A shared pioneer ancestor and a series of “journeys” over the past nine months have unexpectedly connected five Latter-day Saint siblings with an Olympic medalist, a British celebrity and an Emmy-winning television entertainer.
For David Acheson, Wendy Passey, Pam Cornwall, Liz Girouard and Kristie Balbert, those journeys included a virtual journey into the past revisiting the life of pioneer ancestor Jeremiah Stokes, a United Kingdom television show called “DNA Journey,” and actual trans-Atlantic trips to connect with their newfound fourth cousin.
Yes, cousin — singular. The new relative filling all those roles is Christopher Dean.
He’s half of the Torvill and Dean ice dancing duo, teaming with Jayne Torvill to claim the gold medal at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games with a perfect-score performance choreographed to “Bolero.” With multiple professional and amateur championships, they have been featured in television programs in the United Kingdom and United States, and both are officers in the Order of the British Empire, rewarding contributions to the arts, sciences and charitable services.
Stokes is the great-great-grandfather of the five siblings — and their deceased brother, Randy Acheson, who passed away five years ago — through the line of their mother, Lois Stokes Acheson. She and her husband, Don Acheson, raised their children in Washington and Missouri.
As Dean learned by participating in “DNA Journey,” Stokes is his great-great-great-uncle through his mother. With Dean an only child and at age 6 watching his mother leave home and a new stepmother move in, the five siblings are the first relatives he has known on his mother’s side.
“The whole experience of the TV show and finding out about my relatives was a fascinating experience,” Dean told the Church News. “I thought I came from a small family, with very few living relatives, so you can imagine my absolute surprise to find I had a huge extended family.”
Stokes was born Nov. 9, 1819, in Bolsover, Derbyshire, England, the son of William Stocks and Elizabeth Harvey, with the surname change coming between the 1841 and 1851 English censuses.
A chimney sweep, he married Frances “Fanny” Walker on Nov. 25, 1839; they were parents to nine children, seven born in England. In 1849, they converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but persecution made finding work and schooling difficult for the family.
In 1856, the family boarded the ship Horizon, expecting to join the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley. However, they spent three years in Boston as Stokes worked as a stone mason to earn money to continue west.
In 1859, they joined the James Brown Company to cross the Great Plains; a year later, Stokes obtained 160 acres to farm in Draperville (now Draper, Utah). He passed away July 1, 1875, at the age of 56.
In October 2021, Passey — a member of the Country Lane Ward in the Kaysville Utah South Stake — received a surprise call from a Voltage TV Productions producer working on a British series called “DNA Journey.” Found through a DNA match, Passey was asked to confirm her relationship to Jeremiah Stokes.
The producer then told Passey she was related to an unnamed British celebrity — “we were hoping it might be Paul McCartney,” Passey quipped — and that the connection would be featured on the series the following spring. Could a family representative make it to England for filming?
Family members joined in a subsequent videoconference, with Passey sharing with the producer more information about Stokes. “Wendy is a wonderful storyteller,” said David Acheson, “and she gave an overview of the hardships and success of our pioneer ancestors and of their dedication to the religious truths they found in the Church of Jesus Christ.”
The family designated Acheson and his wife, Barbara — of the Mount Loafer Ward in the Salem Utah West Stake — to fly to England and participate in the production.
Dean’s identity and participation were revealed to the Achesons during reviews two days before the Nov. 2 filming. The episode would feature Torvill and Dean being introduced to previously unknown ancestors, with Torvill’s a 1940s captain of the West Ham Football Club.
Dean’s “journey” included a visit to his boyhood home in Nottingham and a stop on a replica old sailing ship at the Bristol shipyards, as Dean and Torvill learned of Stokes and his story. Producers had David Acheson send a video message, telling Dean he had an American cousin anxious to meet him — Dean was soon told they would meet in a nearby hotel.
With cameras awaiting Torville and Dean’s arrival, Acheson asked the director if it would be OK to give Dean a hug upon meeting. Choking up, the director said, “It is so interesting that you would ask that. As he was making his way here in the car to meet you, Chris just asked our producer the same thing.”
They shared an embrace — and then a three-hour conversation, including Torvill, that was taped and condensed for the show’s episode, which aired in April on UK’s ITV network.
As Dean referred to learning of the “Mormon conversion” and British Mormon migration from the hosting genealogist, Acheson emphasized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints name, but the clarification was left out. What did make the episode was Acheson relating that the family got their first color TV in 1984 so his mother could watch Torvill and Dean skate in the Olympics.
The production team had set up a live FaceTime feed with Passey and some of her family in Utah, with Dean seeing just a few of the increasing number of newfound relatives. “He was truly touched — and probably overwhelmed — to learn that he had hundreds of cousins,” Acheson said. “Wendy invited Chris to the family reunion in Colorado, and we joked that he was in charge of the potato salad.”
Dean likened Stokes’ migration to the Salt Lake Valley to his own move to the United States two decades earlier, living for a time in Colorado. Mentioning his son is attending the University of Utah, Dean added that he had been in Salt Lake City a couple of months previously. “We may have passed each other on the street,” he mused.
After taping finished, the conversations continued, with Barbara Acheson joining her husband, Dean and Torvill. After another round of hugs, Dean prompted an exchange of phone numbers and contact information to stay in touch.
The July trip
With Balbert at home recuperating from knee-replacement surgery, the siblings took a previously planned trip to England earlier this month. When Acheson asked Dean in January if he would welcome a visit, Dean enthusiastically agreed.
On July 6, Acheson, Passey, Girouard and Cornwall traveled to Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, to the home of Dean and his partner, Karen Barber, herself an award-winning skater and part of the ITV television series “Dancing on Ice” with Torvill and Dean.
“It was so wonderful and joyful to meet them face-to-face and socialize and share family stories,” said Dean, who showed photos of his parents and from his childhood and memorabilia from his life. “There was a moment when Liz had on the Olympic gold medal and an Olympic torch in her hand with two Emmys on either side of her — I think she will share that with her students at school.
“The conversation flowed easily as if we had known each other for years. I look forward to the next time.”
The personal stories touched Girouard, of the Poulsbo 1st Ward, Silverdale Washington Stake. “Everyone teared up. It was an instant connection with him. It felt very different from spending an afternoon with someone we just met. Chris and Karen are truly part of our family.”
Cornwall, of the Terre View Ward in the Moscow Idaho Stake, noted how open and emotional Dean was. “You could just tell he had tender feelings and was very, very happy. We felt he was happy to have us in his home and was able to talk so comfortably together.”
Balbert, of the Rancho Ward in the Las Vegas Nevada Stake, joined via livestreaming. “I am absolutely ecstatic that we have an English cousin. … I loved watching everyone meet Chris.”
Added Passey: “It felt like Chris was one of us and that we were a part of him. The next day, after we left, he called just to check in and make certain we were traveling well and safely.”
The five siblings and Dean remain connected via social media, email and text, and the Achesons are planning a 2023 return trip with Balbert for her in-person meeting.
“You think your heart is already full, surrounded by the family you’ve known and loved always,” David Acheson summarized. “But then the Lord presents an experience such as this one — the opportunity and blessing of discovering a new family member. Our hearts are filled with more love, as if that were even possible.
“How I love the connection, the strength and the spirit that family brings,” he added. “Through this experience, the Holy Ghost has further confirmed to us that the work of turning hearts to the fathers is certainly essential. And it also confirms that the work isn’t really work at all — it is the definition of joy.”