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Brothers, former competitors, find each other after 50 years

Eric Cunningham (left) Chuck Eighner Chuck's 50th birthday party October. The two met for first time weeks earlier.

Eric Cunningham (left) and Chuck Eighner at Chuck's 50th birthday party in October. The two met for the first time weeks earlier.

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Updated: January 12, 2014 6:21AM

Both born in Danville, they grew up in neighboring communities. One in Hoopeston, the other in Georgetown.

They played against each other in rival football conferences.

They knew some of the same people, shared multiple friends. Even attended a memorial service for a mutual acquaintance.

But the two boys — men now — never found out they were brothers, born only 14 months apart, until recently.

And now, with the help of a state law and loving wives who pushed these two men to finally meet, they have become the best of friends.

“It’s been quite a journey,” said the eldest, Chuck Eighner, who lives in the Sandwich-Somonauk area, where he owns five funeral homes.

“I’m not an emotional guy,” added kid brother Eric Cunningham, a prison major at Danville Correctional Center. “But it was pretty amazing.”

Both credit the 2005 state law that allows relatives to find adoption records for opening up the doors to this new relationship. But it takes more than legislation to bring history into the present.

Cunningham, who didn’t even find out he was adopted until age 16, began looking for his birth parents soon after those records became available, thanks to wife Lauri’s persistence. But his birth father’s name was omitted from the documents, and his mother, now living in South Carolina, hung up on him when he finally tracked her down in 2006. When Cunningham located her younger sons, he said, they also made it clear they wanted nothing to do with him.

Meanwhile, Eighner, who grew up in a loving Hoopeston household and considered his father “my best friend,” had known since age 5 he was adopted. In 2008, struggling with diabetes, Eighner underwent five heart surgeries, and the following year wife Amy donated a kidney to keep him alive.

It became a matter of getting and passing on valuable health information that drove Amy’s quest to locate her husband’s birth family.

While Eighner is a firm believer “you can never have too many acquaintances and friends,” he was cautious. Digging up the past, after all, “can be a double edge sword” because you don’t know what’s on the other side.

Including rejection.

When he finally tracked down his birth mother, with the help of close friend Les Banks, he got the same cold reaction as the brother he had yet to discover.

“In October of 1963 I made a choice in my life to move forward … and never look back. Which still stands in my life today,” she wrote in response to a letter and phone call from Eighner. “ wish you and your family the best.”

“It is what it is,” Eighner told his wife after receiving the letter.

Still, neither he nor Cunningham let these hurdles stand in the way of finding each other. In the middle of September, not long after Eighner got a letter from the Illinois Department of Public Health containing information about his brother, the siblings made contact via phone. And before the month was out, they were sitting across the table from each other— as were their spouses — in a Danville Red Lobster.

The families have become close quickly. Amy Eighner threw a surprise 50th birthday party for her husband in October that included plenty of Cunninghams. And the two wives even spent Black Friday shopping together, while the brothers drove to DeKalb to watch the IHSA state championship football games.

There are obvious differences between the two, including the fact Eighner is taller and balder. But both men, now fathers themselves, share the same rosy cheeks, quick wit, love of football and a deep appreciation for family.

They also possess a desire to know more.

Eighner says he holds no ill will toward his birth mother over her decision to keep distance between them. But he and his brother have many questions they would like answered, including whether they are full or half siblings.

The box marked for the father’s name may be blacked out on both birth certificates, points out Eighner, “but the information is there.”

Yet, even if the family tree is not complete, “that’s OK,” he added, because the fruits of life have been rich and plentiful.

“And now,” he says with a wide grin, “look what I have gained.”

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