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updated: 2/24/2011 11:37 AM

Naperville genealogy researcher says anyone can preserve their family's past

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  • Genealogy researcher Jeff Bockman displays an album containing some of the 92 letters his grandfather, World War I veteran John Gault Stevenson, wrote home to his wife, Viola Johnston Stevenson, while he served in the military. His grandfather lived from 1882 to 1924. Bockman will speak at the DuPage County Genealogical Society's annual conference Saturday in St. Charles.

       Genealogy researcher Jeff Bockman displays an album containing some of the 92 letters his grandfather, World War I veteran John Gault Stevenson, wrote home to his wife, Viola Johnston Stevenson, while he served in the military. His grandfather lived from 1882 to 1924. Bockman will speak at the DuPage County Genealogical Society's annual conference Saturday in St. Charles.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Jeff Bockman's grandfather, John Gault Stevenson, made these drawings of the inside of his barracks in France during World War I. He died a few years after returning from the war.

       Jeff Bockman's grandfather, John Gault Stevenson, made these drawings of the inside of his barracks in France during World War I. He died a few years after returning from the war.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Jeff Bockman has written a guide and workbook for people who want to preserve and research their family history.

       Jeff Bockman has written a guide and workbook for people who want to preserve and research their family history.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Jeff Bockman's grandfather, John Gault Stevenson, is shown in this photo taken in France during World War I.

       Jeff Bockman's grandfather, John Gault Stevenson, is shown in this photo taken in France during World War I.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Jeff Bockman's grandfather, John Gault Stevenson, is shown back in Maywood after World War I working as the superintendent of airmail service at Maywood Field, now Loyola Medical Center.

       Jeff Bockman's grandfather, John Gault Stevenson, is shown back in Maywood after World War I working as the superintendent of airmail service at Maywood Field, now Loyola Medical Center.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

 

By Susan Dibble

Genealogy author and speaker Jeff Bockman doesn't expect everyone to spend years researching their family history as he has done.

But he does encourage everyone to save, preserve and identify family records and photos already in their hands or readily available to them.

"Once you find what you don't know about the family, curiosity kind of takes over," he said.

Bockman, a Naperville resident who has traced two of his own family lines back to the Mayflower and to medieval times, is a speaker at the DuPage County Genealogical Society's 36th annual conference. "Connecting the Dots: A Genealogical Blockbuster" runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 26, at Hilton Garden Inn, 4070 E. Main St., St. Charles. The conference also includes such well-known genealogical speakers as John Colletta and George Schweitzer.

Bockman -- the conference chairman, former president of the DuPage County Genealogical Society and author of the book "Give Your Family a Gift that Money Can't Buy: Record & Preserve Your Family's History" -- is himself a popular speaker at libraries, historical and genealogical societies, and civic groups.

"He speaks regularly to groups around the Chicago area and nationally," said Lou Szucs, secretary of the Lockport Area Genealogical & Historical Society and vice president of community relations for ancestry.com. "His easygoing style makes it fun for people."

Anthony Kierna, genealogy coordinator of the Schaumburg Township District Library, said he invites Bockman to speak on a regular basis and includes Bockman's book in a packet of information for new members of the library's genealogy group.

"He has such a complete package of knowledge and leadership," Kierna said. "Every program he gives is about some aspect of research he has done."

Homework quest

As Bockman tells the story, it was his son's sixth-grade homework assignment that got him started. He was getting his twin sons off to bed one night 24 years ago when one of them said he needed to list four great-grandparents for class.

"It only took me 20-some years to complete his homework assignment," he said.

Bockman looked back to genealogical research one of his grandmothers had done only to find she apparently had embellished the family tree.

He faced immediate challenges in learning about the two grandfathers he had never known. His paternal grandfather had deserted his wife and four small children, so she destroyed his photos and never spoke of him again.

Bockman later was able to confirm family stories that his grandfather had been born in Nicaragua of Danish parents and that his great-grandfather had owned a banana plantation.

Bockman was more fortunate with his maternal grandfather, even though he had died when Bockman's mother was only 3. His grandmother had saved 90-some letters her husband had written while he served in the military during World War I. Only in reading those letters did Bockman start to get a sense of who his grandfather was.

He urges others to look beyond basic information and record family stories that are meaningful to them.

"They were more than names and dates. They had lives. They did interesting things," he said.

Some of his own fond memories are of driving vacations he took with his parents between 1955 and 1970. His mother drove because his father had multiple sclerosis, but that didn't stop his dad's adventuresome spirit.

Once at his dad's urging they drove up a canyon road in Colorado despite a sign in the middle of the road that warned "rock slide." When they got to the rock slide, his mother had to back up several miles until they got to a place wide enough to turn around.

"Shared experiences. That's really what family is all about," Bockman said.

Getting a start

To record family history, start with what you know, Bockman said.

"First thing we tell people is talk to the oldest member of the family," he said, while conceding that people often don't become interested in history until they themselves are older.

He urges that family photos be identified by writing full names (including a woman's maiden name), dates and locations on the back. Family Bibles, newspaper clippings, diaries and letters are other sources that may be found at home.

Bockman provides family charts in his book to help the beginning researcher to get started. To fill in missing gaps, the researcher will need to seek out vital records such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses.

Increasingly, some of those records are available online, he said. For example, birth records can be obtained from Cook County.

Cemetery records and visits provide another important source of information, Bockman said. In some cases, several people may be buried in one spot.

Bockman also recommends using census data. "Census records are a great source," he said.

Newspapers provide another resource, Bockman said, adding that Colorado newspapers and The New York Times provide particularly helpful information online. Just because an ancestor's name doesn't appear in an index doesn't mean they might not be there, he said.

The Internet has been a boon to genealogy researchers, and Bockman particularly recommends ancestry.com and familysearch.org as sources for vital records and accurate information. He cautions that some family histories found on the Internet might not be as reliable.

"There are some good researchers and there are some sloppy ones," he said. "With the Internet and popularity of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' (the TV show), they make the research process look a little too easy. There's a lot of information on the Internet, but you really do have to start at home."

In some cases, records may simply not exist. Bockman said that is often true of people of Irish descent whose ancestors immigrated before they had to come through Ellis Island.

"Whenever the word Ireland comes up after my lectures, I cringe," he said.

Family bonds

Bockman -- a professional engineer who worked in the insurance industry in fire inspection, training, management and computers before his employer went out of business -- said the analytic and problem-solving skills he honed there have served him well in genealogical research.

The Hyde Park native who moved to Naperville in 1979 with his wife, Barbara (Lewis), a Naperville native, said his own three young adult sons haven't shown much interest in genealogy yet, but they may someday.

Bockman, who enjoys travel photography, has met cousins in Slovenia, seen the house where his grandmother was born and visited the Connecticut grave of his seventh great-grandfather 300 years after his ancestor was born. He's found characteristics of himself in some of the ancestors he's researched.

"We get a sense of where we come from," he said. "I think you understand yourself a little bit better."

A desire to know about family medical history also drives some genealogical researchers, he said.

Genealogy offers a look back when current times might not seem very encouraging, Bockman added.

"Sometimes looking backward is more refreshing than looking forward," he said.

For information on Bockman and his lecture topics, see JeffBockman.com.

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