Feature Stories

How a DNA test unexpectedly connected this Latter-day Saint to a father who didn’t know she existed

Whatever we expected from the DNA test, it was not this:

“Confidence Extremely High: Rudger Warner is your father,” it read.

My mom experienced detached curiosity and more than a little disbelief. This was an error or a glitch. This stranger’s last name was so close to her own married name: Rudger Warner, Judy Wagner. She looked at the statement again. There was something so odd about a computer matter-of-factly revealing the name of the man who had fathered her, a mystery she had grown up with and accustomed herself to for almost 49 years.

And now it was no longer a mystery. It was simply a name.

The Beginning

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The Shaffers, 1968. From left to right: Mark, Nancy, Royce, Judy, Velta, Brenda, Kathleen, Michael.

My mom was born in Klamath Falls, Oregon, on March 29, 1968, to a 20-year-old, unmarried woman named Judy. She was adopted through LDS Adoption Services by Royce Gamble Shaffer, an electrician and the local LDS bishop, and Velta Lewis Shaffer, his devoted wife. Velta was 42 years old at the time and already the mother of five adopted children.

Naturally, Velta was hesitant. She felt too old to adopt a newborn when they already had three girls and two boys in the house.

But my grandpa felt impressed to adopt the baby girl, and Velta eventually agreed. When my mom was brought home, there was a discussion about what to name her. Having heard the name spoken in a whisper by their parents, my mom’s siblings suggested “Judy.” They had no idea, of course, that this was the name of my mom’s birth mother. Velta and Royce weren’t thrilled at the choice, but the siblings were adamant. And so she was named Judy Shaffer, and on March 27, 1971, my mother was sealed in the Oakland temple to her parents and siblings.

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Judy with her adopted family.

Though my mother knew about her adoption, she had no desire to search out her birth parents until she left Klamath Falls to attend BYU. It was there, under the prodding of a curious roommate, she searched out her birth mother. She found an address and phone number, and the two Judys, birth mother and daughter, exchanged a few letters, but my mother wasn’t ready for a deeper relationship.

While at BYU, my mom met and began seriously dating fellow student Jim Wagner, and the two were married in the Oakland Temple in August 1988, in the very same room she had been sealed to her adopted family.

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Royce, Judy, Jim, and Velta in 1988.

Following Promptings

If anything, my mom’s parents taught her to follow promptings, which became a powerful spiritual gift. When my Grandma Velta was going through chemotherapy, my mom flipped through a calendar and, seeing the date June 22, 1993, she felt strongly that would be the day Velta would pass away. My Grandma Shaffer did indeed pass away June 22nd, and my mother’s prompting brought our family peace and prepared us for the grief that awaited us.

Years later, we spent a week in Oregon before my oldest brother went on a mission. As we were leaving, my mom made us turn around, drive to the electrical shop, and have Kevin say goodbye to Grandpa Shaffer one last time. Though he was 83, my Grandpa Royce was in good health and still working full-time. My mom was in tears when she asked my dad to turn the car around. “I think it will be the last time Kevin gets to see him,” she said. She was right: my grandpa passed away about halfway through Kevin’s mission, in August 2009.

I often wondered why my mom delayed having a DNA test so long. As her kids, we talked about it idly, wanting to know her genetic makeup. But my mom treated the test with an entirely different attitude, as if she knew that this test would have more significance than it did for the average user.

And it did.

But, acting in faith, my mom submitted her DNA in December 2016, and when the results came back, we were all shocked.

Somewhere in iCloud messages, our family texts of “What!” “Who is Rudger Warner?” “This is crazy!” go on for quite a while.

“I feel like Luke Skywalker right now,” my mom wrote. (In all caps.)

After the initial disbelief wore away, she was mentally and emotionally prepared to follow this prompting all the way through.

Finding a Father

We found names and an address. To my surprise, my mom mailed letters to both of her biological parents. Her biological mother had written two letters to my mom in her life; but until this test, my mom had never known even the name of her biological father. Her letters introduced herself, spoke of her life, and noted that she wasn’t looking for a replacement family. She had a great family and a great life. But she was doing what the Spirit prompted her to do: and that was to find out where she came from. Beyond that, she didn’t know what to expect.

Rudger at first thought my mom’s letter was a hoax. But the truth was all there: the dates lined up, and, most plain of all, my mom looked like Rudger Warner.

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Judy and Rudger as young children.

We had a week or so to process this sudden revelation and to comb through the internet, looking for relatives we hadn’t known about and who plainly did not know about us. Then an email arrived.

“Judy, Please read the attached letter. Look forward to meeting. Your Dad, Rudger.”

He had not known. My mom’s biological mother, Judy, had never told Rud that he fathered a child. They hadn’t been dating; they barely even knew each other. Rudger had just returned to the U.S. after four years with the Navy when he attended a college party in June 1967 and met Judy. Their one night together resulted in a pregnancy that Judy never told Rudger about—she later moved out of state for the duration of the pregnancy.

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Rudger 1965.

Before she did, however, Judy set up Rudger with her roommate Diane, who would become his future wife. Rudger and Diane have since been married for 49 years, with four kids of their own. In his letter, Rud sketched his life for my mom, as she had done for him. He’d had a difficult and unstable childhood, a long career in the Air Force as an engineer, a beautiful temple marriage, and a growing family.

To say that the DNA match and my mom’s subsequent letter was a shock to Rud and Diane would have been an understatement. Within a day of receiving her letter, he wrote back by email, “I had a hard time digesting everything, but through prayer and an understanding wife (who knew about the one-night stand) we are both looking forward to meeting you and your beautiful family.”

He continued, “You have a right to know your biological family. You have four siblings.”

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The Warners: Diane, Ryan, Tami, Natalie, JR, and Rudger.

Discovering New Family

Rudger’s letter closed. “By this time, your siblings have been notified and will be messaging you via Facebook. They are: Tami, JR, Natalie, and Ryan.”

Names and ages were listed. Within an hour, warm and welcoming messages were sent to my mom, who could not sleep until she had responded to all of them. From Tami’s “All I can say is wow—I am excited to get to know you” to JR’s “Wow! I don't know what to say or how to go about this . . . but HI sis?” these messages sent my mom through dizzying waves of emotion. There was a shared sense of shock, palpable wonder, and the tinge of heartache beneath all of it. Natalie wrote, “My parents called me over to their home tonight and had me read your letter. My dad sat in the chair sobbing and couldn’t stop telling me how badly he felt that he didn’t know about you.”

What is perhaps the most amazing to me is how gladly my family has been received by the Warners. Over the course of a few weeks, emails, messages, and pictures were exchanged between my mom and her biological family. On the Sunday of President’s Day weekend 2017, she, my dad, and two of my siblings stopped in St. George to meet not only Rud and Diane but three of my mother’s biological siblings and their kids. Before the meeting, Rud spent the day nervously pacing and my mom stopped to buy a bottle of Tums during the drive to quiet her stomach. But whatever nerves existed at the first introductions relaxed into an afternoon of food, pictures, and stories. On the drive back to their home in California, my mom shared, “Wow. It was overwhelming. It was surreal. It was a whole new family.”

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Clockwise from the top: Natalie, Rud, Diane, JR, Ryan, Tami, and Judy.

Meeting her biological family hasn’t changed my mother’s relationship with her adopted parents or family—she knows no one can replace their influence in her life. But this experience has added a branch to our family tree, expanding our family circle.

It’s strange to think that it’s only been a year since these discoveries were made. Many trips have been made between our two families, including a Warner family reunion at Thanksgiving. We wore name tags at the dinner, took family photos, and laughed at the cliché of discovering long-lost cousins.

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Our expanding family.

I imagine family reunions like this will be far more frequent on the other side of the veil. Experiencing such welcome and laughter in this life has been the experience of a lifetime. There is nothing like discovering a birthday card from new grandparents in the mail or joking over the shape of toes you share with new uncles. If the word wow was overused in this story—I apologize. It’s the knee-jerk reaction to an entire branch of a family tree being discovered in a city we’ve driven through countless times. It’s the reaction to finding physical similarities in faces we’ve never known until now. But most of all, wow is the reaction to finding family among strangers.

There is something truly miraculous in the discovery of a face and faith that echoes your own. There is something miraculous is my mother’s discovery of a father who never knew she existed and the tender mercy of the Lord in bringing these families, these lives, together. If temples and the work of Elijah are turning the hearts of the children to their fathers, then what better example than her story? The gospel is about the family of Christ—and what I have learned from discovering long-lost family is that we can find new love and family bonds, even when we least expect it.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on LDSLiving.com in 2018.

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