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Thicker than water: former roommates learn they're cousins

I first met Rusty Lerner in the fall of 1983 in Wright Hall. We were both first-years in Saybrook. I lived in a quad suite on the fourth floor; he was in a double on the first floor. Slowly, our social circles converged as one of my roommates, Simon Mendelson, became close friends with him. Eventually, I also began spending time in Rusty’s room, which had become something of a community center for many first-year Saybrugians that year.

Something about Rusty drew people to him. He was not loud or garrulous. He was not a big drinker, and he rarely danced at parties. But he was friendly, incredibly generous, and could often be found hanging out in his room with other friends. Current students will be amused to know that Rusty was the only person I knew who arrived at college with a personal computer. He shared it with everyone, and pretty soon at least a dozen people were writing their papers on Rusty’s computer at different times of the day or night. His mother became instantly famous when she shipped an entire Tex-Mex party in a box from their home in Houston, complete with food (chili con carne) and beer (Lone Star).

When it came time to make living arrangements for our sophomore year in Saybrook, Simon checked with me and my roommate Tom Revelle on our feelings about including Rusty in our four-person suite. Tom and I quickly agreed. I’m not sure that we had fully comprehended the implications of this decision, but they became more apparent as soon as we arrived in our room in the fall of 1984. Rusty had managed to locate in Texas—and disassemble and then reassemble inside our living room—an actual telephone booth. It was one of many oddities that would be added to our living room over the next three years, including a Coca-Cola machine and a working streetlight.

The four of us remained together through senior year, and Rusty and I became even closer friends. We were both Jewish, but the similarities practically stopped there. He grew up in Houston; I am from Chicago. He was fond of jazz, especially the trumpet of Maynard Ferguson (he had found a friend to paint Maynard’s symbol on the ceiling of his freshman year living room); I was a fan of Bruce Springsteen and Chicago blues. His major was East Asian studies; he took Chinese all four years at Yale, and he was keen to move to the Far East after graduation. Meanwhile, I was a history major, intent on going to law school.

One vivid memory that I have of Rusty in college is from a night the spring of our junior year when Rusty told me he was gay. I remember being upset, not because of his sexual orientation but because I was the last roommate to be told. He conceded that this was because he was the most nervous about my reaction. In retrospect, I realize that we both had much to learn about each other. I was taken by surprise by Rusty’s announcement (in my defense, he had had a girlfriend the previous summer), and Rusty had not appreciated how liberal my upbringing was. His coming out to me only strengthened our friendship going forward.

After graduation, the four of us managed to maintain contact, first through letters, then e-mails, and most recently through Zoom calls. Seeing each other was complicated by the fact that Rusty moved to Taiwan after graduation and then later to Thailand, where he still resides. Every year or so, we would arrange a reunion in a different city, including our fifth “de facto” roommate Dan Via. We started simple with Houston, New York and Washington, DC. But eventually we expanded our horizons and met in Thailand and Bali, Banff in Canada, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Eventually, trips included spouses and partners, and then children. In addition, in 2015, I took my whole family to visit Rusty and his partner Torn in Thailand. It was an incredible experience for all of us, and Rusty proved that his generosity had not diminished. He and Torn met us in Bangkok and stayed with us for our two weeks in Thailand, including a five-day stay at their house on the River Kwai. They were amazing tour guides and ensured that we sampled the best offerings of Thai food.

So all of this is perhaps a long introduction to the email that I received from Rusty a few weeks ago. He informed me that his younger brother had received the results back from an DNA test, and the tests indicated that I was his distant relative (fifth to eighth cousin). More than 36 years after we first met, we discovered that we shared a common ancestor. Interestingly, years before, Rusty and I had shared with each other our separate genealogy charts, purely out of curiosity. His family came primarily from Poland on one side and Sicily on the other. My mother’s family had lived in Denmark for several generations, and my father’s family came primarily from Ukraine. Yet somewhere between our fourth and seventh great-grandparent, we shared an ancestor.

As a history major, it fascinates me to think of the different paths our ancestors took that would eventually lead Rusty and me to live together in Saybrook. In many ways, I suspect that it would be a common immigrant’s story of persecution and repression abroad that caused first one family member and then others to leave Eastern Europe in order to find greater opportunities in the US. Perhaps someday, I will have the time and access to records that will allow me to learn more about this history. But the fact that our families would come full circle such that the two of us would find each other as friends at Yale College seems as remarkable as it is highly unlikely.

I hosted our last roommate reunion in Washington, D.C. in May 2019 without families. I drove the gang out to Annapolis where we feasted on crabs and toured the US Naval Academy. Discussions (and negotiations) have commenced about planning for the next one. But this time, the term “reunion” will have an even greater meaning when Rusty and I meet up again.

Filed under genealogy, Class of '87, Rusty Lerner, Adam Shayne


  • David Shayne
    David Shayne , 6:33pm August 21 2020 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    As Adam’s dad and fellow Saybrugian. Iknow the essence of the story but the details and style are impressive. My grandfather was from Belarus so Rusty and i also probably share an ancestor. Regardless I’m happy to claim him.
    As the saying goes. Friendship are born at Yale. Even relationships.

  • Kinney Zalesne
    Kinney Zalesne, 9:14am September 05 2020 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Well, this was a sweet surprise to discover scrolling on a Saturday morning. I can attest this group has been a cohort of mensches for almost 40 years, related or not. Family is just icing on the cake. Enjoy the next reunion!

  • Alison Kemper
    Alison Kemper, 11:15pm September 05 2020 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Our son Robbie attended Queen's University in Kingston, ON. While there, he kept a picture of himself at the dock at the family cottage on top of his dresser. One day his friend Cameron saw it and said, "That's our family cottage!". Robbie replied that it was his family cottage.

    It turns out that Robbie's grandmother and Cameron's grandmother were stepsisters. The boys' great-grandparents owned a cottage in Muskoka. Our side of the family bought out theirs at some point, and the two branches no longer gathered once the great grandparents died.

    But the friends and classmates were also cousins.

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