blood.

“It was done in a way that we thought there would be no way to be traced. I put my initials inside a paper bag and left it.”

Still, Knights told Smith he had always wondered whether he had any biological children in the world.

“It wasn’t to an extent that I signed up for [consumer DNA testing service] 23andMe,” Knights says. “I wasn’t trying to find someone. I just realized that it might be the case that there were people out there.”

Knights and Smith also shared details about their families. Smith talked about his wife, who’s from Korea, and their two young children, ages 2 and 4. He also learned about Knights’ grown children. Through Ed, Chris has another half-brother, also named Dan, and a half-sister named Elizabeth, who owns and performs with a New England circus company featuring fire dancers, LED performers, stilt walkers, acrobats, and more.

They also discovered an unexpected link: Knights’ grandfather — and Smith’s great-grandfather — attended the University of Richmond, and Knights had more family stories to share with Smith.

K. Brooke

K. Brooke Anderson, R1916, was born in Goochland County, a few miles outside of Richmond, in 1892. He grew up tagging along with his father, James Anderson, a salesman for Remington and an advance agent booking shows and venues for Annie Oakley.

“[Brooke] was shocked,” Knights says, “because she was the first woman he’d ever seen in short skirts — meaning they were above the ankle.”

Anderson dropped out of high school and enrolled conditionally at what was then Richmond College. To pay his way, he joined a musical group that included Black and white performers — something unusual in its day — that helped sell patent medicines out of the back of a wagon.

After graduating in 1916, Anderson attended graduate school at Cornell for one year before enlisting and serving for two years during World War I. He worked with the French Army Ambulance Service and was awarded the Silver Star, but the experience made him a lifelong pacifist.

It makes sense, Smith says, that Anderson would attend Richmond; he was local to the area, and Richmond was a regional school at the time. The choice was less obvious for Smith, who says that the Jepson School — and the chance for slightly warmer weather — were what caught his attention.

But he can’t help but wonder, was their shared decision nothing more than coincidence? Or is there something deeper at play?

“The University of Richmond is not like going to University of Maryland or Penn State or some huge school,” Smith says. “And I’m sure when Brooke went there, it was smaller. Now we’re related, and I had no idea about him when I made the decision. I’m from Maryland, four hours away. It’s just an odd coincidence.”

Perhaps.

Looking at the progression from Anderson to the Knights to Hayes and Smith, there are multiple links that make one pause. There are several doctors — Hayes, Knights, and Knights’ father — and a clear calling to heal others. Smith is a lawyer, but his practice focuses on pharmacy law, drug distribution, and pharmaceutical supply chain regulations — a callback to Anderson’s stint selling patent medicines. Hayes eventually left academia and epidemiology behind to focus on workshops inspired by contact improv and build an eco-village in Barcelona. There are subtle overlaps between his movement-based pursuits and Elizabeth’s work in the circus arts. One can also draw a line from Elizabeth’s artistry and Ed Knights’ side interests in acting and tap dancing to Anderson, the raconteur.

“When I entered this,” Smith says, “I never thought my biological family would be as interesting as they turned out to be.”

Those connections don’t even address the physical. Smith, Hayes, and Knights only have photos to go on, but Smith can see similarities in the facial features of his biological father and half-brother. Hayes also wonders which gestures and phrases are from growing up with his father and which might derive roots from the genetic level.

“When I meet them — assuming that I meet them — then it will be like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s actually something that runs in the family,’” Hayes says. “The question about nurture versus nature is super interesting. I’m curious to get to see these people who carry this biological material.”

Smith hopes they’ll have that chance once the pandemic is behind them.

“We have to spend time with each other, I think, to really pick up on things,” he says. “The first time I meet any of them in person, I’m sure we’re going to be staring at each other, looking for mannerisms, looking for similarities. DNA does matter. It does influence how we think, who we are, how we act, how we behave, what we like and don’t like. I don’t think anyone can deny that it has some impact.”

Before this genetic discovery, Smith described himself as an only child with nine siblings — his stepbrothers and stepsisters from his two fathers’ prior marriages. Now, he can add three half-siblings — Hayes, plus Knights’ two children — to the family calculus. And who knows what else might lie ahead, just a DNA test or a click on the genetic map away?

“It doesn’t change my relationship with my stepsiblings and the ones I thought were half-siblings,” he says. “It doesn’t change my relationship with my mother or anything about how I view my childhood. It doesn’t change that side of the equation. It’s the other side that’s just developing and growing.”

It’s the contact with Knights, though, that carries the most emotional weight.

“I’ve gone through life knowing I’ll never meet my father or have a conversation with him,” Smith says. “And then one day, somebody says, ‘Your biological father is alive, and you can talk to him. You can interact with him.’ I’m not even sure I can put into words what that means.”