Dave is a professional genealogist and owner of Old Bones Genealogy of New England. Not only is he President of the Connecticut Society of Genealogists, he is also President of the Western Massachusetts Genealogical Society, a past president of the New England Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG), and the Registrar for the Pomeroy Chapter of the Massachusetts Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (MASSAR).
In my role as an official NERGC blogger, I caught up with Dave during a rare break in his busy schedule. He answered a few questions about his involvement in genealogy.
1. One of your presentations is about interviewing relatives to record the past for future generations. What happened when you first interviewed your own relatives?
Initially, I interviewed an aunt simply for a reason to have a conversation! For a variety of reasons, we were driving back from an event at my sister’s in upstate New York. We just got to talking about how she met my uncle, what was life like for them in the mid-50s, what was it like raising 5 children all born within 6 years, where did she go to school, where did she work before her marriage to my uncle, and on and on. It was a 4 hour drive so we talked a lot.
2. What inspired you to become a professional genealogist and help others explore their family trees?
I grew up in a household where, at a very young age, if I asked a question of my mother, her response was, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” When I’d ask my father, his response, “Go ask your mother!” That’s bit of an exaggeration, but basically it was the culture of our little family. Of course, I’d be all ears at holidays and other occasions when a larger group of relatives got together. I learned that my maternal grandmother, Hazel, was raised by her grandparents because her own mother had died, that her cause of death had been “milk leg,” that her grandfather (my 2nd great grandfather) came from England, that my father was in the US Navy during WW II but never heard any details, and lots of other stories that I couldn’t connect until I grew a bit older.
As a genealogist, many of these tidbits surfaced and when I had time, I’d run down the details. For example, “milk leg,” it turns out, must have been their euphemism for cervical cancer as that was the cause of death of my grandmother’s mother. In the 1950’s, no one would dare say the word “cervical” out loud! I discovered this when I went to the Worcester, Massachusetts City Hall and ordered her death certificate.
There are hundreds of family history jewels where I only had hints. Here’s the best story: My father was born in Evergreen, Conecuh County, Alabama. I contacted the Conecuh County Historical Society to request information. I was strongly advised that if I was going to do any family history research in Evergreen, I should contact Mrs. Sarah R. Coker who had been researching the families of Evergreen and surrounding communities for decades. “Write clearly” I was advised, as Mrs. Coker was elderly and had vision problems. I quickly fired off a letter that I printed in large fonts to make sure she could read it. About 2 weeks later, Mrs. Sarah R. Coker replied. She was delighted that I finally contacted her. She was my paternal great-aunt, my paternal grandfather’s sister. By the way, I had never met, spoken to or seen a picture of my paternal grandfather who had died in 1964. When I visited her in her home in Evergreen, she regaled me with stories and shared mountains of research. Wow!
3. Do you have a favorite ancestor story from your family's past?
I would have to say that currently, my favorite story begins with one of my many pilgrim ancestors who found their way to Plymouth Colony. In Springfield, Massachusetts, there’s a statue of one of the founders, Deacon Samuel Chapin who came to what was then called the Agawam Plantation (later renamed “Springfield”) at the behest of William Pynchon, a wealthy businessman from Springfield, Birmingham, England. The statue stands in Merrick Park next to the main branch of the Springfield Library. My sister and I attended grammar school about a block away and often ran over to Merrick Park to play or run through the many museums that are next door in what is known as “The Quadrangle.” By the way, the new national museum dedicated to Dr Seuss is here at the Quadrangle. At any rate, Diane and I had no real idea who the Deacon was or what his history might be.
Years later, as I was researching ancient local families, I discovered a pattern of family names in a certain section of the Springfield Cemetery. The “Ancient Burying Grounds” from the original settlement had been moved there in 1848 as it was right on the river bank and had suffered from many floods but was also going to be split off as a result of the railroad coming through separating the city from that area. The railroad, ironically was being built by a prominent Chapin descendant, Chester William Chapin. Many coincidental names began to come together and as it turns out, I am the 8th great grandson of the Deacon! I use this story in many of my genealogy classes and my favorite closing for the story is to ask the class, “…and what does that get me??” They toss out a few suggestions, but the real answer is this: “A good genealogy story!”
First, I have to state for everyone’s benefit that you don’t know what you don’t know. So the discoveries keep on coming! Naturally, the internet is a useful tool but understanding that it isn’t the only tool is critical. The discoveries just keep on coming, whether it’s a new collection that gets added to a website, a new discovery at an archive or repository, a DNA connection to someone who knows a great deal about a newly discovered branch of my family or just the chance to talk with people whose names and dates I’ve had for years but have finally able to connect with.
5. What is your game plan for getting the most out of your NERGC experience?
I’ve been heavily involved with NERGC for the past 2 or 3 conferences with many duties. I’m still involved but not to the extent of previous years so I hope to actually get to attend the presentations that interest me! I won’t be pulled in dozens of directions. So my game plan is simple: Make sure that the societies I represent fully comply with our volunteer hours commitment and beyond that, attend as many sessions as possible including luncheons and dinners, network with as many colleagues as possible, meet other genealogists who I may not have had a chance to meet in the past, and seek out the dozens of colleagues I know from interaction on webinars and social media whom I’ve never met in person.
Dave Robison is presenting two programs at this year's NERGC conference:
Session T-113, The Interview: Recording the Past for the Future (Thursday, 4:30-5:30 pm) - sponsored by the Connecticut Society of Genealogists
Session S-150, Speelin Duzn't Cownt - and Other Online Search Rules (Saturday, 1:45-2:45 pm) - sponsored by the Western Massachusetts Genealogical Society