Journey of a Genealogist #4: Aunt Katie has the list



By Barry J. Ewell

Episode 4, entitled It’s Time to Start Your Genealogy Research of the Series Journey of Genealogist where Barry J. Ewell shares a few of his personal experiences as a genealogists.

Following the passing of my step-father, Mel Wagner, I desired to learn more about his family and linage.  It took six months to locate a daughter from a previous marriage. She shared with me that she had hear that an “Aunt Katie” somewhere in Kansas had record of the family but she wasn’t sure how to locate her.

With another three months of searching, I was finally able to locate her and set up a telephone interview. In the telephone interview,  Aunt Katie, shared with me that she was living in a nursing home, she was in her late 80’s and the last living survivor of her generation,  and that her son had the record she had crated about the family. I made contact with the son and other family members to discuss the records and see if could get copies which were promised several times in a nine month period but never sent.  After my last call with one of the Wagner family members, I felt the need to travel to Kansas and see if I could secure the records.  At this point, I didn’t even know what the records were, what they contained, or even their actual value as a genealogy record.  It was a most unusual feeling, similar to when I have left home and know that I forgot something and needed to go back.  I knew from experience that when those feelings come, I needed to act now and make arrangements to visit Kansas within that very month.

Of all the Mel’s family members I had spoken with, his cousin Dwight had been the only one who had been willing to help me learn more about the family.  I made travel arrangements and flew into Wichita, Kansas, followed by a three hour drive to Rush County to meet with Dwight at 10#1:00 a.m that Saturday morning.  Upon arrival, I was greeted by Mary, Dwight’s wife who told me that her husband had an emergency and needed to help their son fix his car.

For the next five hours, Mary shared with me some of the family history work, ate fresh bake cookies and watched TV.  I began to wonder whether I had done the right thing by coming to Kansas.  About 4#1:00 p.m., Dwight came home and offered to show me the family homestead in Otis, Kansas, population just under 400 persons, settled by Germans from Russia in the late 1800’s.

When we arrived in Otis, we went to the cemetery.  It was a very simple cemetery surrounded by wheat fields that seemed to roll on for miles.  Overhead you could see hundreds of geese honking as they made their way to their winter homes.  We got out of the car and began to find family members.  Dwight shared with me a story that happened to him in the early 1980’s when he was feeling very depressed and lonely.  He sought professional counseling at which time he was given direction to resolve feelings of loss that were not resolved since he was a boy.  The suggestion he received was to go to the grave site of his grandfather and father and speak out his heart.   Just as he reached that point, there was break in his voice and tear from his eye.  They I felt a warm presence as if we had others in our presence that we could not see.    I looked at Dwight and asked, “What are you feeling right now?”  His response was “My family, they are here with us.”  The family was there.  The purpose of why I came was very clear, I knew I had done the right by coming to Kansas.  I knew that I would leave with the record.

Upon leaving the Otis Lutheran Cemetery, Dwitght took me to tour the fields the family had farmed for 150 years followed scheduled first time meeting with Aunt Katie and her son at a restaurant in a neighboring town.  Upon greeting Aunt Katie, I received the warmest hug as if I were her own flesh and blood.  Her son, cordial at best, wasn’t much warmer than a Kansas blizzard.  During dinner, Aunt Katie, talked about Mel, her family, and roots of generations past.  Several times during the dinner, the son suggest that it was getting late and he needed to return Aunt Katie to her home.

My chance to see the record was slipping away.  There wasn’t going to be a right time to ask, I reached out gently held Aunt Katie’s hand and said, “It’s been wonderful to meet you and learn about the family.  Would you be willing to show me the record about the family you have prepared?”  Just as I finished, Aunt Katie’s son started to speak up at which point, she replied, “Yes, it’s at my son’s home.  Let’s go there now.”  Her son just gave me a look that let me know he wasn’t happy.

At the home I was allowed to view the record I had heard about. It was a simple spiral bound   notebook that a student would use in school.  It was a hand written record of each family and family members. It contained names, birth dates, death dates, and notes about family members.  It was a labor of love.  Katie told me that she had spent many hours searching out grave stones and making calls to put the record together.  In addition, Aunt Katie showed me five scrapbooks she had kept about her family during her life.

I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of what was before me.  A family record that might all be thrown away at her death.  It was in my hands.  I then looked Aunt Katie in the eye and asked if I could be permitted to copy the record before I return home.   She responded by asking “Why do you want the record? You are not member of our family.”

I thought for moment, then responded, “Aunt Katie, Mel is a kind and gentle man.  He is the type of father I wish I had growing up. He played an important role in the life of my mother and made a difference in my life.”

She smiled and said, “Welcome to the family. We are glad you came.  We are glad that we got to know you. You can copy the record.”   Her son spoke up immediately and said, “No, you are not getting the record.”

Aunt Katie, spoke to her son directly and firmly, “Yes he is going to get the record.  And if you want to stay in my will, you will let him have the record.”  Her son looked at me and said with a curtness, “There is a Safeway around the corner. They have a copier.  Let’s go now.”

It was 9#1:30 p.m. The store closed at 10#1:00 p.m.  The copier was out of toner and it only took dimes.  During my coping, the made it clear, that this was the only chance I would  have to record the record because the very next day he was going to have power of attorney with his mom and would not allow any further information to be given. At 10#1:02, 150 pages later, the coping of complete.  The record contained 500 names and has been the foundation for linking Mel’s family back 9 generations to Russia and Germany.

Lesson’s learned.

  •  Field research is required.
  •  If one member of the family won’t help, find family who will.
  •  When prompted to search or act on a family line, do it.