DNA test connects long-lost daughter to Swannanoa Valley family

Regina Lynch-Hudson
Special to Black Mountain News
Mary Jara Norausky holds a photo of her biological father, Black Mountain native Wallace Burnette, who passed away in 2000 while still searching for the daughter who was conceived in 1963, when Burnette was stationed at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines.

The father

Swannanoa Valley native Wallace Burnette was born Feb. 29, 1928 to the late Garland Alfred Andrew Burnette (1881-1954) and Hattie Payne Burnette (1892-1986).

Raised in Black Mountain along with his three sisters, Juanita, Irene and Mary Othella, and three brothers, Lorenzo, Charles and Garland Jr., Wallace’s adventurous spirit was on bold display as early as the tender age of 13, when he left home to join Moore’s Minstrel Show. Just a few years later, in June 1947, he set off to see the world, enlisting in the U.S. Navy in an effort to forge a better life for himself and to serve his country. He joined the naval air station’s boxing team, emerging as the Golden Glove champ in 1949 for the 175-pound class.

During his tenure in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marines, Wallace served as a maritime engineer. Over the years, he was assigned to numerous ships, including the USNS General Daniel I. Sultan, the USNS Provo, and the USNS Cheyenne.

Acquired by the U.S. Navy in 1962, the Cheyenne was manned by Merchant Marines from the Military Sea Transportation Service. It was then that the ship was sent to the Philippines to serve as a delivery ship of parts and supplies to Navy vessels and stations in the South Pacific region.

During the summer of 1963, while assigned to the Cheyenne at Subic Bay Naval Base, as the ship awaited orders to deliver cargo to Vietnam, Wallace conceived a daughter.

Throughout his naval career, and later as a systems engineer for defense industry giants like Litton Industries, Boeing, and General Dynamics, Wallace never lost hope of one day seeing that daughter. But even as he worked on such technologically advanced aircraft as the F-14 and the B-2 Stealth Bomber, he never could have imagined the leaps and bounds made in genetic science that would someday reveal her whereabouts.

When he was laid to rest at Western Carolina State Veterans Cemetery in Black Mountain on May 26, 2000, he had yet to locate Wilma Jara, though he left behind carefully handwritten records of her birth name, birthdate, and even her birth hospital.

Becoming a Golden Glove champion in 1949 was among the many accomplishments of Wallace Burnette, who left his native Swannanoa Valley at the age of 13 to pursue adventure.

His daughter

Mary Jara Norausky, 55, was born as Wilma Jara on April 9, 1964 in Olongapo City, Philippines. She spent her toddler years in a Catholic convent, cared for by nuns, visited by her mother.

At the age of 5, she relocated from Subic Bay, Philippines to Anchorage, Alaska with her mother, two younger half-siblings, and her stepfather, a compassionate Caucasian seaman whom she credits as rescuing her from the convent.

In time, the family moved to Southern California. At the age of 10, young Mary was finally told that her stepfather was not her real dad. She longed to meet her biological father, but her mother would not provide his name, ethnicity, country of origin, or any other information.

“My mother vowed that she would take the information with her to her grave,” Mary said. “All I knew was that he had been in the Merchant Marines, and I thought that he didn’t know I existed.”

Thoughts of her father haunted her. Finally, in an effort to find out more about her family and heritage, Mary decided to take a DNA test, and as she puts it, “that’s when a miracle happened.”

Her sister

Wallace’s older daughter, Dr. Monique Burnette Ross, 58, a family medicine physician practicing in Northern California, was well familiar with the power of DNA and had also recently tested.

“I was shocked and amazed when I received the results of a close DNA match with a perfect stranger,” she said. “Excitedly, I sent an email to introduce myself and to find out more about this person. I discovered that Mary was searching for her birth father, a former Merchant Marine, and I immediately knew that she was my sister.”

The proof

For confirmation, the sisters and an older brother, Cecil Davidson, 72, submitted their individual DNA to professional genetic genealogist Connie Bradshaw, who used Family Tree DNA's interpretive tools to compare and analyze their test results.

A centiMorgan (cM) is the unit of measurement used to express the amount of DNA two people share. Half-siblings typically express an average of 1700 centiMorgans of common DNA inherited from their one common parent, although the range of shared DNA for the half-sibling relationship can vary from 1300 to 2100 cMs due to the random nature of Autosomal DNA inheritance.

“Monique Burnette Ross shares 1912 cMs of common DNA with Mary Norausky,” Bradshaw concluded. “Wallace Burnette’s son, Cecil Davidson, shares 1750 cMs of common DNA with Monique and shares 1671 cMs of common DNA with Mary.”

Their results confirm the three are half-siblings, sharing the same father.

“The two half-sisters also share one of their two X chromosomes, inherited from their father, Wallace, who had inherited his X chromosome from his mother, Hattie Payne Burnette,” explained Bradshaw. “That’s when I immediately knew they were sisters. A shared X chromosome in half-sisters with different mothers indicates a shared paternal grandmother.”

While serving in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marines, Black Mountain native Wallace Burnette was docked at Subic Bay Naval Base on the USNS Cheyenne. In the summer of 1963 he fathered a daughter in the Philippines and searched for her until his death in 2000.

The meeting

The sisters continued to communicate by video calls, then finally decided to meet at Mary’s home in Indianapolis during Thanksgiving 2018, a symbolic time of reflection and family fellowship.

“We prepared our first meal together, a combination of favorite dishes ─ mustard and collard greens, cornbread stuffing, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie and turkey,” Monique said. “We reminisced about our childhoods and how we grew up, and I told Mary about our father and his side of the family.”

Monique’s youngest son, Aaron, who accompanied her to Mary’s, also had a chance to bond with his newfound cousins, Natasha and Brian.

Monique laughs. “Not only do we look alike, but we share a love of soul music."

Mary, who grew up in the lily white suburbs, confesses, “I was secretly listening to Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Commodores when all my neighbors were listening to 80’s rock and roll groups like KC and the Sunshine Band.”

The reunion

Mary Norausky, left, and her daughter Natasha Norausky visit the grave site of Wallace Burnette on Father's Day weekend.

More than a half century after Wallace’s search for his daughter began, Mary finally came home to Black Mountain to meet her father’s people, a historically tri-racial mixture of African American, European and Native American mountain folk.

“Mary will fit right in,” Monique said prior to the gathering.

On Father’s Day weekend, the local family hosted a private dinner to welcome Mary into the fold; she was presented with a treasure trove of archival heirlooms, including a hardbound 418-page family history volume.  

Mary anticipated meeting relatives such as her DNA test-confirmed first cousins, Black Mountain residents and family patriarchs Wallace and Winfred Lynch, the first-born grandchildren of Garland Burnette and Hattie Payne Burnette. Winfred sadly passed away only weeks before the dinner and was laid to rest in Oak Grove Cemetery on June 8, among the Stepp, Burnette, Payne and Lynch ancestral graves that he lovingly festooned with flowers over his lifetime.

The weekend’s celebratory events also included a tour of the tight-knit community of Cragmont led by 84-year-old Wallace Lynch. The family’s nostalgic landmarks include the grave site of Wallace Burnette, and former Burnette ancestral land; although all that remains is chimney rubble from the former cottage of Mary’s great-grandmother, medicine woman and midwife Mary Louisa Stepp Burnette Hayden (1858-1956).

A tour of Biltmore Estate introduced Mary to the old stomping ground of her great-grandfather, George Washington Richard Henry Lee Payne (1838-1927), one of the estate’s earliest blacksmiths.

Through the ongoing Payne Family DNA Research Project at, family history chronicler Regina Lynch-Hudson, in collaboration with genetic genealogist and project administrator Bradshaw, was also able to confirm the family’s genetic kinship to legendary songstress Freda Payne, a belief that Wallace Burnette held firmly to during his lifetime.

Freda Payne, known for her Vietnam War protest song Bring the Boys Home, as well as the 1970 hit Band of Gold, first met Wallace Burnette in the 1960s when he was stationed at the Naval Station Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii.

“Wallace was into roots before Alex Haley,” she said, “and he was researching his family before there were DNA tests.”

Freda shares 79 cMs of common DNA (range of second to fourth cousin) with 92-year old Shiloh native Mabel Owens Hoskins, the great-granddaughter of George Washington Richard Henry Lee Payne.

Freda shares 39 cMs of DNA (range of third to fifth cousin) with Wallace’s great-niece, Black Mountain native Lynch-Hudson, and varying degrees of random DNA inheritance with other participating Payne DNA Project members.

“The randomness of DNA inheritance at the third cousin level and beyond results in unpredictable cousin matches, meaning that not everyone will share genetic material or match a distant cousin, though they may legitimately be related,” maintains Bradshaw.  “However, DNA testing is a remarkable tool. It has the potential to resolve age-old family lore, as in the case of the Freda Payne familial connection, but even more so, it can lead to the gift of family, as it did for Mary Norausky.”

In the hope of illuminating the mysteries of the complex Payne family interrelationships, the study continues.