In Memory of “Bud”

For much of my life, Memorial Day weekend centered on spending time with my family, Gravel Lake, and the Indianapolis 500. Yet about 10 years ago, my holiday experience took on new meaning with the discovery of a World War II crash site in Papua New Guinea.

Francis “Bud” Piotrowski was born 29 August 1918 in Dowagiac, Michigan. His family moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan shortly thereafter, where they quickly established themselves in the Polish neighborhood northeast of downtown. Bud graduated from Central High School in Kalamazoo in 1936, and majored in music at Michigan State College (Michigan State University today), graduating from there in 1940. An accomplished musician, Francis played the bassoon in the Wyandotte (MI) Symphony Orchestra.

Shortly after his graduation from college, Bud enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1941, and later graduated from Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. With the United States now fully engulfed in World War II, Bud was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina before going overseas to the Pacific Theater.

Lt. Francis J. Piotrowski

On 7 February 1944, 2nd Lt. Piotrowski and Maj. Earl Kindig were aboard a Piper L-4 on a reconnaissance mission near Gabutamon, Papua New Guinea. Last seen approximately 18 miles southwest of Saidor, the airplane vanished; extensive searches of the area yielded no trace of the aircraft or the two men. First designated as Missing in Action, Piotrowski was officially presumed dead by the War Department one year later, and was posthumously awarded an Air Medal and Purple Heart.

Although Bud was lost long before I was born, my brother and I were certainly aware of our great-uncle’s story. Indeed, I vividly remember a conversation with my grandmother where she still expressed deep sadness and regret about never having learned what happened and where on that February day. More than anything, she just wanted a sense of closure, both for her brother and for the rest of the family.

A few years after my grandmother died, our family was notified by the U.S. Army’s Central Identification Laboratory that a crash site had been found in Papua New Guinea. Human remains, personal effects, and aircraft wreckage were all consistent with the missing Kindig/Piotrowski flight. DNA analysis later verified this. The full range of emotion at the discovery – disbelief, joy, pride, love – was tempered only by the realization that my grandmother did not live to see her brother’s journey completed.

A special ceremony for Piotrowski and Kindig was held at Arlington National Cemetery, the common grave for the two men can be found there at Section 60, Site 8022. Bud was later reunited with his family at a special service at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Indeed, he is now buried alongside his mother, father, and brother in the southeast corner of Lot 73, Block R.

Piotrowski headstone, Mount Olivet Cemetery, Kalamazoo (MI). Lot 73, Block R.

Bud’s sister, my grandmother, Stella Clara Piotrowski, is buried with her husband, Leo Rzepczynski, in Mount Olivet’s mausoleum, a short walk from the Piotrowski plot.

Sharing that full military honors event at Mount Olivet Cemetery with my family, and particularly with my father, Francis’ namesake, remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Our family now has the closure that my grandmother always wished for.

Due at Her Pier…

One of my favorite subjects in family history is immigration and passenger list research. Not only the compelling personal stories of our ancestors as they leave one life behind to begin another, but also the infinite array of research possibilities: the ports of arrival, the ships and vessels themselves, the genealogical value and evolution of the records, and of course, the various spelling permutations of our ancestor’s surnames.

Many researchers are understandably focused on the manifests themselves as they begin their immigration research, yet by doing so, they overlook a potential key source of information. Many port city newspapers maintained a shipping column in their pages, a daily list identifying what ships are coming, going, or expected to arrive in the next day or two. This Shipping & Mails column is particularly helpful in verifying the date of arrival of an ancestor’s ship, much like the Morton Allan Directory, but can also provide unique one-of-a-kind information detailing a ship’s arrival.

Let’s take a closer look at the Shipping & Mails column, using Stanley Piotrowski, my great-grandfather, as an example. Born in Kolo, Poland in March 1886, Stanley immigrated to the United States in April 1909, arriving at Ellis Island aboard the President Grant. Here is the entry from the Shipping & Mails column in the 15 April 1909 edition of the New York Times, indicating the ship’s expected arrival that day:

“Incoming Steamships,” New York Times, 15 April 1909, p. 16, col. 7.

It’s a bit smudged, but the article above also shows that the President Grant departed Hamburg on April 4, thus making the trans-Atlantic voyage in 11-12 days. Further down the column, additional information on the President Grant‘s arrival at Ellis Island can be found.

“Reported by Wireless,” New York Times, 15 April 1909, p. 16, col. 7.

An extension of the New Jersey coastline, Sandy Hook is just south of the entrance to New York’s harbor, meaning that the President Grant was still more than 300 miles out to sea the day before arriving at Ellis Island. More importantly, because of this newspaper article, I now have the approximate hour (2 p.m.) when my immigrant ancestor first set foot in the United States. What a find!

The manifest itself reveals information on Stanley’s life, occupation, birthplace, who paid his passage, final destination, and much more, but this Times article sheds a whole different light on his arrival at Ellis Island, offering a level of detail not found in any other source, save perhaps a personal diary or family oral tradition. We all strive to make those personal connections with our research, linking the past both to the present and future. Like the example here, perhaps the local newspaper can make those connections for you and your immigrant ancestor.

Index to Michigan Masonic Deaths

Michigan family history researchers are fortunate to have a wealth of free death records available online at their fingertips. Between FamilySearch and Seeking Michigan, researchers have free digital access to every state-level death recorded in the state of Michigan from 1867 to 1920. However, a significant gap exists between 1921 and 1970, before the Michigan Deaths, 1971-1996 collection (available at both FamilySearch and Ancestry) begins.

Some of that nearly 50-year chasm can be crossed with the excellent FamilySearch database “Michigan Deaths & Burials, 1800-1995,” but not all of it. Indeed, with that particular database, “Michigan” is not statewide, nor does every county include that impressive two hundred year collection of records. Many of the abstracted county-level records go up to the 1920’s and beyond, but again, only for selected counties. Other counties have additional years, other have fewer, it depends on the particular county of interest.

Therefore, researchers interested in a death record from the 1930’s, for example, are presented with a quandary. With no online database for the time period, researchers need to utilize alternative sources that can identify their ancestors’ exact date of death.

One such alternative is the Index to Michigan Masonic Deaths available here at my web site. Containing more than 8,200 extractions from the Transactions of the Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons of the State of Michigan, the site currently covers the 1933-1936 volumes, which largely includes deaths from 1932-1935. Researchers will find the decedent’s name, death date, lodge name, number, and location in Michigan, all important clues for finding obituaries, death records, and much more.

Let’s take a look at one example.

Entry for Christian Vahs.

Listed in the 1936 volume of the Transactions, Christian Vahs died on 9 August 1935 as a member of Bellevue Lodge No. 83 in Bellevue.

Once the death date and local lodge are identified, locating a newspaper is fairly straightforward. The largest collection of Michigan newspapers can be found onsite at the Library of Michigan in Lansing. According to the Library’s web site, their Eaton County newspaper holdings include the Bellevue Gazette. After a few minutes of scanning the microfilm in early August 1935, the Vahs obituary is found. Success!

Bellevue (MI) Gazette, 15 Aug 1935, p. 1, col. 4.

The extensive obituary continues on and reveals Christian’s wife’s name, where they married, surviving family members, fraternal membership, funeral date, and the cemetery name. Add in the military service information and birthplace in Germany, we are presented with quite the genealogical haul!

Using the death information revealed in the obituary, a researcher could then easily find the county-level death record at the Eaton County Clerk’s office or the state-level certificate at the Vital Records Office of the Michigan Department of Community Health. Michigan counties’ vital records fees are typically less expensive than the state’s.

Using the Michigan Masonic death index here at this site can serve as an alternative source to help researchers locate their ancestors’ death record, particularly during the 1930’s. The 50-year gap facing Michigan researchers is now not as insurmountable as at first glance.

I’ll be adding additional years to my death index, so stay tuned!

NGS conference wrap-up

Hard to believe, but it’s been nearly a week since the 2012 National Genealogical Society conference wrapped up in Cincinnati, Ohio. With my work schedule, I was only able to attend a short time, yet I returned home bursting with new ideas, energized for my own personal research, and optimistic for what the future holds in the field of genealogy. A successful conference, to be sure.

NGS 2012 Family History Conference, May 9-12, Cincinnati (OH)

Always a highlight at conferences, I reconnected with colleagues from across the country, sharing updates on our places of work, and discussing future conferences and learning opportunities. I also enjoyed meeting new Facebook and Twitter friends face to face. My Friday program on Michigan genealogy went well, too, researchers’ enthusiasm and interest in Michigan continues to amaze and motivate me.

En route to Cincinnati, I stopped in Blue Ash at Blue Ash Chili for some outstanding 3-way chili and delectable mac & cheese. Skyline Chili was an enjoyable lunchtime spot the next day, although I preferred Blue Ash. Yet my Cincinnati culinary highlight was Graeter’s ice cream, conveniently located two blocks from my hotel. Black Raspberry Chip!

Although I unfortunately missed the opening program on the 1848 Cincinnati panorama, I did have the opportunity to visit the exhibit at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. It’s simply incredible how much detail we can glean from that image, down to the exact time it was taken. The exhibit hall is always an important part of the conference experience, both in conversations with vendors and in emptying one’s wallet; this year was no exception. It’s equally amazing – and inspiring – that FamilySearch is expecting the 1940 Census to be completely indexed by the end of August!

I look forward to my next visit to Cincinnati, perhaps at the Ohio Genealogical Society‘s annual conference in April 2013. Hope to see you there!

Grossmama Grobner

Being at NGS in Cincinnati this past week, and catching up on things at home, I haven’t had much time to work on blog postings. Cincinnati was a terrific host city, the conference itself was fantastic, and it was nice to catch up with friends and to make new ones. I’ll write more later on the conference, but for today, I’m going to look at one of my more treasured family photographs.

Shirley Russell, my grandmother, was born in Chicago in 1922. She married William Alderson in 1942, and together, they spent many years with their family in the Windy City before moving to New Buffalo, Michigan in the late 1960’s. I take particular delight in seeing images of my grandmother as a toddler, girl, or young woman, as all of my personal memories of her are as an older woman with snow white hair; the idea of her as someone  more youthful – with “not-white” hair – was completely foreign to me until I stumbled across an older collection of family photographs.

Shirley Russell and “Grossmama” Frederica Jarand Grobner, Chicago, May 1924.

Here, a label with the May 1924 photo identifies my grandmother with “Grossmama,” who I believe is Frederica Jarand Grobner, her great-grandmother. The only other possible ancestor from that time on my tree would be Mary Ann Everett Russell, but with her English and Canadian ancestry, the image’s use of the German “Grossmama” does not fit particularly well. Thus, the likely image of Frederica Jarand emerges; her parents were both born in Germany, and she spent her early years in the German community in Quincy, Illinois. She took over her father’s saloon after his death in 1882 before moving to Chicago with her husband Joseph Grobner around 1890.

In the image above, my grandmother would be just past her second birthday, while Frederica would be about 70 years old. Indeed, she would pass away a few years later in July 1930, a few months after the 1930 Census.

Multi-generational photos are always priceless in their own way, and this one is no exception. My grandmother’s clear displeasure with getting her picture taken with Grossmama is particularly obvious. Thinking back to some of my own personal experiences, I think we’ve all been there….

Do You Know This Man?

We all have interesting photos in our collections, those images of the distant past where we have little to no idea about the who, what, when, where, or why.

Here is one of mine:

Who are we?

With no obvious identifying marks on the tintype, neither the man (nice mustache, by the way) nor the young girl are identified. Why is she so out of focus? What is she holding or leaning against? Perhaps she is his daughter?

The only information I have to work from is the image was mixed in amongst several other photos from my Russell and Everett lines, all dating from the families’ time in Toronto. This would also be the time period when the tintype was prevalent in photographic technology. A small lead, to be sure, but a lead nonetheless.

The girl could be my g-g grandmother, Mary Ann Everett, but it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty, as her face is so out of focus, and other images I have of her are as a much older woman. Could the man, then, be my g-g-g grandfather, still an unnamed and unidentified leaf on my family tree?

Ironically, the image above represents the oldest original document or image in my possession. My oldest family resource, and I know next to nothing about it!


The Meeting of the Minds

Growing up, I was fortunate – blessed, really – to have all 4 of my grandparents in my life. My brother and I have hundreds of memories shared with the Alderson’s and Rzepczynski’s, whether in New Buffalo, Kalamazoo, or at Gravel Lake. Yet despite all the time we spent with each set of grandparents, there were precious few moments or gatherings where all 4 of them were together. Of course, there certainly were those moments before I was born, but as a child, the idea that all 4 grandparents would be together was quite extraordinary and exciting. Whether a graduation party or the summer get-together at Gravel Lake, those shared family events were always memorable.

I have very few images of my 4 grandparents together as I knew them later in their lives, although I do have a few photos of them separately or as adults years before. Here is a fairly recent one with my two grandfathers:

William Alderson and Leo Rzepczynski, April 1995.

This meeting of the grandfatherly minds was in the spring of 1995, likely at my college graduation party; William Alderson is on the left, and Leo Rzepczynski on the right. This gathering represents one of the last family functions where all 4 of my grandparents were together; William Alderson died in December 1997, and Leo’s wife Stella passed away in January 1997.

As a youngster, I always eagerly anticipated having my two grandfathers together, as there was sure to be some raucous storytelling, the occasional expletive, and plenty of laughs. Yet with my two grandfathers, one story always stood out.

Back in the day, driving near or around Gravel Lake, one grandfather apparently cut off the other. A car horn blast by the innocent grandfather was answered by the other with the universal hand gesture. What makes that exchange so funny is that neither man realized who the other party was until later. I don’t recall much more about the exchange, but two things I remember vividly are the absolute delight in my Grandpa Alderson’s voice as he retold and relived the story, and my Grandpa Rzepczynski’s uproarious laughter at being “fingered” as the guilty party.

I think of that terrific story every time I see a photo of the two men together, and in this case, the family story is perhaps even better than the image itself.

NGS 2012

The car is packed, fueled up, and pointed due south. Lunch dates and appointments with friends and colleagues have been confirmed. The conference schedule has been pored over and analyzed. Restaurants and watering holes have been identified. My program has been edited, rehearsed, and polished. It’s time. Cincinnati, here I come!

Next week, the genealogical community will converge on Cincinnati, Ohio for the 2012 Annual Conference of the National Genealogical Society. I have the privilege of speaking at this year’s conference – “Michigan Roots: Genealogy Research in the Wolverine State” on Friday, May 11 at 11:00a. I’ll be giving an overview of Michigan, its rich history, migration patterns, and the genealogical records available both online and in print.

NGS 2012 Conference, May 9-12, Cincinnati (OH)

As I’ve written in earlier posts, I am a big supporter of conferences and seminars, that collection of subject experts, content providers, vendors, local societies, booksellers, and attendees, complete with new product announcements and content releases. The 1940 Census and’s acquisition of will certainly be two of the hot topics of discussion, and there will no doubt be many new announcements and product launches.

On the culinary side, my Michigan friends still give me a hard time for my trip to Philadelphia for the FGS conference a few years back. Taking advantage of the local cuisine, I ate a hearty number of Philly cheesesteaks, in pursuit of the “best.” With Cincinnati known for its chili, I’ve been busy compiling a list of “best” candidates. Although my chili intake in Cincinnati will not reach those Philadelphian and stomach-churning heights, I’ll still give it my best effort. I’m sure my blog post review of the conference will discuss this important development….

I’m looking forward to meeting new researchers, reconnecting with old friends, and learning about new resources, gadgets, online tools. Whether it be to learn new research techniques, empty your wallet in the exhibit hall, or sample the local cuisine, there is truly something for everyone in Cincinnati. See you next week!