History is centered in the family, historian David McCullough says

Published: Thursday, April 29 2010 3:54 p.m. MDT

All history is family history, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian said in Salt Lake City Thursday.

"It is through the family that we get to the vital nerve center of history. History is about life, one generation to another," David McCullough said.

McCullough is in Utah in connection with the National Genealogical Society annual conference, which is being held in Salt Lake City this year. Genealogy aficionados will enjoy an evening program celebrating family history, which will take place tonight in the Conference Center.

Through music, video and the spoken word, the program will demonstrate how much family history matters, says Jay Verkler, CEO of FamilySearch, the division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an event sponsor.

Featured speakers will be Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, and McCullough.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, McCullough, Verkler and Pam Sayre, director of education for the National Genealogical Society, talked about the importance of this kind of program.

We have done an inadequate job of educating our children and grandchildren on the history of this county, McCullough said, "and that is primary our fault." But there's a lot of things parents can do to encourage that interest, he said. "Take kids to places where things happened. Show them the buildings, the tangible things. Architecture is very important; it's all around us. Go into old homes, and feel that world again."

Talk about family history at every opportunity, he said. It can be a gateway to a lifelong interest in history, a lifelong love of learning. "Enjoyment of history begins at home, at the dinner table, with stories from our own families," he said.

One of his ancestors was in the tannery business and specialized in making the finest harnesses and equipage for horses around. "And along came the automobile, and that was the end of his business. But instead of complaining and saying 'woe is me,' he decided to invest in electricity and started the McCullough Electric Company. It was because of the McCullough Electric Company that I got to go to Yale."

McCullough also talked of his Scottish ancestors who were weavers — "I often think of them as I'm trying to weave together words" — and his Irish ancestors who were storytellers — "that's such a wonderful quality."

Sayre spoke of an ancestor who fought in the American Revolutionary War. "He was a poor, uneducated farmer. And he knew that if he and the others did not succeed they would be punished severely, even killed, but he believed in the cause. I am in awe of him and what he did. It is because of him that I get to enjoy all the freedoms that I have today."

Verkler talked about how he grew up knowing the history of his mother's side of the family — "they all came across the plains with the pioneers" — but he knew very little about hi father's family. "My father's mother died when he was very little and his father remarried. His new wife didn't want to keep much of the old wife around. So, now, I'm just learning about his mother. That's where my heart is. I have learned that there were bakers in the family, and we all seem to like food. So, that's a fun connection."

The National Genealogical Society was founded in 1903, noted Sayre, "and had a total of 48 members. Now we have a membership of 10,000 — or more. We've had so much interest from people here in Salt Lake that I think we've picked up a lot of members."

Genealogy used to be a blue-blood pursuit, she said. "People were mostly looking for royal ancestors. Now it possible for every man and every woman to find their family history. It leads us to answers about ourselves. It's as close as we get to reaching out to hold hands through time. It's gone way beyond the begats to who we are."

That's one thing McCullough hopes people take away from Thursday's program. "Come on in, the water's fine. This is not just for the high-priests of history. We can all learn by doing. It's a discovery process. It's fun."

You will learn, he said, that we are all related. You will learn that every family has a story.

e-mail: carma@desnews.com

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