SALT LAKE CITY — One of the pivotal events that led Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to become the host of the PBS television program, "Finding Your Roots," took place in Utah one Saturday morning in the early 1990s.
Gates was in town for a speaking engagement that afternoon and had some free time. He realized his hotel was within short walking distance from the LDS Church's Family History Library. He arrived at the library about five minutes after it opened that morning.
Gates was stunned to find the library packed with people. Every microfilm reader was occupied. Then a woman stood up and announced she had found her grandmother. Fellow family historians swarmed the teary-eyed woman with hugs and congratulations. It was a lot to take in, Gates said.
"I couldn't believe it. Holy mackerel. This is amazing," Gates recently told the Deseret News. "That was a crucial shaping moment for me. I feel strong, warm connections to the Family History Library and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for all the amazing work they have done to make possible the study of genealogy. I'm looking forward to meeting new friends and seeing old friends."
Gates is one of several prominent keynote speakers coming to the Salt Palace Convention Center later this week for the eighth annual RootsTech Conference, which will be held from Wednesday, Feb. 28, through Saturday, March 3, and is said to be the largest family history event in the world. More than 70,000 people from all 50 states and at least 50 countries are expected to attend in person or stream events online, according to familysearch.org.
RootsTech is organized by FamilySearch, a genealogy organization owned by the LDS Church. Elder Bradley D. Foster, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the LDS Church's Family History Department, hopes people will participate and leave with a positive experience.
"Come if you can, and if not, watch the live stream, but don’t miss it," Elder Foster said. "It will be a wonderful experience for people to feel the spirit of what we share."
The lineup of keynote speakers includes FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood on Wednesday and Brandon Stanton, founder of Humans of New York, on Thursday. Scott Hamilton, Olympic gold medalist and broadcaster, will speak on Friday, and Gates, along with Natalia Lafourcade, international singer and songwriter, take the stage on Saturday morning.
This type of event will be a first for Hamilton, who arrives in Utah after broadcasting at the Pyeongchang Games. The jetlag might leave him a little "brain dead, but that's OK," he joked.
"It's different than anything I've ever done," Hamilton said. "What a wonderful and unique experience to be able to participate in a conference like this one."
Family Discovery Day, a free event for members of the LDS faith, will also take place Saturday and feature President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the LDS Church's First Presidency, alongside his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks.
RootsTech will conclude with a musical production called "My Family, Mi Herencia," featuring "Luz de las Naciones" ("Light of the Nations"), Saturday in the Conference Center at 6 p.m. The free, non-ticketed event, which features a cast of 1,000 people and celebrates the cultures and stories of Latin America, will be streamed on lds.org in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Additionally, the conference will feature a number of other speakers, a vast expo hall of 450 vendors, and more than 350 classes for beginners and professionals, among other events.
The theme for this year's conference is "Connect.Belong," encouraging each person to connect with living and deceased family members in order to strengthen their sense of belonging.
That theme is something Gates can identify with as he has helped many celebrities on "Finding Your Roots" do just that through genealogy and genetic research. In season four of the PBS program, the show's genetic genealogist CeCe Moore, who is coming to RootsTech with Gates, and chief genealogist Johni Cerny, used DNA research to help guests LL Cool J (mother was adopted) and Tea Leoni (mother also adopted) to discover their biological families. In each case, "Finding Your Roots" found living family members and arranged for reunions. The show features 28 guests a season, and more than 100 are on the waiting list, Gates said.
"'Finding Your Roots' has led all genealogy programs in the use of DNA from the very beginning. … When the paper trail runs out, we turn to DNA and see what more we can find," Gates said. "It's amazing. It's a miracle. These stories move me to tears."
Hamilton, a world figure skating champion, was also adopted. He grew up the son of two college professors in Ohio. Since winning a gold medal in 1984, he's been an Olympic broadcaster, authored books, survived three brain tumors and raised a family. He plans to share elements of his family's story and how cancer has been a blessing in his life.
"I learned so much from cancer. It totally rerouted my life. The first brain tumor truly ignited my faith. It’s not one medical setback that I look upon with any negativity. I’ve been blessed in some way by all of them. … Cancer had me really take stock where I was and how I was living. Because I was paying attention to that, I met my wife," Hamilton said. "It’s been a really powerful journey. … A lot of people don’t even want to hear the word 'cancer.' For me it’s like 'Man, this is one of the greatest things that ever happened.'"
When asked why people would take a week off for RootsTech, and why genealogy is so compelling and popular in general, Gates said that when you undertake this research, you are actually undertaking research about yourself.Comment on this story
"This is all about your own identity. When you find your ancestors, you’re finding new aspects about yourself. Finding these stories, in some cases seeing pictures of ancestors, learning the stories about your ancestors, helps you to understand yourself," Gates said. "There is so much insecurity in the world today about the future … people are looking for solid ground. One of the ways our generation is finding it is through genealogy. We have more than 2 million viewers a week for a series on genealogy on PBS, that’s incredible. I know because people stop me and tell me how much they like the series. I know from how deeply moved the guests in the series are. It’s incredible."
For more information on RootsTech, visit Rootstech.org.