By Lee Shappell, wranglernews.com Executive Editor
I’d like to think I have a pretty good idea of who I am. Maybe I’ve been kidding myself.
My visit to Tempe Family History Center shed light on that, briefly shaking notions that our family has held for generations about our heritage.
I was surprised to learn that I am the direct descendant of two captains and a colonel in the Colonial Army. I would later learn that I also am a distant relative of two pioneer-era Tempe mayors as well as the family for whom Broadway Road is named.
Then, just as I was soaking that in and thinking it’s about time people started treating me with a little more respect, I learned that I’m also a distant relative of Ladmo.
The real knife to the gut for me, though, was taking a look at my fan chart and not seeing a single person of French heritage. It showed a lot of German.
My family always was under the impression that we were French. No offense to people of German ancestry, but I don’t want to be German. I want to be French.
Then Debbie Ostler, a volunteer research assistant at the center, came to the rescue with research showing that my ancestors very likely were French and escaped to Germany to escape religious persecution before making their way to the New World.
Imagine fleeing to Germany for that. But I’m going with it. I look a lot better in a beret than I do in Bavarian lederhosen.
It doesn’t cost a penny to give — or receive — the gift of identity, and it is available 365 days a year at the center, where dedicated staffers like Steve Bowles and Mike and Debbie Ostler are devoted to helping people learn more about their families and perhaps even build a family tree to pass along to children or other relatives.
“That is one of the most remarkable gifts that you can give your children,” said Bowles, 65, director of the center.
The goal is to send people home with a fan chart that traces seven generations of linage, back to the time of the American Revolutionary War.
When a person comes in to the center, 2707 S. College Ave., volunteers like Bowles and the Ostlers ascertain their goal. Usually after an initial 60-minute session they don’t have quite enough information to do the chart and they come back to complete it.
“We try to make sure they accomplish their goal,” Bowles said. “We want to send them home with a burning desire, a joy of what they’ve accomplished and greatly expanded eagerness to come back and delve even deeper.”
Knowing who you are and where you’re from can give a person confidence and embolden them as they navigate life’s journey, according to Bowles.
“This is you. We stand on the shoulders of all of our ancestors, collectively. All that they accomplished, that all funnels down to you,” Bowles said. “It’s a shame that we don’t even know who we are.”
Bowles pointed out that the New York Times ran a story about studies showing that adolescents, when they know their family story and know who they are ancestral-wise, have much more resilience, adaptability and confidence in facing the trials of life.
“Instead of being a disconnected entity wondering why am I even here, they know who they are,” Bowles said. “They know that their ancestors weathered very difficult circumstances. They have that grit within them. It was extremely telling in how successful they were in life based on being connected to and knowing about their family story.
“‘Embolden’ is a good word. I see it all the time. Many of the people we help are from really tragic, disconnected family situations. We help a lot of people who are adopted. They love their adopted family with all their heart and they trace that back, but then, they also want to find their birth line, too. They really want to know everything about who they are. There’s an inner peace connected with knowing your narrative, not just to link relationships among people but also to help preserve memories of those people.”
If that sounds like a sales pitch, it isn’t. The center provides its service at no charge. It is underwritten by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but everyone is welcome to use its services. During the pandemic, Tempe Family History Center is operating by appointment only.
Bowles said it is helpful to come armed with as much information as possible, such as vital records and photographs of known family members, to begin research into a family tree. However, modern search tools – and there are 18 subscription tools online at the center’s 14 computer work stations – have made it relatively easy even with little information to start.
The Tempe center is a FamilySearch library, FamilySearch being a major database that genealogists use to access records.
Many decades ago, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints began helping members collect photos, vital records and church records of family members around the world, microfilming it all to help future generations put their families together.
As that continued around the world for decades, the large volume of collected information was digitized by volunteers into a searchable database that became FamilySearch.
Now, the database has billions of digitized records so that it is, in effect, a worldwide shared tree.
“Think of it as a jigsaw puzzle. You’ve got the whole world sitting around the table putting in pieces of the puzzle,” Bowles said.
The research room at the Tempe center has access to billions of records and also access to other subscription portals, such as ancestry.com.
“When people come in to the center, they can use both, including the international versions, for free,” Bowles said.
They also have access to newspapers.com to look up birth notices, death notices and obituaries.
“So there are about 18 premium family-history services, desirable databases to researchers, that you’d have to pay a subscription fee for each to use them at home,” Bowles said. “We really want to help the community find their family. We provide the center and volunteers to walk people through it.”
The center has scanners that enable researchers to digitize all the memories they have, whether it’s photo negatives or prints to preserve them. The scanner can process 30 photos in 30 seconds at 300 dpi, and there is software to do image enhancement to remove scratches, sharpen brightness and contrast or do color correction. It can even colorize old black-and-white images.
Mike Ostler, 66, says it is possible today to do on a computer in 15 seconds what used to require hours and hours of searching through microfilms, country by country, looking for names.
“I like the instant gratification that it brings,” Ostler said. “I became a volunteer really to enjoy watching other people have these discovery moments, discovering who they are. There was a woman a couple of months ago who came in and did research and found a picture of her father, who had died when she was 5. She just wept. She shared that, ‘Just to see the man that my mom married, now I feel like I’m worth something.’
“We get to enjoy those types of experiences with people.”
FamilySearch doesn’t give searchers people, it gives them records, according to Ostler.
“They give us digital information from birth records and death records, census records, where a person was living, and obituaries,” he said. “So we’re trolling through large databases of records and we’re grabbing out the ones that relate to a particular person that thoroughly documents that this is this person.”
FamilySearch recently built a tool that, once a person is completely fleshed out in the database, creates a biography in a narrative form with photos.
FamilySearch also gives a searcher the ability to upload information to others on their family tree, immediately sharing memories.
“I routinely log in to show me photos of my family that have been uploaded by people I don’t even know, but I know the ancestor they’re descended from,” Bowles said.
Debbie Ostler, 65, Mike’s wife, had a good start when she began to trace her family history.
“My mother was raised on a farm in Washington,” she said. “She had the foresight to interview her father and get his narrative about the family moving from Virginia, to Missouri, and then to homestead in Washington. She took a cassette recorder. It was very precious to have his memories in his own voice.”
Family history truly is the gift that keeps giving, Bowles says.
“Any age is a good time to start,” he said. “We routinely have youth come in, who are very skillful on a computer. They have a blast in here.”
During the pandemic, appointments are required. More information click here or call 480-907-4919.