DNA diaries: Former coworkers learn they’re distant cousins

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Jim Arner spent his working life studying formulas and learning how things work. With a degree in chemistry, the Mississauga, Ont., resident worked as a technical specialist in the oil industry for his entire working life. As he puts it, he figured out “how to put the right oil on a squeaky wheel.”

It makes sense that Arner, retired and now in his late sixties, spends time researching genealogy, adding to his family tree and helping friends discover more about theirs. Learning about your ancestry and what goes into your DNA is its own form of chemistry.

In an interview with CTVNews.ca, Arner says his interest in genealogy came well before the introduction of computers and the internet, when his father would look through records at the local Mormon church.

“Growing up as a child, we always had these family reunions,” Arner said. “One of (his father’s) relatives got him into genealogy. There were things my father knew, or thought he knew, so he did a little bit of research, but he didn’t get very far with it. I picked up where he left off.”

What started as a part-time hobby became more of a passion after Arner’s daughter bought him a saliva test for Christmas, opening up a treasure chest of genealogical tidbits.

“All of a sudden, I have more relatives. Third, fourth, fifth cousins, some from Europe, some from Canada,” he said. “I found out my great-grandfather had two wives, and I’m descended from the second wife.”

Arner said he initially didn’t have any information on the first wife, considering there was no blood relationship with her. However, a little bit of research led to him finding relatives of the first wife, some of whom were close to Arner’s age.

That’s when he saw a familiar face.

“I know that person, that was my work colleague!”

The colleague was Lorne Brock, whose office was two doors down from Arner’s between 1987 and 1992. When Arner took another job, the two kept in touch and jointly volunteered for a non-profit called the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers, which they’re still involved in.

Ema Brown, seen here, was the great-grandmother of Lorne Brock. Her ex-husband married Isabelle Tinline, who is the great-grandmother of Jim Arner. (Photo provided by Lorne Brock)

The pair realized they were fifth cousins once-removed, meaning they share great-great-great-great grandparents. It’s been just under two years since the two made the discovery, and it’s only strengthened the duo’s friendship.

“Similar education, similar career, similar interest in genealogy,” Arner said. “I guess you could say we had some things in common.”

‘It’s a pastime’

Since the discovery, Arner has continued his genealogical pursuits, uncovering every granular detail and filling in every blank in his family tree.

He learned the origins of his surname, how Arner originally came from the old Germanic word “Aner,” meaning “Child of Anne.” He discovered relatives from the 18th century who were scattered throughout Europe, one that arrived in North America and fought on the American side of the Revolutionary War, and another who aided the British and was granted land near Windsor, Ont.

All this led to Arner reaching out to his newly discovered kin, arranging to meet relatives in the United States and even flying overseas to visit cousins in the United Kingdom. Now they exchange Christmas cards and share notes from their own DNA research.

It doesn’t stop with his own family. Arner, ever the meticulous researcher, has helped friends and family discover their own genealogy.

“I was able to find all 64 of my wife’s great-great-great-great grandparents, dating back to the 1800s,” Arner said. “It’s a pastime.”

‘It gives justice to the family names’

When asked if these genealogical pursuits have provided him with a sense of identity, or a stronger bond with his roots, Arner says it doesn’t, but what it does accomplish is more important.

“It gives justice to the family names, so the families aren’t forgotten,” he said. “Before computers, you might know your grandparents, and that’s about it. But with all these documents and converting them to digital, it’s just amazing what you can pull out.

“A wedding certificate from 150 years ago and seeing a signature on it, in their handwriting. You can see it and think, ‘That’s my great-great-great grandmother,’” he continued.

Arner says anyone who might want to dip their toe in learning about their ancestry shouldn’t hesitate.

“Don’t wait until tomorrow to ask questions about your family,” he said. “Ask your parents about their parents, aunts, uncles, and so on. Many I’ve talked to said they never asked questions, and now that their loved ones are gone, that family history will never be shared.”

As far as when he’ll reach the end of his pursuit, Arner says there’s always a little bit more to learn, and that his journey has no end.

“I’ll never finish. I’ll always keep working on it.”

CTV News asked readers to share their discoveries after using 23andMe, Ancestry, MyHeritage and other genealogy websites. These websites surfaced stories of uncovering family secrets, locating long-lost relatives and exploring family trees. More than 100 people responded to our callout.

Visit CTVNews.ca Monday mornings to read the latest in our DNA Diaries series.

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