About Me

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Lake Mathews (Perris), CA, United States
Born in Illinois, I grew up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. I have one sibling, an older brother. I am married, for the 2nd time now, to Butch & got 4 children in the deal. They have gone on to make me grandmother 25 times over & great-grandmother to over 20!. After many years working in industry, I got my bachelors and masters degrees in speech communication, & was a professor in that field for 13 years. I retired in 2001 & returned to school & got my doctorate in folklore. Now I meld my two interests - folklore & genealogy - & add my teaching background, resulting in my current profession: speaker/author/entertainer of genealogically-related topics. I play many folk instruments, but my preference is guitar, which I have been playing since 1963. I write the "Aunty Jeff" column for the Informer, newsletter of the Jefferson County NY Gen. Soc. I work in partnership with Gena Philibert-Ortega & Sara Cochran as Genealogy Journeys® where we focus on educating folks about Social History. More about that: genaandjean.blogspot.com. More on our podcasts: genjourneys.podbean.com. More about my own projects: Circlemending.org.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Did you see the San Francisco episode of GENEALOGY ROADSHOW?

The San Francisco program was filmed at the Old Mint on 21 July 2013. By chance (and some schedule adjustment), Gena Philibert-Ortega and I were able to attend the filming (we were on a presentation and book-signing tour around California). What fun to watch all the folks milling around. I got to meet some of the "higher ups" in the program development, as well as the amazingly welcoming PBS execs from the local station, KQED.

I am not new to the filming industry. Besides having friends (past and current) in the "business," and often visiting studios over the years, I was a guest star on Oh, Madeline, with Madeline Kahn, for one episode (this was in the 1980s . . . but the show pops up every now and then . . . I no longer get residuals!). But I continue to be amazed watching the equipment and the operators thereof . . . it's almost like a waltz as cameras move in, move out, and make it look so easy. I know it's not and that often there are last minute adjustments, for various reasons: lighting, sound issues (and the Mint was fraught with those as the ceilings have to be 30 feet high and with hardly any furniture in the rooms, if there were few people around, the echo was pronounced), availability of the applicants to be filmed, equipment failures, etc. The casting director was a miracle worker. She must have been in three or four places at once and used both walkie-talkie and her phone to connect with people. Bless her heart, when I didn't appear in the lunch room when the rest of the folks were there, she texted me to make sure I had something to eat! And what a spread (Hollywood folks are known for getting some of the best food for their people . . . I have no idea how so many stay so skinny). Anyway, the constant flurry of activity kept me on my toes (often getting out of the way of people).

So, I have been asked: did people really just show up with their stories, asking for genealogy advice? Yes. But those that Josh and Kenyatta worked with had submitted their materials at least two weeks in advance (most, more than that), and we on the research team had lots of time (this being a relative term, of course) to get the information and verify it. I will be sharing a little more about some of the stories that I worked on in later posts. But let's look first at those crowds of people.

Folks had an opportunity to reserve tickets in advance (I believe for free). I tried to do that, but all tickets were gone within three hours of the PBS station posting their availability! (Funny: one of my friends - non genealogist - got one of those, not knowing about my involvement, arrived, looked in and saw me, and we had a great reunion!) Anyway, not all of those people were ticket holders. The others were a mix of family members of the applicants, various crew members (moving furniture, setting up lights, tearing down tables, etc.), and paid "extras." Yup, they paid folks to make sure there would be a crowd. At first I thought that was strange, but when you consider that a lot of people would come in for their consultation, chance to be on TV, etc., and then leave, there was a frightful chance that, at the end of the day when they were filming the last bits, there would be just an empty building. Hiring extras kept that from being an issue and, watching large families leave after having their clans' mysteries solved, I realized the need for the additional, guaranteed "audience."

There were four or five genealogists there to answer questions and I was included in that group. Jim Dane, Kim Cotton (who was instrumental in securing a number of documents for us), Gena (who had another obligation in the morning and didn't arrive until later in the day), and me (I am sure I am forgetting someone, so please let me know who you are) talked to people "off the cuff," giving them websites to visit, other avenues of approach to their brick walls, etc. Usually no more than about 20 minutes was spent on each of these good people. But I also handled some of the less dramatic (for television) stories that had been submitted early and I was able to give a little information about the applicants' ancestors. So, while Josh and Kenyatta were filming in two large rooms across the hall, other genealogists were working with folks in another big room without large crowds around. Personally, I liked the more intimate setting as we got to discuss side issues that were not possible to cover in the filmed segments. The two segments I did do that were filmed never made it to the final cut . . . I am not surprised . . . one of them would have not fit in comfortably (due to the awkward setting and no real information involved - more of a show and tell ancestor chart) and the other really didn't include any new information for the applicant (except that he came from a long line of people involved in refrigeration and, before that, the ice business).

The day went by too fast. I had a great time. And, personally, I think the resulting splicing and cutting made it look a lot like it was (compressed into a viewable hour). I continue to wish that there had been more time for a couple of additional stories, but those were received very late and one was a bit "touchy" in the final reveal. I would like to see more of how everything was found, but each of the more involved stories would have taken a minimum of two hours to do right. I will share a few of those background research details in the next blogs. Enjoy.
(above: Paxil the Platypus displays the KQED Genealogy Roadshow card that everyone was given for coming to the taping.)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

I said I search for dead, not living, people

The second of the two "connect living family" stories from the Nashville episode of Genealogy Roadshow dealt with a young lady whose father was unknown to her. I would estimate that I spent a good thirty hours on this story, with many, many successes along the way.

Luckily, Sarah knew the name of her father (who had died in San Francisco a number of years earlier) so I got onto the SSDI to get his exact (or nearly exact) death date. From there, I checked the California Death Index and located an abstract of the certificate, but it was not complete (only part of the mother's maiden name was listed). I contacted a genealogist in the Bay Area and asked her to get a copy of the certificate, which she did. With that document, I had the full maiden name of the decedent's mother and the name of his father (Sarah's grandparents). I tracked the father's line a little way, but got tangled in the different lines for the surname; I changed direction to the mother's line and was able to track her back to the East Coast.

Sarah's grandmother came from Connecticut and her line took me to the immigrants mentioned in the Nashville episode of the show. There were a lot of name changes happening (both actual changes and misspellings) but the Polish roots were relatively clear from the beginning of the search. To follow the family from place to place, I used city directories and learned that Sarah's great-grandmother was an early female employee of the Fuller Brush Company in Hartford, Connecticut, working as a "matron." The great-grandparents' immigration data was located, some by me and some by one of the production team members, who was the one to do the tracking into the original village in Poland.

Finding living family is often a back and forth procedure, and here is a perfect example of this as I went backwards, then forwards, then back again to pick up the history of a second husband, another alias for the great-grandmother, a move across the country, etc. I contacted the Bay Area genealogist again for other death certificates and a marriage record, giving me the needed name of the death informant. This coming forward again led me to Sarah's father's sister (Sarah's aunt) who had attempted to reach Sarah when her father died. Armed with the aunt's information from her mother's death certificate and a telephone number Sarah had from years before, I was able to get in touch with living family, connecting Sarah to her father's family, as you saw on the episode.

Lesson learned: Sometimes using the RootsWeb mailing lists can help with finding others researching the same line (while I was not able to connect with others searching for the same line I was, I used some regional mailing lists for help in finding information about research in specific areas - in this case, Hawaii). I also used some "finding living people" websites for phone numbers and email addresses of people who might be related. I had some interesting conversations, but did not have any luck with them . . . this time.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

But I look for DEAD people

One of the earliest ideas the casting and producing teams for Genealogy Roadshow decided they would like to see was reunions - or, more accurately, unions - with "long lost relatives" people didn't even know they had. My first response was, "I look for dead people . . . I'm not very good at finding the living. What you want is a private eye." And I recommended one. But they insisted that I could do this (at times, the casting team had more faith in us than we had in ourselves, making our successes prove them right and, when we had a lack of results, disappoint us).

On the Nashville show, viewers saw two such "reunions," and I am pleased to be able to share a little on these since they were "my" stories. They were actually two of the first stories I worked on.

The first was "Uncle Fate," the story of a photograph showing a two-year-old White boy in the lap of an older African American gentleman. The identification was clear for the boy, but the gentleman was identified simply as "Uncle Fate." Identifying Fate was no trick and took less than thirty minutes. Since the photo was taken when the child was about age two, and the boy was born in about 1900, that dated the picture as taken somewhere around 1902. In the 1900 Federal Census, "LaFayette Cox" is listed in the family's household. "LaFayette" is often shortened to "Fayette" and, in the South, the slurring of the name would give us the name "Fate." But identification was not enough . . . it was decided (and I have to admit I was excited about the prospect) that we should try to locate living family of LaFayette Cox. I did most of it by doing the simple tracking of his family, first back, then forward. I could identify his offspring and some of the later descendants, eventually leading to the death of one of the relatives in the not too distant past (within the past 20 or so years, as I recall). This was done with the help of a posted family tree on Ancestry.com, but an email to the tree-owner did not get a response. The family had stayed in Knoxville and the surrounding area, so a connection with a genealogist in that area led to the discovery of a newspaper obituary for that recently deceased family member and the listing of his surviving family, including a daughter (identified with her married name and her husband's first name). A Google search led me to the husband, who is an educator in the Northeast U.S. I emailed him and asked for information about his wife. I had a good idea who she was (the person who had posted that tree on Ancestry.com). In this case, all my identifications panned out. She emailed back and was thrilled to have her ancestor identified and his life laid out for her. And, if you watched the Nashville show, you saw the two families united (not "reunited" - these families of two different cultures had never known of the other's existence).

Lesson learned: while on-line family trees often have incorrect information and/or holes in the lines, they can sometimes take us to clues about living family. Contacting the tree creator/poster may take us to a long-lost cousin. Together, the family members can make the tree more well-rooted, with sources cited and holes filled in.

I will write about the second of these union stories in tomorrow's blog.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What resources were used to investigate stories for GENEALOGY ROADSHOW?

The continuing belief, which many people have, that an individual's family history is all there on the Internet, just waiting to be uncovered, does cause many genealogists to snicker. Really? Of course, commercials, such as those from a large company that is well-known as the most popular pay genealogy site, perpetuate that rumor. And it can be hard to counteract that belief . . . but we keep trying.

When I was hired as the lead genealogist for Genealogy Roadshow, that was the belief of the folks who planned the show, and they were a bit surprised when I said we would have to enlist the help of others in varying locations to pull records and take photos, but they accepted my assessment when I explained the types of records available on line as compared to those that are not. And, I have to admit, they were impressed with some of the sources we were able to access (via other genealogists around the world), so we got that myth of "everything is on line" expunged. At least in house.

But we did use the Internet, of course. We were able to get a lot of information from Ancestry.com, FindMyPast, Archives.com, Fold3, FamilySearch, FindAGrave, GenealogyBank, and many others. We contacted libraries, archives, museums, the Family History Library, NARA facilities (at least four different locations), individual research experts, and more. And we were able to talk to and email the applicants for information (note: the applicants were NOT told what progress we were making or even given an idea of whether or not there was any validation to their stories until they were on camera).

Of course we used Census records (state, federal, military, slave, etc.), city directories, vital records, military and pension records, immigration and naturalization documents, wills and probate documents, deeds, family letters/journals, etc., and anything we could access. Many of these items are not found on the Internet. But even many of those required some sleuthing techniques to uncover (different name spellings, browsing microfilmed books for a record that could have been generated on any date within a certain time span, handwriting interpretation - in any of a number of different languages, knowledge of research techniques that vary depending on the record format, etc.). The amount of education required to know how to do this is extensive - our research experts are all well-versed in research techniques that have been learned over decades and by attending courses, workshops, webinars, seminars, and lectures, plus reading help books, syllabi, etc. And, at the same time, being in a constant "learning" mode, since new websites, search formats, and other technology are developed to make our resource searches more effective and time-efficient, and we need to be ready to change approaches as the situation warrants.

So, what resources were used to investigate stories for GR? Every ones we could get our hands on or get others to access. And networking with each other, including the production team, to make the best use of time and resources, was of prime importance. We were a team and we used each other, down the line, to help each other. Our different skills were of access to each other. I would not say, "Don't try this at home" - because that's a great place to try it! I would say, "Don't try this by yourself" - use the networking option and ask for help! I'm really glad I did!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Basic guidelines to select GENEALOGY ROADSHOW stories

Four cities were selected to host the Roadshow: in order, Austin, Nashville, Detroit, and San Francisco. But when it came to airing the shows, the order was adjusted slightly and the first filmed is the last to be shown (I have suspicions as to why, but don't want to start rumors, so I'll just say it was a decision by the production folks).

Family history "stories" or questions were solicited from these various cities by way of Internet shout outs and advertisements on the respective PBS stations. Nevertheless, a few applications came in from cities not remotely close to the four chosen locations. In a few instances, promising stories from these "other" locations were passed on to the research team.

From Casting Team to Research Team

Story selection was made by the casting team. They went through all the applications and chose cases based on a variety of criteria, including the applicant's life in the target region (greatly desired were people who had lived in the respective state for some period of time and, hopefully, whose family also had ties to the venue - though that was not always possible). Also of concern was the interest of the story or family line (an applicant whose ancestor had crossed paths with, or was related to, an individual of some renown was likely to catch attention as being of interest to the general public). Those applicants who had fascinating stories that would make "good programming" (meaning "good ratings") were also attractive (a story about a relative who just disappeared - what happened to him/her? - was more intriguing than one about a family of farmers).

Sorting through the many applications was not in my job description (and I was OK with that . . . I'd surely want to do them all!), but those who did make the selections were not always familiar with what sorts of things were likely to produce results. Finally we created a few guidelines: if a genealogist sent in a story that had been researched for over five years with no results, it was not likely that we would have success in the short period of time we had. Also, stories of adoption or unknown parents/fathers with no clues about names, dates, and places were most likely out of our realm (though we did have a few successes). We suggested that unprovable stories be avoided, but usually that still required some research to come up with that conclusion, so we did research a great many stories that ended up in limbo. It was frustrating at many times and often we went away from the question or story submitted by the applicant to see if we could come up with something, possibly unrelated, that would give the applicant a new perspective on his/her family.

Shortly after we began the research process, the casting director suggested a process to help us move through the case selection a bit quicker: take four to six hours per story to determine if it was workable. Now, many times we needed much less time to come up with that conclusion while many times we could have used a bit more - but stories were still coming in and requiring analysis (the last stories were literally received in the five days prior to the last filming day). Also, some applicants sent in over a dozen stories (each requiring four to six hours of analysis, unless some were intertwined with others). Decision-making time constraints probably means that some of the stories we might have addressed were not fully revealed and were passed over. I am sorry if that occurred.

From the Research Team to the Production Team

Once stories were researched and reports were written, they were posted on a website designed for use only by those on the different teams - research (us), casting (the first stop for the selection), and production (the ones who added the history, researched and wrote the "scripts," and verified anything that was questionable). The production folks then turned over what was to be addressed (some stories were less likely to be of interest to the audience and/or the applicant) in a written form for the on-air talent (D. Joshua Taylor and Kenyatta Berry) to review, question, and get comfortable with so that they could introduce the applicants to their ancestors. That on-air talent used their own expertise in genealogy (which is extensive) to polish the things that may have been a bit unclear to the production team, but everyone worked together.

From Filming to Editing and Data to the Applicants

I was in communication with all levels, including the person who was responsible for putting the images together for the back stories and the family histories. But many, many more images were gathered than there could possibly be time to show on air. Applicants were sent packets of images and full reports of the research done (including sources) so they could continue the search on their own and/or hire a professional genealogist to proceed where the GR research team left off. And we did leave off . . . it was impossible to carry things as far as we could see they could go (usually, we included "suggestions for further research" in the reports).

Editing required a huge number of people working with sound, visual segues, syncing different takes, etc. None of the on-site filming was done in sound studios so the sound techs had their work cut out for them from balancing sound in an outdoor environment to filming done in old buildings with 30-foot ceilings!

So when you look at the videos of the show, please keep in mind that the different teams needed to put this together were extensive and dedicated. People put in many more hours than for which they were paid. They worked to make a program that would entertain, intrigue, and maybe even educate a general public for whom family history research is not yet a reality.

A reviewer in the New York Times suggested that the show is unnecessary since all the information found by the researchers could be located by anyone who is Internet savvy - it's all right there. I hope that some of the documents shown by Josh and Kenyatta will let people know that this is far from the truth. In future posts, I will detail some of the repositories and resources we used.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Peeking behind the camera and production crews - GENEALOGY ROADSHOW

As I mentioned back in July, I was hired as the lead researcher for the new PBS television, Genealogy Roadshow. As of this date, two episodes have aired with two coming up on the next two Mondays (Oct. 7 & 14). As expected, many comments are being received by genealogists, bloggers, production people, the applicants to the show, and anyone who asks, "What did you think?" In some cases, there is just some venting about the errors noticed; in others, there are those who are trying to answer the complaints and concerns. I have tried to do the latter in various places - on blogs, on Facebook, and in person. But I am getting weary saying the same things. So I think it would be appropriate to try to do some mass responses to the concerns (and also accept any accolades sent my way). I do have to say that the issues that are addressable in any future seasons we might enjoy WILL be forwarded to the production folks, so please DO include questions and comments here . . . but I am a sensitive person so please be thoughtful about your wording and logical about your complaints (yes, it would have been nice if we could have taken the family line of an applicant back to the migration of a slave, but consider that we were asked to answer specific questions and our available work time and resources - no, no funding for a quick trip to Africa, darn - prohibited weeks and weeks of research).

OK, first of all, if you have not read the post below about my personal trek, shared with the amazing research team, please look at that first. From that, let us keep in mind that we were creating a television program (translation: entertainment) and, in spite of its position (on PBS), the educational focus was not intended to be more than a basic "these things can be found," not a step-by-step DIY. I know that a lot of genealogists wanted to know the "how was that done?" but that would be likely to bore the non-researchers in the audience (i.e., the bulk of the viewers) and cause the show to drop in the ratings. So a major issue was making it flashy, enticing, mysterious, exciting, and emotional. While those of us who would be thrilled with details on each step of the research may not be as enthralled by the moving graphics and views of onlookers' faces as the "average viewer," we have to ask, "what will encourage people to look into their own lineage?" A minority will say "show me dusty archives and hours of microfilms," it is the majority of the viewers that the show has to play to in order to (1) be sold in the first place and (2) be renewed for another season.

So, if the show doesn't change at all - that is, we continue with flashy images and focus on surprise findings, omitting the step-by-step I promise you occurred - would you prefer us to just forget it? Or should it be renewed and continued in an effort to reach those who have not even considered searching for their ancestors? And, hopefully, eliminate the faulty ideas "out there" (straight black hair does not mean Native American Ancestry, a surname shared with a famous statesman does not mean a relationship, a love of music/art/science does not mean that an ancestor was a renown musician/artist/scientist, etc.).

My hopes for the future season are, first, for their to BE a second season, and, second, for us to have a website that people can access for the step-by-step reports that we did prepare for the applicants. This would require permission from those applicants, at least for the names of any living individuals. But that is what I am pitching to the powers that be. Wish me luck. Meanwhile, in the next few weeks I hope to give some "behind the scenes" research info for the stories I did (and maybe my teammates will give theirs), but they have to be carefully handled as we are under a confidentiality agreement.

The Oct. 7 episode is the last one filmed (in San Francisco) and I will be on it (I understand), though only for a moment or two. And the Oct. 14 episode is the first one filmed (in Austin) . . . look closely and you may see a young man with a familiar surname.

OK, roll in those comments . . . let's work together to give the powers that be some great (and workable) ideas for the next season. And don't forget to email your PBS stations so that there will BE a next season.