Rainy Day Reads

So much good stuff to read this weekend — but the weather was near-perfect around here, and I couldn’t keep my mind on my text. So I waited to post these until today, which is gray and drizzly, ideal reading weather.

• A 97-year-old Holocaust survivor leaves a multimillion-dollar estate, but no will and no heirs, reports The New York Times in an especially poignant story. Hiring a genealogist is among many tasks facing a public administrator in sorting out the largest unclaimed estate in New York history. (NYT)

• Also from the Times, a look at New York City’s archivists, who occasionally (gasp!) emerge from their lairs to compare notes at the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York. Reporter Alison Leigh Cowan notes that archivists are not to be confused with librarians, or record managers, or conservationsists. Got that? (NYT)

• A dispatch from South Jersey’s shores of the Delaware Bay, where rising seas are making an inexorably stronger impact: “I refuse to give up one house, one lot, one piece of land. These towns are 200 years old. It’s a special place. We’ve got to preserve it.” (Philly.com)

• Finally, a bit about the Bevington Object. Said object is a teensy dot in a wallet-sized photo of Gardner Island in the South Pacific. Analysts think it’s a piece of the landing gear from the Lockheed Electra flown by Amelia Earhart on her final, doomed journey. Why and how this fits in to the current state of Earhart theory makes for some very neat reading. This article is a couple of months old, I freely admit. But it is photo-nerd (and evidence-nerd) nirvana! Don’t make me cry for neglecting it before now.  (TIGHAR.org; h/t Actuarial Opinions)


Well, Now I KNOW It’s Monday …

… When this happens:

1. Pour the cup of fresh coffee, shake the cobwebs out, start searching the 1915 New York Census for 142 West 126th St., Manhattan.

2. Use Stephen Morse’s invaluable One-Step Tool for finding New York Assembly Districts/Election Districts for 1890-1925.

3. Locate the relevant set of images at Ancestry.com. Excellent.

4. ?

5. ????

6. Page through the image set carefully, page by page, beginning to end, checking which image numbers correspond to which actual census sheet numbers (penned).

7. Realize that Image No. 3 contains Sheets 4 and 5, and Image No. 4 contains Sheets 8 and 9.

GUESS WHAT IS ON SHEETS 6 AND 7?

No, really, guess.

Now, the New York State Library in Albany says it has original manuscripts of the 1915 and 1925 censuses, so the missing pages would appear to exist in some form somewhere, which is something. And missing census pages do happen in microfilm sets. See this amusing post from Ancestry Insider about missing federal census pages. Well, at least I hope you find it amusing. I personally plan to amuse myself by banging my head into the nearest wall.


Career Day Report

So today I was talking to elementary-school students about being a genealogist. Not being 100 percent sure where everyone’s genealogy awareness level was, I started by handing out a simple three-generation chart and asking them to fill in the blanks — for them, their parents, and each set of grandparents.

I was proud of my awesome planning skills. What could be simpler than an itty-bitty family tree? What could be a better ice-breaker? But very quickly, brows furrowed and hands waved frantically.

“I can’t fill in a lot of the blanks, does it still count?”

“What if you don’t know who your dad’s mom was?”

“What if you only ever call them Nana and Papa?”

“What if they’re dead?”

Just like that, my little icebreaker turned into a surprisingly efficient way to explain a few home truths about genealogy:

• A family tree is the story of a family — both the living members and the ones who went before them. And people can land on the branches of the tree in lots of different ways.

• The only way to start is by writing down what you know, however much or little it is.

• We all have lots of blanks to fill in. That’s why we do this.

Career Day ended up being a lot of fun. There were some things about my presentation that went really well, others that I’d definitely tweak depending upon the age group. I talked to children in grades three and five, and it was remarkable to see the difference that two years made in terms of attention span and ability to focus on a group discussion. After the family tree, I gave a brief talk about what genealogy is, jobs genealogists can do and ways you can study to be one. (This part got shortened considerably for the younger group.)

To wrap things up, I did a simple photo-analysis activity — I passed out some printouts of vintage photos and asked the kids to pick out one detail that they thought would help someone to figure out when the picture might have been taken. I made sure to pick photos with some nice background detail — classic cars, people in distinctive uniforms, things like that. This was very popular. A couple of the kids were fired up to try out their newfound investigative skills at home.

All in all, a nice experience. Talking about something you know very well to an audience who doesn’t can really freshen up your perspective.


An Unimportant Story

Long before I landed a job at the newspaper that was his home base, I just loved Roger Ebert. Toiling away on a series of night news desks, I sneaked peeks at his film reviews on the entertainment wire when I was supposed to be writing headlines for zoning-board stories. I delighted in his genial snark-and-snipe routine as half of the Siskel and Ebert TV team.

He was the best. So I devoutly hoped I’d never get to work with him when I arrived at the Sun-Times as a lowly copy editor.

By that point in my professional life, I knew that beloved, award-winning newsroom personalities weren’t always so lovable to be around. “If you can read this, you’ve come too close,” Dorothy Parker supposedly suggested for her tombstone. I thought of this quote often as I moved from newspaper to newspaper, heard the stories, and landed on the receiving end once or twice.

The hissy fits over unavoidable deadline or space constraints. The marquee-value columnists who used their high-profile pulpits to poke fun at lesser colleagues. (And, ugh: “How’d you like to sleep with a Pulitzer winner, honey?”  a colleague was asked a few weeks into her first job. She declined, probably more politely than was deserved.)

At the Sun-Times I worked on a variety of feature-section stories. Then I became an assistant editor on the Friday entertainment section, which ran movie reviews. But I was still safe from illusion-busting in the Ebert department, because his reviews were very much my boss’ territory. Ebert worked off-site and was actually in the office only occasionally. By that time he was as much of a media brand presence as he was a critic, and he was still, of course, a fine critic. His reviews came in by remote and were edited by my boss over the telephone, in conversations to which I listened with half an ear. They seemed cordial; fun, even. Still: better my boss than me. Ebert was a newsroom legend at the Sun-Times and his niceness was equally legendary, but I distrusted the stories. It was easy to wax eloquent about niceness if you only saw the guy every few weeks, I reasoned.

But a day came when my boss could not be there to handle the Friday-section movie reviews – he had the plague? Something dire, I’m sure.

“Just give him the lengths,” said the boss over the phone, from his bed of pain, or whatever it was. “Relax. It’ll be fine.”

It would not be fine, I knew as I looked over the space allotted for that week. There was not a lot of wiggle room. Of course Roger Ebert’s reviews were top priority, but a lot of movies were opening that particular Friday, and we were skimpy on jump space – the pages where you put the “Continued from …” parts of the reviews. The Friday section was never really the place where the movie reviews could run on and on, and this week was tight.

It was time to call Mr. Ebert and tell him this. Surely he would not be happy. Stars never liked being told their space was short. I was about to learn the real deal about the guy who had made me and my mom laugh hysterically over “At the Movies.”

I telephoned. I explained who I was and called him Mr. Ebert, and he told me it wasn’t necessary to call him Mr. Ebert. I recall ignoring this. Nervously I hemmed and hawed over the skimpy space, trying to be frank, yet inoffensive.

He cut efficiently into my waffling. “Liz. Listen.”

Here it comes.

“Just tell me the lengths,” Mr. Ebert said, very kindly, very patiently. “I will write to the lengths.”

“But …”

“Just tell me. I’ll write to it.”

The reviews came in, comfortably ahead of deadline, fitting the space to the syllable, and as fun to read as ever.

“But he’s always like that,” said a co-worker, witnessing my slack-jawed reaction. “I thought you knew that.”

I had heard so, many times. But I hadn’t really known.

That’s my only Ebert story, and it is not a particularly remarkable one. But I have come to believe that the truth of a person’s spirit is evidenced by how they treat those who are not in a position to do them any particular favors. By that measure, Mr. Ebert’s spirit was right up there. I will miss reading his reviews very, very much. And I am sad the world no longer has him in it.


NewsClips: Things Were Different Then.

From the Albany Evening Journal, Watervliet news section, Saturday, May 3, 1902:

A meeting will be held this evening by the old members of the Oswald Hose Company. The meeting will be held for the purpose of placing in the company’s quarters the head of “Nell,” who was the first horse ever owned by the company. “Nell” for over twenty years hauled apparatus to fires and became greatly attached to every member of the company, and it was with the greatest sorrow when she was obliged to quit the service.

The members fearing that she would be sold by the commissioner, raised a sufficient sum for her purchase, and placed her upon a farm in Colonie about three years ago. She then became sick, and it was thought best to end her suffering by chloroform, which was done.

The members decided to have the head mounted in a suitable manner, and the members will meet this evening, when the head will be dedicated, after which a spread will be enjoyed.

Some observations:

1. The Oswald Hose Company was, of course, in Watervliet. I was looking at volunteer fire companies in West Troy/Watervliet because my great-grandfather Joseph Haigney served in Watervliet’s Gleason Hook and Ladder company.

2. I’m continually struck by how 19th-century ancestors could be so much more sentimental and, at the same time, so much less squeamish than we are today.

3. First the head, then the spread. I prefer a simple tailgate, myself.


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