Unraveling Family Secrets
Mom & the Pizza Man: My Sister’s Stunning DNA Test Discovery
BY RANDY KING
It’s springtime, a favorite time of year for me. The snow is melting, the trees are about to bud, and the flowers are emerging from the thawing ground. It’s also what you might call the “holiday-gifted-DNA-test-results” season!
All those folks who eagerly spit in a tube in December, and then sent it off for analysis (after receiving one of those DNA ethnicity and genealogy home test kits from Santa or someone else) are now anxiously awaiting their results. Nearly 15 percent of U.S. adults have used a DNA testing service, including market leaders AncestryDNA and 23andMe, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. 27 percent of those receiving their results then learn about close relatives they never knew they had.
Among the most hopeful are those trying to find their birth mothers or fathers. And then, those often (very) surprised parents get an email, text or phone call from an unknown offspring cautiously reaching out to say, “I think you might be my mom/pop.” There are also those still trying to connect the dots, tracking down DNA matches and desperately searching for answers.
Pamela Bacon, a 66-year-old registered nurse from Portage, Michigan, who was also recently gifted with a test, received a major surprise as well when her DNA results arrived. They included a list of names of close relatives, including her siblings, with whom she grew up. But they also included other names, who weren’t a part of her family as she knew it.
Before we get to those shocking results, however, a little background:
For as long as she can remember, Pam says she’s felt “different,” as if she doesn’t “belong.” As the oldest of four children growing up in suburban Detroit in the 1960s, her teenage years were an emotional roller coaster, full of the usual twists and turns of adolescence. Yet they were multiplied by a struggle to sort through the isolation of feeling like an outsider in her own family—feelings she kept buried for decades, in part because she couldn’t fully understand them herself.
Oh wait, did I mention Pam is my sister?
Pam (right) on the day of her first communion in the mid-1960s, with brother Randy and mom Sharon.
In 1984, our father died at the age of 53 of a sudden heart attack. During the following hectic days of planning his memorial service, Pam and I and our two siblings had time to share memories as we gathered documents and reviewed paperwork to put his affairs in order. At the same time, we discovered something that surprised us: the year listed on our parent’s marriage license was 1956. Yet the year listed on Pam’s birth certificate was 1955. Was she conceived out of wedlock, or was this just a clerical error? This discrepancy seemed strange at the time, but there was a funeral to be held, so we moved on.
A few years after our father’s death, Pam decided to confront our mother with her suspicions. Pam was in her late twenties at the time, married with a young son. The desire to learn the truth was burning inside of her.
“She was probably embarrassed to tell me the truth,” Pam remembers.
Mom seemed truly shocked the morning Pam asked her if Dad was her “real” father.
“How did you know?” our mother asked.
“I told her that I had always felt that something wasn’t quite right and that I hadn’t felt close to Dad most of my childhood,” Pam explains. Again, it was something Pam had kept to herself all these years, afraid of the consequences of what she might discover if she pursued it.
“What can you tell me about my father?” Pam asked.
Mom grew up in Detroit as the oldest of six kids. She dropped out of high school to help the family with bills while working the counter at a nearby ice cream shop. After work, she loved to escape to the dance halls scattered around downtown Detroit to listen to the all the great entertainers that passed through the city. It was the winter of 1954, and she was 19-years-old.
Mom told Pam that she had a friend named Mario who frequented the neighborhood bar and pizza place. He was a boxer with a contagious personality, she said—a friend to everyone he met. Mario looked out for my mom as a big brother would. One evening when they were hanging out, she said he introduced her to his buddy Mike, a nice-looking guy, a bit older than she, who played minor league baseball. Mario, who was Italian, thought it was funny that Mike, who was obviously not Italian, was obsessed with pizza, eating it and making it—so much so that he spent the baseball off-season perfecting his pizza-cooking craft.
“Your father is Mike, the pizza man,” Mom blurted out.
That pronouncement landed like a lead balloon on Pam’s heart. All these years of wondering who she was— and then this. Mike the Pizza Man was her father.
Mom didn’t really want to talk about it anymore. And Pam dropped the subject again, for decades. (In case you’re wondering, the father Pam and I and my siblings grew up with, the one who died at 53 from the heart attack, was indeed my and my siblings’ biological father—just not Pam’s.)
Pam (far left), her sister Laurie, her mother Sharon, and her brother Randy during a Christmas gathering in 2002.
The birth of Pam’s first grandchild in 2015 once again brought back all those childhood memories and feelings that she didn’t know herself completely. Our mother had passed away two years earlier, and Pam had a renewed desire to fill in the blanks. She wanted to tell her son a bit more about the family secret.
At a family gathering in northern Michigan in the summer of 2019, Pam pulled me aside. As we sat on the beach overlooking Lake Huron, Pam shared her story and the DNA test results she’d recently received. I was shocked at first but agreed that I too had always thought she’d been treated a bit differently by our father. Even as kids we noticed that we didn’t really look like each other, and I’d always joke that my real dad was probably the milkman who always seemed to linger at our house when mom was around!
Pam with her second grandchild, in December 2019.
Coincidentally, I’d been doing genealogy research on our family as well, for years actually, back to the days when you had to look at physical documents on microfiche readers. When Pam shared with me the names that the DNA results determined to be “close” relatives to her, names that were not part of my own results, I knew right away that we needed to research these findings further.
There have been so many advances in DNA science and data over the past 20 years I was certain we would finally find some answers. The ability to instantly search meticulously cataloged public records through sites like Ancestry, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage DNA is really at one’s fingertips. Sites like DNA Painter and Borland Genetics have amazing tools that allow the curious to narrow their focus and confirm matches from their uploaded DNA.
Companies like Ancestry calculate a confidence score for users, when it compares DNA. The score lets people “know how much DNA evidence there is for you and your match actually being related.” The confidence score is based on the amount and location of the shared DNA, using something call centimorgans (cM), a unit used to measure the length of DNA.
Armed with our DNA records, I dug into the research while Pam reached out to some of the higher cM number matches at the top of her list. Our goal was to confirm the identity of her biological father and gain medical and family history to add for her, her son, and future generations. I shared with Pam each discovery along the way as the picture became clearer
Our first stop was The DNA Detectives created by CeCe Moore, an expert genetic genealogist who’s consulted on and appeared in many DNA specials including the PBS documentary series Finding Your Roots. More recently she’s helped solve cold cases using genetic genealogy on the ABC series The Genetic Detective. I shared the information Pam and I had gathered with her team, hoping her search angels could confirm our findings. They were incredibly helpful in building out Pam’s tree on her birth father’s side using the science of DNA results, which clearly confirmed our suspicions. Professional genealogists from Ancestry and Legacy Tree Genealogists independently verified the same results in 2021.
This excerpt is from a letter from AncestryProGenealogists that informed Pam that her DNA results “support Michael [Ilitch] to be your biological father.”
Pam also heard back from one of her DNA matches, not long after she’d initially reached out to the match via email. Pam was hoping the woman could shed some light on her family and how Pam might fit in, based on the match. The woman replied enthusiastically, which was a bit of a relief for Pam. She was a first cousin once removed on Pam’s birth father’s side, and she proclaimed “we might even have to throw you a party” in her note, saying that she had a “wonderful” family.
Pam and her new-found relative talked at length and determined that another match, who was listed at the highest number of cMs in Pam’s results, had to be Pam’s first cousin. This relative also confirmed that her grandfather had a brother named Michael Ilitch—a.k.a. Mike the Pizza Man!
And get this: Mike Ilitch is the founder of the international fast food franchise Little Caesars Pizza! He established it in Garden City, a nearby suburb of Detroit in 1959. Not only that, but Ilitch also owned the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, and is known for his wide-reaching philanthropic efforts (programs that feed the hungry, give business opportunities to war vets, etc.). After civil rights icon Rosa Parks was attacked in her Detroit apartment in 1994, Ilitch quietly paid Parks’ rent, enabling her to live in a safer part of Detroit.
Unfortunately, Mike passed away in 2017 at the age of 87.
In November 2019, Pam reached out to one of her newly discovered half-siblings, and she says they had some good conversations via phone and text. They even talked about meeting sometime, but then this half-sister fell silent. Months passed with no response.
Pam eventually reached out formally via a mediator who specializes in these matters and received word back that the Ilitch family had decided it had no interest in communicating further with her, or in learning more about her DNA results. In conversations the mediator had with an attorney for the Ilitch family in March of last year, the attorney conveyed that the family simply didn’t have the “emotional bandwidth” to deal with the issue of Pam’s quest to learn more about her biological roots.
Pam admits she hoped her search would end more happily, like the reunion of the Duck Dynasty patriarch who acknowledged and met with his adult daughter discovered through a DNA test, or the recent story of three brothers reunited after 50 years. But at least now her family tree is complete, and she’s been able to fill in the blanks for herself, as well as her son, her grandchildren, and generations to follow.
“I hope that someday I might be acknowledged by my half-siblings,” Pam says. “It’s a basic human need to know who you are and where you came from and to be able to tell your story. There are constant reminders of that missing piece of my heart each time I pass by one of the family restaurants or read another news story about them.”
For my mother, and for many others from earlier generations, there was shame associated with a child born to an unmarried woman. Before she died, my mom explained to Pam that her family had “hidden me away” during her pregnancy, forcing her to go to a home for unwed mothers.
Pam with her mother Sharon, in the late 1950s.
Mom never told us why she and Mike the Pizza Man never married, and she could never fully explain why our father (technically Pam’s step-father, though we’ve since discovered through court records that he formally adopted her) never seemed to be able to communicate the same kind of love he shared with his three biological children. Yet mom made it abundantly clear, through her words and actions, that she loved Pam with all her heart.
Although the social stigma surrounding a child born out of wedlock has diminished over the years, as generations have evolved, it still exists. There are many like Pam who get rejected. They’re left to feel as if they’ve done something wrong or should be ashamed of their history.
Pam is still in contact with a family member on her newly-discovered half-uncle’s side—relatives who have acknowledged her. And from all that we know about the person her birth father Mike Ilitch was, how kind and giving he was to so many people, we’re certain he would have welcomed Pam with open arms—if only she’d discovered him in time.
Randy King can be reached on Twitter @MediaKingdom.
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