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Roots of the Family Tree: Genealogy research has delivered eye-opening – even life-changing – results for some Centre County family detectives

by on December 31, 2019 11:46 AM

Genealogy research feels a lot like detective work.

For years, I’d been puzzled why my mom’s family doesn’t appear in the 1930 Census. My maternal grandmother, Suzanne Williams, was the middle child of Frank and Mary Williams, whose families were turn-of-the-century immigrants to the United States from what is now Lebanon. They’d settled in Uniontown, a small town south of Pittsburgh that grew up around the coal and steel industry in the early 1900s. 

The 1930 Census would’ve documented them for the first time under one roof, as the Williamses married in 1922 and had three children, including my grandmother, during the 1920s.

I had theories to explain their absence: Perhaps they weren’t home when the Census-taker came by, or they lived in another town. I even eyeballed the sheets of the 1930 Census in Uniontown, line by line, looking for their names without any luck.

In 2014, I found a lead. A man named Frank Williams Deeb from Uniontown was on a list of passengers returning on a ship from Beirut, Lebanon, in November 1930. It seemed promising – the surname Deeb shows up in our tree, so perhaps Frank used it for some reason lost to time. As a kid, I heard stories that he returned to Lebanon, with his Buick, wowing the people in the small town where he was born. 

I also found a record that clinched it – newspaper reports announcing his return from a five-month trip to visit extended family at that time.

So maybe Frank left for the trip before the Census came. That does not explain why his wife and three children weren’t counted, though. My mom said her mother never went to Lebanon, so that ruled out a family trip.

At some point after that, I went back to the ship record. It contained a passport number for Frank, and I learned I could request his passport application through the federal open-records law. This, I thought, could provide answers.

It took months to get a response. When I did, I got more than I was expecting. It turns out I wasn’t the only one doing detective work on Frank Williams.

Included with copies of Frank’s passport application were telegrams from the local county detective who was investigating his leaving town under suspicious circumstances. His wife, Mary, was worried he left with a married woman who worked at his confectionery shop. He took the car, which was registered in her name (itself an interesting revelation for 1930), and she thought the two were setting sail for Lebanon.

The document I wanted, the passport application, revealed some irking details, too. Frank filled it out saying he wasn’t married and had no children. I wondered if he used that other surname as a cover.

The newspaper clippings extolled my great-grandfather as a world traveler. But in reality, it seemed as though my great-grandmother, Mary, saw her husband abandon her and three young children for five months. (It’s small consolation that it appears the mistress did not make the trip.)

Life didn’t improve for my great-grandmother. Her husband was convicted of bootlegging during Prohibition twice and eventually was banished temporarily from Uniontown as punishment. Compounding his troubles, he lost thousands of dollars when the city of Uniontown took his business property through eminent domain, turning it into a park.

Mary died of pneumonia in 1935 at only 28. Frank married his mistress soon after, though I can’t track down the marriage record. When Frank died in 1944, I wonder what was said during his eulogy.

No matter the cringe-worthy details and facts I’ve found, this person is my family. If he never married my great-grandmother, I wouldn’t be here. So I’ve come to embrace this and look for the stories that bring my family history to life.

I’m so inspired that I want to share three others I learned about. Again, the theme of “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for ...” holds true.

 

A stunning revelation

Joan Potter grew up in State College, the oldest of three children. Her dad was on the animal science faculty at Penn State, and she loved her parents dearly. But her genealogy research led her to a startling discovery that upended everything she knew about her family.

Potter discovered she was not her father’s biological daughter. 

Her quest for answers led her to discovering her birth father’s identify and four half-brothers to add to her family. Perhaps even more important, she made peace with her new identity while appreciating everything that her father – the one who raised her – did for her and her mother.

“I had admired him and loved him dearly his whole life, and even more so now,” says Potter, who is 63. “I had lost my identity – I’d look in the mirror and wonder, ‘Who are you? Whose face is this looking back at me in the mirror?’ It took a while, but I was finally able to say to myself that I am who I am and this information doesn’t change that.”

It all started in late 2017, when Potter, her husband, and daughter took an Ancestry DNA test to build out their family tree. Her husband’s results proved more interesting, and they didn’t pay much attention to hers. But she noticed connections on her mom’s side and none on her dad’s. Potter assumed no one on her dad’s side had taken a test, so she put it aside, chasing leads about her husband.

It wasn’t until months later that questions about her family came back.

Potter was on the Ancestry website when she noticed a hint about a distant female cousin. She didn’t recognize this person’s name, but her face bore a striking resemblance to hers. Potter wondered how they were related and didn’t brush it aside.

Potter messaged cousins from her dad’s side. A few didn’t want to take a DNA test, and another had done a test through 23andMe. By coincidence, Potter’s daughter recently had done a test through 23andMe and was waiting for the results.

The mystery deepened when Potter and her daughter got them – she was not related to that cousin.

Potter thought it was the cousin who wasn’t a biological relative. She messaged her, delicately suggesting they’re not related.

The response Potter got was stunning:

“It’s a sticky subject to approach,” the cousin wrote. “The rumor that I heard is that your mother was pregnant with you, and the father disappeared, as they are [wont] to do. Your dad connected with your mom shortly after, fell in love, and he wanted a baby and gave you his last name. Your mom and dad loved you so much. I heard that you weren’t his daughter by blood long ago. I should have told you this last week when you asked me about the 23andMe DNA test, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

And just like that, Potter’s world was changed, and she felt heartbroken. If the dad she knew wasn’t her birth dad, then who was? And why didn’t anyone tell her?

Potter says it took a week after the bombshell to work up the nerve to start searching for answers. There weren’t many people she could ask. Her mom died in 2001, her dad five years later.

It turns out her aunt, her mom’s only living sister, provided more confirmation but thought Potter knew all along, too.

The aunt filled in details about how Potter’s parents met. They worked in an Army hospital in San Antonio, Texas, in the mid-1950s. Her mom, a nurse, was a lieutenant, and her father, a private, was a medical tech. Her father had a crush on her mother, the aunt told Potter, but they couldn’t date because of her higher rank.

Potter’s mom found out she was pregnant in February 1956, and her father must’ve been nearby. He offered to marry her, and the two eloped to Mexico.

“I remember my mom saying once that her children were all born a couple weeks early, and in my wildest dreams, the real reason behind my early birth had never ever crossed my mind,” Potter says. “I feel a profound gratitude for my dad who saved my mom from being an unwed mother and for accepting me unconditionally to raise as his own.”

Potter’s aunt didn’t have details about her biological father. The only clue was he was stationed in San Antonio at that time.

After the shock wore off, she took the 23andMe DNA test, hoping to find connections her Ancestry DNA test did not have. It turned up a promising lead, a male cousin named Patrick who appeared to be a first cousin of whoever her biological father was, based on the amount of DNA they had in common.

Potter contacted him, and he was extremely helpful. He shared his family tree, providing new routes to explore. Potter and her daughter narrowed down his cousins to two men who were in Texas in the mid-1950s. One was now 94 and the other was deceased.

She went with the 94-year-old first. She identified one of his sons and found an email address for him. She says it was disheartening to never get a reply. 

This next part gave Potter the biggest break in her search and quite possibly the biggest reward.

She found the condolences online for the other man she believed could be her birth father. One of the comments, posted two years after the man’s death in 2006, was from someone named Stephen saying he was the first son of this man – someone who wasn’t mentioned in the obituary. 

Potter found Stephen on Facebook, messaged him that they might be related, and that same night, they were talking on the phone.

“He was as stunned as I was,” Potter says, noting he was receptive and helpful. “I was relieved he felt that way, because when I had decided to search for my bio-father, I had fears that if I found him or his family, they would reject me.”

Stephen confirmed his dad was stationed in the Army in Texas in the 1950s, and by chance, he had taken an Ancestry DNA test recently. A week later, the results were in: Potter and Stephen were, in fact, half-siblings.

Potter went on to learn more: She has three half-brothers from her biological father’s second marriage. (Stephen was the only child from the first marriage.) Her biological father was a career Army serviceman and was stationed in Texas in January 1956, recently having divorced from Stephen’s mother. He left in February 1956 to attend flight school in Alabama, where he married his second wife.

Her birth father completed two tours in Vietnam and was one of the first pilots to disperse Agent Orange. The half-brothers from the second marriage told Potter he died from exposure to the chemical in 2006.

In the time since the discoveries, Potter has become very close with half-brother Stephen, who lives in Oregon, and has met him in person. She’s joined an online support group for people who have found family secrets like this. 

And she’d love to talk about it with someone locally who’s gone through the same thing, she says.

Potter acknowledges she will never know if her biological father knew about her or knew her mom was pregnant before he left Texas. She’ll also never know why her parents didn’t tell her, though she says she understands they kept it a secret so it didn’t upset her and change their relationship.

Potter says she’s learned to accept this. After all, while she wouldn’t be here without her birth father, the dad who raised her helped make her who she is today.

“Every time I raise a glass of wine now, I silently toast my dad for being mom’s knight in shining armor, and I thank him for giving me his name even though he didn’t give me his DNA,” Potter says. “I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Discovering ‘a part of us that was missing’

Lenny Pollack’s genealogical journey took him to Ukraine in 2018, where he visited his grandmother’s ancestral village. He’d hired a researcher in the country to collect information about her family, make contact with them, and lay the groundwork for the visit.

When he entered the village of Oporetz that summer day, it was just as his grandmother’s stories described.

There were wooden one- and two-room cabins where people lived, with outhouses and water pumps. The town had dirt roads, and farm animals shared the same path as humans. A man hauled a flatbed cart, most likely going to get hay for their farm.

“We get to this village, and it was clear that this village had been lost in time,” Pollack says. “What struck me immediately was my grandmother’s description of the village was still accurate. Nothing had changed.”

The visit was the culmination of the research about his family that emigrated to the United States in the 1920s to escape the poverty after the Soviet Union took control of the country.

Pollack, a retired professor in the Penn State Smeal College of Business, grew up in Duquesne, a steel-mill town outside Pittsburgh. It was a hub for Eastern European immigrants, like his family, who had come to work in the steel mills.

The immigrant communities were insular, with social clubs and churches for each ethnic group. Pollack’s mom was Carpathian Rusyn, whose descendants came from Ukraine and areas around the Carpathian Mountains. His dad was Slovak.

But what was missing, he realized as an adult, was the sense of place from which his family came.

“We grew up in an Eastern European-American community but never had anything concrete to relate to any of those stories that my grandmother had shared with us,” he says. “It was an opportunity to discover a part of us that was missing.”

His grandmother spoke only Ukrainian and lived with Pollack’s family until he was in junior high school.

“I grew up in a very ethnic household,” Pollack says. “She told many stories about the old country, about events and holiday celebrations and what life was like. And all of our holiday meals and rituals were grounded in these Ukrainian traditions.”

Pollack knew few details about his Ukrainian family. His grandfather came to the United States in 1913, with the hope of getting a job and bringing his wife over. But World War I broke out, and she couldn’t come until 1921.

A Ukrainian researcher his uncle hired a decade ago found his grandparents’ birth and marriage records there. He also knew his grandmother was the oldest of 14 children, whose names he had to aid in the research.

The researcher Pollack hired is a retired faculty member at a technical university in the city of Lviv. The job was divided between two periods, before 1912, when records were kept in churches, and after, when records were kept by a civil bureaucracy. 

In the first report, the researcher identified his grandmother’s siblings and found information about his great-grandparents and their family.

In the second report, the researcher found living descendants from both sides of his grandmother's family – the Karpinskis and Howdyczes. Some of them were still living in that same village.

So when Pollack, his three sons, and his wife visited the village, it was like a family homecoming. The Americans met six members of the Karpinski clan and four members of the Howdycz family.

He says he was treated like family they always knew. Each family prepared a feast, with foods like smoked ham, borscht, stuffed cabbage, deviled eggs, and dessert cheese – the ethnic food he remembered from his childhood. (He admits the meals were peppered with shots of homemade vodka, too.)

“Immediately, there was a strong feeling of kinship that strengthened throughout the visit,” he says.

They shared stories. They looked at photos.

Pollack brought copies of a photobook he made for the trip. His grandmother had received the photos from her family here, and when she died, Pollack’s brother had them restored.

Pollack gave each relative a copy of the book, but no one in the United States knew who these people were, he says.

Now they can put names with faces.

One photo pictured a daughter-in-law of Pollack’s grandmother and her son on her lap.

“That’s me,” said the daughter-in-law, who was 82 when Pollack visited.

Her son said the same thing.

Lasting images

There’s a castle in the town of Peel on the Isle of Man, a small island in the Irish Sea between Ireland and Great Britain. Originally a place of worship, the Vikings fortified it in the 11th century. It sits on the east side of the isle, facing Ireland, which is visible on a clear day.

Now in ruins, it’s a tourist attraction.

It’s a place that State College resident Veronica Terrill imagines was a fixture in the daily lives of her ancestors a century ago.

Terrill saw the Peel Castle on a three-day trip to the Isle of Man in June 2016 to pay homage to the place that her ancestors left, seeking better opportunities in the United States. The Isle of Man is about 220 square miles; Centre County is five times that size.

“It was almost like I was doing something to bridge the families through the generations,” she says. “It was very meaningful that I had the ability to go back over there and actually explore where my ancestors lived.”

Terrill has been researching her family’s history on and off for 25 years. She does not have an Ancestry account, but rather a family ledger passed down from an aunt that contains myriad names, dates, and other pertinent family details.

She didn’t realize just how young her paternal grandmother, Blanche, was when she left.

“Part of the detective work is seeing dates that people did things,” Terrill says. “I realized my grandmother was a year old when her mother brought her to the U.S., and they never went back to the Isle of Man.”

Terrill’s great-grandfather left first, looking for mining jobs in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and then sent for her great-grandmother and grandmother, who followed in 1905. Her great-grandmother, Martha, never saw again the family she left behind, and as a 1-year-old, Terrill’s grandmother had no recollection of her place of birth.

The trip was symbolic and sentimental. Terrill was the first in her dad’s family to visit the island, so seeing and experiencing what they saw was special. It hit her from the beginning of the trip.

“I developed this need to want to see this place,” Terrill says. “The plane lands, and I get out, and I paused at the bottom of the stairs consciously knowing I was stepping on that soil, where it goes back to Viking times.”

Terrill tacked on the excursion to the Isle of Man as part of a trip to Ireland. She knew family names and stories from her great-grandmother and her father. She also knew about a cousin from her dad’s generation who was still living there.

While the sight of the castle was “breathtakingly beautiful,” Terrill says, it was discovering her grandmother’s house that was one of the highlights of the trip.

When Terrill met with her cousin, the cousin asked if she’d seen the house.

Terrill said no. It turns out she had passed it several times walking up and down Douglas Street in Peel. 

The house is lavender, across the street from what is today the Peel post office. Terrill doesn’t know if that’s the shade that her family knew, but it conjures up thoughts of why that color on a street whose buildings are predominantly beige and brown with a few blues or oranges sprinkled in. Perhaps it was an act of rebellion against officials. Or perhaps the current property owner did it.

She rang the doorbell, hoping to speak to the couple that lives there now, but no one answered. She took the chance to snap a few photos with her cellphone of the house’s exterior, with its ornate door handle and slightly worn glazed tile on the doorstep and the deep purple trump around the doorway.

Terrill never knew her grandmother, who died in her late 30s. But she did meet her great-grandmother once before she died in 1972.

Now Terrill has lasting images of that house, the same lasting images her great-grandmother brought with her to the U.S., where she made a better life for her family.

 

Mike Dawson, a freelance writer in State College, has plenty more genealogy stories to share about his family. If you have a genealogy story you’d like to share, contact him at [email protected].

 

 



Mike Dawson is a freelance writer in State College.
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