"If God was going to pick somebody to be my biggest challenge, it would be my dad," Wendy Spencer tells PEOPLE

By Cathy Free
Updated February 24, 2016 01:10 PM
Credit: Courtesy Wendy Spencer

Conceived as a result of a love affair between her mother and an Air Force flight line worker named Bill Miller in the 1960s, Wendy Spencer of Carmichael, California, always wondered about her biological father, who disappeared shortly after she was born. Did he have the same brown eyes and dark wavy hair as she did? Did he have other children? Was he still alive?

In October 2014, Wendy, 50, a hair stylist, learned that a friend had recently ordered an extensive DNA profile through 23andMe, a personal genomics and biotech company, so she decided to do the same out of curiosity, thinking she might at least find out more about her mother’s ancestry.

Several weeks later, when her online results came back, nothing could have prepared her for the shock of seeing a photograph of Bill Miller pop up along with the word, “father,” signifying that he was her best DNA match.

More startling news was to come. Wendy, who is Jewish, soon learned that her father had controversial theories that she considered racist. And Bill Miller’s father, Emmett Elliot Miller (Wendy’s paternal grandfather, now deceased), was a grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, who had been involved in a bombing attempt at an all-black college in Little Rock in 1960.

For Wendy, whose husband, Victor Spencer, is black (they have four children), the unsettling revelation has caused anxiety and sleepless nights. But she is slowly working on building a relationship with Bill, 74, who is retired with no other children and living alone in Del Rio, Texas. And Bill is trying to make amends with his past and embrace the only family that he has.

“I didn’t wait all these years to find my dad, only to discard him,” Wendy tells PEOPLE exclusively, sharing her story for the first time. “With every relationship, no matter how imperfect that love is, it’s better to have it than not have it at all. You can’t choose your family. Hopefully, my dad will see that we’re not the people he was taught about and has carried in his mind his whole life.”

Her father says he doesn’t feel a need to apologize for his beliefs. “Was I surprised when I learned that my grandkids and my son-in-law were black? You bet,” Bill Miller tells PEOPLE. “It was a shocker. Yeah, it was hard. But after it soaked in for a while, I realized that Wendy’s kids are definitely superior. Nobody can use a racist-type formula on those kids.”

Because of his grandchildren (Brandie, 30, Michael, 29, Victor, 26, and Cosette, 22), “I’m going to do whatever I can to make this new relationship work,” Bill adds. “I don’t spend any time hating anybody. I’m really trying to be a lot more adaptive since Wendy and my grandkids came into my life.”

It was 1964, when Wendy’s mother, LaBerta Goldstein, met Miller at a bowling alley while her husband, Roger Rosteck (now deceased) was on a two-week trip to New Zealand with the Air Force.

LaBerta, 72, declined an interview with PEOPLE. “She didn’t tell Roger there was a chance that I wasn’t his daughter,” Wendy says, “but they divorced when I was in the third grade. My mother was ashamed, and because of her shame, I always felt there was something wrong with me when I was growing up. Years later, when she finally told me the story about Bill Miller, a light bulb went off. It was very freeing for me.”

After receiving the results of her DNA test, Wendy sent her father a Facebook message introducing herself. Bill, who was recovering from prostate cancer surgery, wept when he learned that he had a daughter.

“I cried the whole day,” he says. “There was a great deal of joy and sadness all at the same time. After I left town, there were times over the years when I’d tried to find Berta (Wendy’s mother). I’d been a careless fool who’d shirked my responsibilities in life. As I grew older, the stories of the past became more important.”

Five days after her introductory message, Wendy flew to Texas to meet Bill for the first time. Almost immediately, she tells PEOPLE, “I noticed that much of what he said had a racist tone. Everyone had a category – black, Anglo, Mexican – and he talked about slavery and segregation and the way things had been. He told me that Memphis, the city he was born in, had been ruined because of black people. It was very upsetting.”

Even more distressing were details about Wendy’s grandfather, a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who had been caught trying to ignite 40 sticks of dynamite under the stairs of the men s dormitory at the Philander Smith College for Negroes in Little Rock, with two accomplices. Although he was arrested, charges were later dropped without explanation.

“It’s my belief they were dropped,” says Bill, “because one of the men Dad was with was an FBI informant. When Dad’s lawyer asked to have this person’s identity revealed, nobody would do it, and the case was dismissed.”

Although his parents divorced when he was 9, Bill spent summers with his father and often heard him talk about “how the white race was the best race,” he says. “That was what my dad believed. But I personally never saw him be hateful to black people.”

Her grandfather’s words were obviously enough, Wendy says, to poison her dad’s attitudes toward minorities and Jews.

“It’s what he grew up hearing – it’s what he was taught,” she says. “After I met him, I was horrified to hear him talk. I knew that I had to go home and talk to my husband about what I’d discovered about my dad. It was difficult for me. His mother-in-law’s parents were murdered for being black in the south.”

Victor Spencer, 53, a sales manager for a fitness center, listened quietly while Wendy told him what she’d learned about Bill.

After Wendy found her father, “I was glad for her, that she would finally fill a void in her life,” he tells PEOPLE. “I told her because her grandfather had committed these acts, it was no reason to hold it against Bill.”

But when his father-in-law flew to California for his first visit in December 2014, it was clear that he and Bill wouldn’t hit it off, Victor says.

“I invited him to breakfast and he used racial slurs and made derogatory statements,” he says. “When I confronted him, he defended himself and said, ‘People need to calm down and get over it.’ I have no time or patience for someone like that, but his existence is important to my wife, so I let it be.”

“What Emmett did sickens me and destroys Wendy to some degree because she wanted so much to belong to something and someone and this is what she found,” Victor adds. “Bill carries the legacy and evidence of Emmett even though he believes he is much different.”

“It’s hard for me that (Wendy) chose a black man as a husband,” Bill responds. “And it was hurtful, the way I was interrogated by Victor when I went out there. But I’m going to try to do whatever I can. I’m going to try to be as good a dad as I can to my daughter, and a good grandfather to my grandkids.”

Although the relationship is fragile, Wendy’s children are trying their best to understand the new person who suddenly appeared in their lives.

“The whole process has been quite unique,” Cosette, 22, tells PEOPLE. “My ancestors have no bearing on who I am, so I wasn’t mortified to find out about my great-grandpa. It’s a bit ironic, thinking that a man with white supremacist ideals has a Jewish and black lineage. My grandpa and I may not see eye-to-eye on everything, but I’ve been able to have many bonding moments. I know that he loves us and see us for who we are.”

Michael Spencer, who at 29, is Bill’s oldest grandson, shared a bottle of tequila with his grandfather when he visited and hopes to continue building a bond. “I would like to get to know him better,” he says. “I cannot judge my grandfather for the sins of his father.”

Now that Bill is considering moving to California to be closer to his new family, “I know there’s a lot of work to do,” Wendy tells PEOPLE. “I also know that people can change. If God was going to pick somebody to be my biggest challenge, it would be my dad. He was brought to my front door. But unless you’re willing to take the pain, be the filter and be able to forgive, then changes won’t be made.”