Chris Eilersen and his son Eric at Eric's graduation ceremony from Michigan State University in 2013.
June 05, 2019ALMONT — It was September of 1971, and Chris Eilersen was not having a good day.
A member of the U.S. Air Force, Chris was getting some things together on the eve of being sent off to serve in the Vietnam War. He was just 19 years old.
Chris was also having a conversation with his mom—a conversation that would both confirm his long-held suspicions and ultimately change his life.
"She told me the man who was my father, who I carried his name, was not my real father," Chris recalls. "She said 'I'm not sure who your father is.'"
While the news was a surprise—it was not really a shock. Chris had long puzzled over his lack of resemblance to the man who helped raise him until the age of 10, when he left his mom.
"The guy that I had his name was six-four, and 240 pounds and had wavy brown hair," Chris says. "At my heaviest I weighed 160, and when I had hair it was straight and blonde," he says. "I'm five-ten, five-eleven and basically there was no physical resemblance there."
Suspicions confirmed, Chris let it go for the time being. He had other things to think about—namely his deployment to what had become the most controversial war in U.S. history.
"It was not a great night," Chris recalls. "My father wasn't my father, and I was going to Vietnam in the morning. There were a lot of emotions going on in that time frame."
Chris served a year in Vietnam, and then another two with the Air Force. He was discharged in 1974. A year or so later, he decided to visit his grandmother—his mom's mom—to have a conversation. The issue regarding his paternity eventually rose to the surface.
"My grandmother knew, and this ended up being the key to the whole thing," Chris says. "She said she wasn't 100 percent sure, but she thought a man named William Wood was my father. It was the first time I heard that name."
William Wood. It may as well have been John Smith or Bob Jones. Chris figured his chances of ever locating the William Wood who was his biological father were slim to none. Again, he let it go.
In November of 2018, Chris's life was good. He'd been retired five years from a 12 year stint as a Corrections Officer with the Lapeer County Sheriff Department.
He was pursuing his career in music, something he'd been involved in since the '60s when he learned to play the guitar.
He and his wife Sally—who'd served as Lapeer County Treasurer from 1995 to 2008—were enjoying new pursuits in theater and elsewhere, and their son Eric was doing well, having graduated from Michigan State University in 2013.
Eric asked Chris if he'd be interested in taking a DNA test—the genomics and biotech company 23andMe was having a 'two-for-one' sale.
"He said 'why don't we get a couple of kits to see what happens,'" Chris recalls.
Chris and Eric completed the saliva tests and sent them off for analysis.
Shortly thereafter, Chris found out the results, and he wasn't surprised.
"I wasn't consciously trying to find my father. I thought whoever it is, is likely dead and not in their database."
Turns out, Chris was right. William Wood was not in the 23andMe database, but his relatives were.
Chris's results arrived a few weeks later. He found it interesting, but not surprising.
"They tell you where your relatives were from," Chris says. "The first thing that was confirmed is that I'm not an Eilersen by blood. There is no Danish in my background. It's mostly English and Irish. It was interesting, but not earth shattering."
Chris also received a list of potential third- or fourth-cousins based on his DNA. He thought that was that.
But it wasn't. About three weeks later, Chris received an email that would change his life.
"You have relatives on 23andMe," it said.
Chris was intrigued. The first name he saw was 'Morgana Sommer,' and the test indicated she was a close relative—a cousin or a sibling.
Chris sent Morgana a message through the 23andMe website.
"I was curious to see what her story was," he says. "I still wasn't equating that with my father."
Morgana messaged back, saying she didn't recognize Chris's name, and had no clue about a possible relationship. She did say one thing that stopped Chris in his tracks.
"My grandfather's name was William Wood," she said.
Chris just about dropped his iPad.
"It hit me," he says. "Oh my God, guess what! I found my father!"
Chris messaged Morgana back, and the floodgates opened. He found an entire warm, open and loving family he never knew about.
"I was an only child for 67 years and then found out I was one of seven," Chris says. "Two have passed, and I have four sisters."
Chris says his siblings also suspected they had another— "That's the way Dad was," they said.
Chris found out William met his mom on Fire Island, New York—Chris was born just five miles away. Everything clicked.
They sent photos of their dad and Chris was amazed.
"They sent a photo of him (William Wood) when he was 25, and I have a photo of me at 25 and one of my son at 25 and we could have been triplets," Chris says. "It's really unusual but it feels really good."
Though they've yet to meet in person, Chris and his newfound family members talk all the time.
"It's as if we've always known each other," he says. "Once in a while I'll get an email that says 'love you, brother,' and that's kinda cool."
The family hopes to meet in person, likely in Iowa as the remaining siblings are spread across the United States.
In the meantime, Chris is working on a major, music-related project that brought him to Las Vegas for a recording session.
A folk singer, Chris laid the track for one of his original songs, which will be featured on a compilation CD made by veterans, for veterans.
"This has been a very eventful year, and the whole family has been very supportive," he says. "I am excited about what comes next."
Editor's note: William Wood died in 1988 at the age of 65. That same year, Chris's maternal grandmother passed away, as did Chris's stepfather Mr. Eilersen. Chris's mom passed away in 2006.
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.