BEMIDJI -- Wendell Affield knew he had eight half-siblings, but he didn’t know who his father was.
Until this past April.
Through DNA testing and modern technology, the 72-year-old Bemidji man found out his father’s identity and discovered he had six more half-siblings.
“I didn’t have a clue who my family was,” said Affield. “We always want to know what our roots are.”
Affield’s family story is complicated. He was born in 1947 in New York City, the third child of his mother, Barbara. She and her husband, John Curry, had the first two sons together, but were separated. After they divorced, she gave birth to a fourth child, daughter Laurel. There was no mention of who fathered Wendell and Laurel.
Barbara placed an ad in a lonely hearts catalog, and that caught the attention of Herman Affield, a World War II veteran from Nebish, just up the road from Bemidji. Barbara and her four children came to northern Minnesota from New York in the fall of 1949, and four months later she and Herman were married.
They had five children of their own, bringing the number of Wendell’s half-siblings to eight.
Herman and Barbara had what Wendell calls a dysfunctional marriage, and in 1960 Barbara was committed to the Fergus Falls State Hospital for sixth months. Herman died in 1970.
“From 1954 to 1967, the welfare department was involved with our family,” Affield said. In one period of four years in the early 1960s, Wendell lived in five different foster homes. He dropped out of Bemidji High School during his junior year when he turned 17, and joined the Navy. He was serving in Vietnam when his high school class graduated. Affield wrote about his time in Vietnam in the first of three books he has authored, “Muddy Jungle Rivers.”
After his years in the Navy, he took a job in the Chicago area as an apprentice meat cutter, thinking it would be temporary until he found another career path.
He spent 30 years as a meat cutter, including the last 15 at Lueken’s Village Foods in Bemidji, before retiring at age 50. He and his wife, Patti, had three children (their son died of a heart attack in 2015).
Something was missing
Wendell and his sister Laurel long wondered who their fathers were. Their mother refused to talk about that. But after Barbara died in 2010, Wendell discovered letters, papers, telegrams and other documents in the attic and the chicken house on her farm. He has written two books in a series he calls “chickenhouse chronicles,” one titled “Herman” about his stepfather’s life, and one called “Pawns” about life on the farm in the 1950s. A third book is in the works.
One of his chicken house discoveries was divorce papers filed by Barbara’s husband, John Curry. He filed them in 1946 from Las Cruces, N.M., where he was living. Wendell reached out to a court worker in Las Cruces with the divorce case number, and a few weeks later he received 42 pages of information about the case, including a deposition that was taken from a welfare worker in New York. The deposition included the address in Selden, a small town on Long Island where Barbara and her two oldest children were living at the time of the divorce.
Fast forward to 2015. Wendell, Laurel and their two older brothers had a DNA test. Results indicated that the two older brothers had the same father, while Wendell’s father was unique to him and Laurel’s father was unique to her.
Two years later, Laurel received a call from a retired genetics scientist from Cincinnati named David Schmidt. He had discovered a match for her half-sister. Laurel and Wendell traveled to Ohio in 2017 to meet David and that half-sister, Grace.
“When David learned that I didn’t know who my father was, he began another search,” Wendell said. “He narrowed the search to possible families and suggested I contact a possible link.”
That link was a man named Guy Grignon. David’s search placed Grignon about four blocks from where Wendell’s mother was renting a home in Selden.
“That’s one of the important things when you’re doing DNA research,” Wendell said, “especially for paternal searches, is to physically place the parties in the same geographical location. Even though the DNA says it’s true, now you know for a fact that it’s possible.”
Connecting the dots
After some digging, Wendell learned that Guy Grignon had died in 1994. He had five sons and a daughter. Wendell decided to send a letter and copies of his books to one of the sons, Louis Grignon, who operated the Sag Harbor Yacht Club on Long Island.
“My first introduction to Wendell was out of the clear blue,” Louis said. "I received a package from him in January (2019). I looked at the postmark and saw Minnesota. I don’t know anybody in Minnesota.”
So he read the letter, and decided to call Wendell that very day. Wendell hoped to get Louis and his brothers and sister to take DNA tests, but he had to do some selling of the idea.
“(Wendell) knew more about my great grandparents than I knew,” Louis said. “So I gave him a call just to see what’s going on. He sounded like a nice human being. We go over the genetics, how things matched. Then I asked him how could they have possibly met. He said he had a couple of letters that were addressed to a small town on Long Island named Selden. That’s where my two parents grew up.”
The real capper was when Louis looked at one of the books and saw Wendell’s photograph.
“That was it,” Louis said. “He looks more like my father than me or any of my brothers do. Once I saw the picture I said, ‘Yeah I’ll take the test.’ So I did, and three months later everything was confirmed.”
Wendell had found what he was looking for. It was time to return to the state of his birth.
He and Laurel made the trip to Long Island in June. David Schmidt, the geneticist, also joined them. It was a week to remember. Wendell met brothers Larry, Louis, Gene, Mike and Guy Grignon Jr., and sister Yvonne.
“It was an amazing event, connecting with (my) new family,” Wendell wrote on his blog at wendellaffield.com. “Everyone was so warm and welcoming. Louis and his wife Patty invited us to stay in their home — they were wonderful hosts. Janine, brother Larry’s daughter, had a luncheon for us — her husband, a New York police officer, is an awesome chef. I was touched by the enthusiasm the young people had. ... Janine and Larry’s older daughter, Laurie remembered him and commented more than once how much I looked like their grandfather.”
Louis and Patty Grignon are scheduled to travel to Bemidji on Monday, Oct. 7, to spend some time with Wendell and his family and to learn about the place where Affield grew up.
Wendell and Louis will share their story at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, at the Beltrami County History Center. There is no admission charge and the public is welcome.
“I’m anxious to see his family, Patti, the kids and grandkids,” Louis said. “To meet as many of the family as possible, have a good time and bond. Before he came out (to Long Island), I read all of his books. Then he came out and we connected immediately.”
Wendell fondly remembers that first meeting in June.
“When I first saw Louis, he was sitting behind his desk,” Wendell said. “He got up, came around his desk and reached out to shake my hand, an all of a sudden we were hugging. It just felt so natural. It was really a powerful moment.”
Wendell Affield has been through a lot in his 72 years. But the last year has brought him more than just some new relatives.
“It’s just a sense of peace,” he said. “A sense of fulfillment. If I hadn’t met the Grignons, I guess I would go to my grave not feeling complete.”