DNA test solves 80-year family mystery

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by TERESA WOODARD

WFAA

Posted on October 9, 2013 at 10:47 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 9 at 11:00 PM

They sat at DFW Airport, the site of comings and goings, happy hellos and sad goodbyes.

With nerves, they waited.

"The way I felt about it, this day was never gonna happen," said Patrick "PJ" Holland. 

He was in the final 60 minutes of an 80-year wait.

"This is what we call a 'countdown,'" he said with a laugh, after asking yet again when his guests would be arriving.

"She'd let me know if they missed the plane; they did not miss the plane," said Marilyn Souders, who was with Holland on a long and winding journey.

Finally the guests were there.  Holland smiled broadly, then hugged them tightly. 

He was 80 years, six months, and 22 days old, and he was meeting family for the first time ever: A cousin and that cousin's daughter. 

For all his life, he never knew what a cousin was.

"Sometimes I'll go way back and wonder, 'How'd this happen to me?' Holland asked.

An unwed mother gave birth to PJ Holland outside Cincinnati during the Great Depression.  Orphanages were full, so he lived at the hospital where he was born for the first couple of years of his life.

Nurses took care of him. Eventually an orphanage had room, PJ was moved. He remembers that life with pain.

"All the orphans had people visit them on 'people day' except me, because there was no relatives," he recalled.

As a teenager, Holland ran away from the orphanage and hid in a convent. But he knew he couldn't stay there.

At 16, he faked his age and joined the Army. He was a paratrooper.  But when he had leave from the service, he had nowhere to go.

He was a soldier with no family back home.

After the Army, Holland returned to Cincinnati, and a local family offered him a room in their home.  In time, he just became one of them. 

"Oh yeah, that was family.  From that moment on, that was family," he explained. 

Marilyn Souders was part of that family.  Her grandmother took Holland in all those years ago.  Souders doesn't remember life without him.  She's always called him "Uncle," and she's always searched for her Uncle PJ's past.

"I tried for years and years.  I tried so hard," she said.  "For all these years he's had that nagging, 'Where did I come from?'"

"I always thought if we just loved him enough we could make up for that hurt," she added.

Souders' home office in Plano looks like a mad scientist's genealogy lab. Old photographs and yellowing documents spill out from file folders and cabinets and shelves. 

She estimates she spent "thousands and thousands of hours" tracing Holland's roots.  She even recruited her children. 

"Family vacations were often at the library.  I'd give them quarters and instructions on how to use the microfiche," she said.

Souders was able to nail down a name of Holland's mother:  Agnes Holland.  But she could never find more.

"It's been a long journey, but I never gave up.  I knew we could do it," Souders said.

A 31-year-old aspiring actress in New York City would unknowingly unravel the mystery. 

Cathryn Mudon took a DNA test. "My friend we just did it on a whim, it was in all the news that Angelina Jolie had done it for the breast cancer gene," she explained. 

Mudon used the same company Souders had used to do a DNA test on Uncle PJ.

"I logged in one morning and this big pop-up comes on and said, 'You have a first cousin match,' and I'm like, 'Oh my God! I can't believe this!'" Souders exclaimed. 

Within hours, she and Mudon were on the phone.

"But I didn't understand the magnitude of it.  I was like, 'Oh cool. Neat to meet you.' It's such a distant generation that I didn't think much of it," Mudon said. "And she was like, 'You don't understand. We've been searching for Agnes since 1970."

Mudon's father knew his Aunt Agnes had left the family, but he didn't know why.

"When you asked my mom about Agnes, it was, not a whole lot was said," John Mudon recalled.   "Agnes sent cards and letters from time to time. Maybe she'd write in 1943 and you wouldn't hear from her again until 1955. It was pretty sporadic."

Now they know Agnes disappeared to give birth to an illegitimate baby.

That baby was PJ.

"When I got off the plane and I looked down the hall, he looked similar to my mother," John Mudon said.

John and Cathryn flew to meet PJ in Dallas, where he lives in an assisted living facility so he can be near Marilyn.  His health is beginning to fail.

"I spent a long, long time wondering, 'Where are they? Who they are, and why?" Holland said. "I am who I am. And now I know who I am."

Souders is in awe that a DNA test taken on a whim solved the mystery she's been working on for decades. 

"I'm just so happy for him," she said.  "Everybody deserves to know where they came from."

E-mail twoodard@wfaa.com

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