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Digging for roots yields surprises

There is an ongoing joke that members of the Tidewater Genealogical Society in Newport News associate with Kay Smith.

“They tease me that I never really did genealogy,” says Smith, a Newport News resident, “and that it was handed to me.”

In her defense, she uncovered the relative, who gave her a six foot long piece of paper bearing the names of her relatives, on a research trip.

Nonetheless, Smith, 73, wanted to know more about those names. With the support and skills she has learned from genealogy group members, she and others on the Peninsula and beyond (those not so lucky as her to have family history handed to them) have traced their lineage.

“Using books, history, the group and your imagination it’s amazing what you can find,” says Smith, who has been a researcher and volunteer at the society for years.

The Hugh S. Watson Jr. Genealogical Society of Tidewater Virginia (commonly known as the Tidewater Genealogical Society) was founded in 1969 by the late Virginia Rollings and members of her genealogy class at Thomas Nelson Community College.

The group, based in the historic 1884 Warwick County Courthouse Building in Denbigh, is the second oldest genealogical society in Virginia.

The society offers how-to workshops and research assistance to members and the general public who visit its library. Bus trips to do research outside of Virginia are also offered.

Membership fluctuates each year, but generally stays in the 275-350 range, according to the group. A large number of the members are in their 60s, few are younger than 45, and all are hungry to learn about their past.

“TV commercials make people think all the answers are online, and much information is,” says Rod McDonald, who teaches computer workshops at the society.

“But after a while,” he said, “many folks begin to realize what a genealogy society can do for them” — help them find what’s not online.

Sparking interest

For some people, a letter, a photograph, or mere curiosity sparks their interest to dig deep and research their lineage.

Alex’s Haley’s 1976 work “Roots” influenced McDonald, 62, to find the meaning behind two Civil War medals.

McDonald can go into detail about those medals and anything else you want to know about his grandfather who died when his mother was just 7 years old.

Genealogy is a hobby he shares with his wife Emily, one that has strengthened their 35-year-old marriage.

“If you had told me when I was younger that this (genealogy) would become my hobby,” she says, “I would have laughed so hard.”

Emily McDonald, who is the society’s current president, grew up by a lake listening to relatives spend Sunday afternoons talking about everyone’s relation to one another in Bradford County, Fla.

“We used to make fun of them and their stories — now I wish I had paid more attention,” she said of her two brothers and stepsister.

After joining the Society in 1992 and doing research of her own, she learned those stories would have come in handy.

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