Family history work heals and opens hearts

Published: Wednesday, March 14 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Elizabeth Wheeler and Charles George Shill

Provided by Aaron Shill

Editor's note: This week Mormon Times shares stories from staffers' and contributors' family history whether one from an ancestor or their search to fill out their family tree that educate, entertain, inspire or uplift.

My family tree features an England-born convert who served as a recorder in the Salt Lake Temple and was once "baptized for 635 souls without leaving the font."

It also includes a man who abandoned his family and spent time in prison.

One nearly kept me from learning about the other. But thanks to an encouraging wife, a ward family history class and some amazing technological resources, many provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my heart was turned to my fathers — the ones I never knew and the one I never cared to know.

I began attending my ward's family history class with no intention of actually seeking out my ancestors. I was there to support my wife.

There wasn't time for such work. I would either get to it later in life, or hope for some leniency at the judgment bar.

But there was a deeper issue. I wasn't exactly eager to venture out onto one particular limb of my family tree.

My dad is a hardworking, caring provider who to this day has his family's best interest as his first priority. He didn't take after his own father.

I never knew my grandfather. He took off when Dad was a teenager. No one had heard from him in decades. We didn't know where he lived, or if he was living at all.

He was a difficult person to attach the label "Grandpa" to.

But these days, when technology has made answers to family history as readily available as baseball linescores, it's harder to justify inaction.

"Just do something," my wife told me one Sunday. She had been putting her knowledge from the family history class to work. I had done nothing.

So I sighed and started with a Google search.

Seven hours later, I was still at the computer. I had invited my parents over to tell me everything they could about that branch of the family and found myself engulfed in census records, obituaries and death certificates.

And I got to know Charles George Shill.

My great-great-grandfather was born in England, where he was baptized in 1867. He and my great-great-grandmother came to the United States in 1882. Charles was awarded a certificate of citizenship in 1894. I know because my dad showed me the certificate, along with a stack of other genealogical treasures.

Four months before he died, Charles wrote a letter with some requests for his funeral. He wanted the service to be held on a Sunday, "in order that the Temple Workers may attend."

His letter also related the story of the day he was baptized for 635 individuals. He referred to them not as names, but "souls." He truly cared for those people.

"I have loved the Temple and the Saving Ordinances for the dead," he wrote.

His obituary read, "Mr. Shill was a recorder in the Salt Lake temple for many years, and in that as well as many other activities, he made a wide circle of friends."

Had I continued to use my absent grandfather as an excuse, I would never have come to know this selfless man.

But something else happened during this family history journey. My heart began to soften toward my dad's father, and I wanted to learn more about him as well. Fortunately, my parents' hearts had already softened, and they had information to share.

What I learned gave me some perspective.

For one thing, his mother had died very young, in 1918, perhaps from the flu pandemic of that year. My grandpa hadn't even turned 2.

I felt for the young boy. That couldn't have been easy.

The most sobering moment came when my dad handed me a copy of his own father's obituary. Emotions surged, many of them conflicting.

There was sadness and regret, but also peace and understanding.

We still don't speak much about the subject. I know the hurt is still there. But thanks to the blessings of family history work, there is also healing.

Aaron Shill is the editor of Features and Mormon Times at the Deseret News.

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