An Unlikely Story: Two WBHS teachers are Long-Lost Cousins


Arnella Zaichik, Reporter

Where to even begin? It’s a long and extraordinary relationship between two English teachers, Mrs. Dillard and Ms. Wiles, here at West Boca Raton High School. These two teachers who both teach on the same floor, were having a casual conversation in the hallway between classes and found out an interesting fact that changed their lives forever, but for the better. It began with Mrs. Dillard sharing her maiden name which was Jennings, when Ms. Wiles realized that her Great-Grandmother Daisy was also a Jennings. Taken off guard, Mrs. Dillard responded to this shocking piece of information that “her” Jennings ancestors were from a small town in South Carolina which sparked another moment of shock when Ms. Wiles answered that “her” Jennings side of the family was also from a small town in South Carolina. To make matters even more astonishing, both confirmed their ancestors were from Rock Hill, SC. Therefore, Ms.Wiles decided to not waste time and start digging further into truly understanding their past ancestry and how they share the same blood.  With various attempts of research, it was discovered that Mrs. Dillard and Ms. Wiles’ fathers are both from this town, which was a town established in the mid-1850s after a railroad was constructed, bringing industry (mills) to the area. After more in depth research, Mrs. Dillard and Ms. Wiles are considered to be third cousins, having both descended from Daniel R. Jennings and Mary Jane McTier. To gain a superior point of view from both teachers, I met up with both teachers, interviewed them, and even got a chance to take a picture of both of them together. The first asked question was, “How are Andrew R. Jennings and Arthur E. Jennings related?” to which Ms. Wiles answered, “They were brothers. Their father was Daniel R. Jennings and their mom was Mary-Jane McAteer. Because of them, Mrs. Dillard and I are here, six generations later” and Mrs. Dillard answered, “Brothers. I am stunned that the relationship is so close!”

Here are some of the questions I asked:

Question: When did you know that there was a possible relation here?

Wiles: “As soon as Mrs. Dillard mentioned “Rock Hill, South Carolina,” I knew there was something there; I don’t know a single person from Rock Hill, South Carolina here in Boca except for my many cousins in Rock Hill, South Carolina. You don’t just meet Rock Hill folk here in Boca. It’s highly unlikely.”

Dillard: “I asked my grandfather’s brother who is still living if he knew of any relatives named Wiles. He said no, but Lauren kept digging.” 

Question: Mrs. Dillard, how did you know Ms. Wiles was correct?

Dillard: “With the obituaries and names, it was easy to lay out the evidence.” 

Wiles: “Once I found out that Andrew Jennings had a brother named Arthur, and that both of them had parents named Daniel and Mary-Jane, we knew.”

Question:How did you figure this out?”

Wiles: “Data on Ancestry, Genealogy charts, marriage certificates, obituaries, deeds, news articles. The internet is a magical place if you know what to look for.” 

Dillard: “Obituaries have so much detail. For us, since the line was straight up, the connection wasn’t difficult to confirm.” 

Question: Has this changed your perspective of one another?

Dillard: “Ms. Wiles and I were connected before this. We are on the same hallway and teach the same subject. She is also the dance teacher while I am the cheer coach. We had a great relationship before we figured this out. Now we have the extra connection of being family.”

Question: How do you think this story could impact other people?

Wiles: “My mom was adopted from Korea, so I don’t hold the same emphasis on blood relationships that some others might. Many of my cousins and I do not share the same DNA, and that is perfectly okay–that doesn’t make them any less of a cousin to me. What genealogy and ancestry research can do, though, is help people fill in missing pieces of your family to build a greater understanding of who you are and how you got here. Above all else, I think we realize how connected–not separated–we all are. What I have learned from my research is that ancestry is not linear, it’s more of a web. Our ancestry branches out like a tree, and somewhere along the line, we are all connected as one human race. It sounds cheesy, but as you can see, it is true.”

Dillard: “We are all connected somehow, sometimes we are closer than we realize. Blood relationships are great and interesting. It is a grounding that happens when history about family is learned. The connection to ancestors gives your own life a story.”

Question: What advice can you give someone new to genealogy research who is interested in exploring their own ancestral history?

Wiles: “The data is out there, it just might take a while to organize. I recommend drawing out the tree, otherwise things get confusing, especially when there are last name changes in the tree (likely due to marriage). If you know how to move through the data, you can unlock a certain “branch.” Sometimes you might go down the wrong branch, but with some digging and research–for example a quick marriage record search–you will find new names that lead you to the correct branch. I recommend a website like AncestryDNA or 23andMe. Even if you are distant cousins, there are answers there if you go far enough out on the web. For instance, Mrs. Dillard and I had to go back 5 or 6 generations which took a few phone calls, but here we are. It’s often distant cousins or relatives that can fill in story gaps. Marriage records, obituaries, social media, etc. are key tools in the process. You just need patience and the willingness to communicate with other people. Obviously, some people don’t want to talk about it, so you have to respect that. I say, try it. It is fun.” 

Dillard: “I have some family members that are interested in genealogy, but none that had done my father’s side of the family tree. I am finding that it is so fascinating to learn the history of my family and all of the branches. This will be something that I will continue to research.” 

Question: What would have happened if you grew up in Rock Hill like the rest of the Jennings?

Dillard: “Rock Hill is now a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. I think that the area has changed so much in recent years that it would have been a great small-town life. This wasn’t in the cards for me, though. My dad served in Vietnam and then spent the rest of his career in military service. I grew up traveling the world as an Army dependent  , aka, Army Brat. Growing up outside of the reach of family, those in the same situation on the military base took on that role. That experience made me who I am, so I can’t imagine growing up in one singular location.”

Question: What have you learned about your ancestors:

Wiles: “Most of my ancestors were not formally educated. My dad was the first one to go to college. My ancestors were clearly Confederates, which I am not proud of, but I am super grateful to understand where I come from. It just goes to show you the power of education. The Jennings were simple people. They knew how to read just enough so they could read their Bibles, but yet, here Mrs. Dillard and I are, the direct descendants, teaching reading and writing. What are the chances? I have a lot of fond memories as a child visiting Rock-Hill. It was simple. No phones, no social media. It was just my brother and me running around through the woods, getting lost and just having fun. Much of the South has negative associations with it, and I am very sensitive to that reality. My great-grandma was very different than me, but I will always remember her for sharing her love of Southern food, hospitality, and the simple things like telling ghost-stories, eating grits, and you know, sitting in a rocking-chair for hours doing absolutely nothing but enjoying life with a class of sweet tea.” 

Dillard: “I learned who they were. Without the connection to family outside of first cousins growing up, it is amazing to learn some family history beyond the first and second generations.” 

Question: Has this changed your perspective of one another?

Dillard: “Ms. Wiles and I were connected before this. We are on the same hallway and teach the same subject. She is also the dance teacher while I am the cheer coach. We had a great relationship before we figured this out. Now we have the extra connection of being family.”

 With this being said,  two English teachers ended up on the same floor in the suburb of West Boca, teaching at the same high school, and moreover, sharing ancestors from a pre-Civil War era South Carolina is a one of a kind, rare case.