Meet Our 2009 Difference Makers

Meet Our 2009 Difference Makers

Readers nominated these genealogy volunteers as our 2009 Difference Makers.

We began our Difference Maker series to celebrate genealogy’s unsung heroes—volunteers who’ve preserved historical records or eased access to them, helped others who otherwise wouldn’t be able to learn about their family history, or raised the profile of genealogy research.

Family Tree Magazine readers nominated genealogy volunteers throughout the year. We profiled one person in each 2009 issue of the magazine. 

Voting closed midnight EDT Sept. 16, 2009. We’ll announce the winner in the December 2009 Family Tree Magazine and on our Genealogy Insider blog in mid-October. Scroll down or click the names below to “meet” the candidates.

Ellen Thompson, Cohutta, Ga.

Pet Project: Sharing school history through photographs

Occupation: Principal, Whitfield School District

I received a dozen photos of old schools and decided to run them in the local newspaper for identification, then frame them for our offices. The first photo ran in 1986. Folks are still sharing school photos 22 years later. They run Wednesdays in the Daily Citizen. Sometimes class reunions bring them out of the woodwork. Recently, I’ve sought out photos of schools for which there are few pictures.

The photos document a way of life that no longer exists, yet I find similarities in today’s schooling. The encouragement of the community is the prime mover. I may have begun the project, but people sharing their pictures sustains it. Communities love their schools!

When the photo is published, I add what I know and ask readers for help. Sometimes I receive photos with every name; some come with no ID. Most are somewhere between.

This project is a joy. I’ve met so many people. Some start the conversation with “I knew your mother or grandmother.” I’ve had many calls from people wanting copies of photos of family members, because the family doesn’t have a picture—this is especially true for Depression-era photos when folks had little money. The two that broke my heart were requests for photos of children who’d died.

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Robin Dickson, Simcoe, Ontario, Canada

Pet project: Indexes records and helps patrons at the Norfolk Heritage Center’s Eva Brook Donly Museum

I’ve been doing genealogy since around 1992. My aunt Ilene had done a family tree for my dad’s side, and I realized I knew nothing about my mom’s side. When I was starting, it took so much time to find one little morsel of information. I spent hours looking through microfilms of newspapers, vital statistics, censuses and land abstracts.
My husband will tell you I do more indexing than dusting! I do most of my volunteering at home. I transcribed the 1851 census for the Norfolk Historical Society. I haven’t done this alone—my partner in indexing is a great help. I’m working on the 1861 census for Norfolk County, Ontario. I’ve also had the privilege of indexing births, marriages and deaths back to 1869. I’ll be compiling 2008 obituaries from local papers as well. I have multiple sclerosis and am unable to work, so being able to index at home at my own pace is what keeps me going.

I hope my work will make it easier for those looking for their ancestors. Just knowing that it has helped one person find that long-lost granny is what keeps me going back. When I began researching my families, I received so much help from the volunteers at the Norfolk Heritage Center that I had to give back. I’ve met many wonderful people, whether it’s other volunteers or people coming to research.

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John Jackson, Chanute, Kan.

Pet project: created a virtual cemetery of Civil War veterans buried in Kansas and Missouri

Occupation: retired from the Army after 21 years; was trained as a linguist in Czech, Slovak and Arabic

Goal: to photograph every Civil War veteran’s grave in Kansas by 2011, the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War

I was researching my wife’s family history while on leave from the Army in 2000, and received photos via e-mail of a cemetery in Iowa. It happened that one of the tombstone photos was her Civil War ancestor. I started photographing tombstones in early 2004 locally, then went farther out, and have gone even farther out since. I’ve visited approximately 205 cemeteries. During spring and summer, I spend at least eight to 16 hours a week on this project, but in the winter and during bad weather, I spend less.

[Posting photos on] Flickr was less complicated than other means. I initially started with the Kansas GenWeb Civil War page, but it didn’t have enough room. I have more than 800 obituaries and biographies posted on the Kansas GenWeb page, and with the work on Flickr, I have more than 1,000 posted so far.

I’m interested in the Civil War because of the complicated nature of the war—brother was fighting brother, and different cultures within the United States were fighting. I’ve discovered incredible histories, like that of John M. Dunsmore, who was a self-made man. I also value the feedback I get from descendants of these great men. Hundreds of people have contacted me so far.

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Gail Reynolds, Myrtle Beach, SC

Pet projects: Helped start and serves as treasurer of the Grand Strand Genealogy Club, teaches at libraries in the Horry County Library system and at seniors’ groups, and assembles research materials for Chapin Memorial Library in Myrtle Beach, SC

Occupation: Retired from teaching special education in 1998

I have a passion for family history and it really translates. I enjoy developing the same passion in others, and then we just feed off each other. We have people from all over in our classes and they all need different knowledge and records, so I really try to individualize it for them. I don’t do the research for them, but I get them started, help them find resources and set them on a path.

I’d hear family stories when I was growing up. My mother gathered history on her mother’s family, but she didn’t know her father’s birth name. He went to live with another family when he was 10, and they didn’t “adopt” in those days. He changed his name to theirs. The day we found his name … that’s the feeling I want people to have.

A friend found a Victorian photo album more than 25 years ago and gave it to me for my photo-identification class. I decided to try to find its family. I spent hours researching, starting with just two pictures of a boy and girl named Edgar and Hannah Littmann. I found five generations of family members and was able to identify many people in the album. We traveled to St. Louis to return it to a great-grandson of the original owner, Max Littmann. For me, that’s what’s most rewarding about helping “lost” items find their rightful owners.

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Susan Steele, Boston

Pet Project: Preserving Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters records

Occupation: Retired from teaching grade school

In 1992, I signed up for an archaeological dig in Ireland. I knew my mother’s roots were there and decided to do a bit of “digging” for them as well. A clue in a letter led to my Reardon roots in County Cork. That early success gave me determination to find my other great-grandparents.

I joined The Irish Ancestral Research Association (TIARA) in 1994. In 2003, I joined the effort to preserve 80,000 Massachusetts Catholic Order of Foresters insurance policies dating to 1879. I took over the project from earlier TIARA officers Judy Barrett and Janis Duffy in 2005. Carole Sullivan and Marge McDonnell helped plan “packing days” to move records out of the Foresters’ basement [after the group] made plans to move to smaller quarters. With help from more than 30 volunteers, we moved more than 350 boxes. Later, Carlyn Cox joined our steering committee.

Plans included a legal review and gathering information on microfilming or digitization. The Genealogical Society of Utah [part of FamilySearch] would digitize 16,000 policies of Foresters who died between 1880 and 1930. An indexing program began. We also set up a pilot program for TIARA members to request research. Volunteers help with the day-to-day workings.

I saw my first Foresters insurance policies in 2003 and I was hooked. Each application contains information about the prospective Foresters member. Medical exams include height, weight and previous illnesses. The death benefit dispersal contains cause of death and beneficiaries’ names. Often, correspondence is included. Not only is a personal story revealed in every policy, but there are collective stories of immigration, families, labor and disease.

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Bennie W. White, Quitman, Miss.

Pet projects: Maintains White’s Store free genealogy site, started and has moderated several online genealogy groups

Occupation: Retired after 35 years with the federal government

I’ve always been a history buff, and in 1976, I became interested in researching my family. Probably in the early 1980s, I began to transcribe Clarke County, Miss., censuses. Some of my early transcriptions were on a typewriter; after I purchased my first computer (a Tandy 1000), I began to use it. I’d have to say 1996 was the major turning point—it was that year I went on the Internet. I established a number of Web sites dedicated to family surnames, such as The White Family Trails, The Mitcham Folks and The Rasberry Bush. I also founded several Yahoo genealogy groups. I now maintain two, one for Burt researchers and the other for news about my Web site.

I established White’s Store in 2005. From the mid-1940s until the mid-1950s, my parents owned a country store, C.L. White Grocery, so I decided to name my site after it. I included indexes to some key records genealogists can benefit from: marriages, censuses, obituaries, death certificates, Confederate States of America pension applications, cemetery inscriptions and probate records. I compiled and published four books on Clarke County cemeteries, and a marriage index, which are now free on the site.

I get a good feeling inside when I can provide some new research leads for others. It’s rewarding to see the favorable comments visitors have posted in my guest book.

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