I’m in my mid-40s. Even now, I don’t quite fit what many people consider the typical genealogical demographic. I certainly didn’t fit it over 15 years ago when I first started researching. Two-thirds of my research career was spent in relative isolation (no pun intended). I had never even thought about the possibility of connecting with other family history enthusiasts who weren’t my cousins. I had no idea why I would want to do such a thing. Thinking back, I don’t know why I wouldn’t.
This post is for all of you that are in that same boat, regardless of age. I couldn’t have been the only one, and I would be willing to bet that it’s even more common now.
In 2009, I decided to attend my first genealogy event: the Ohio Genealogical Society’s annual conference. Held at Sawmill Creek near Huron, Ohio, it was close enough for me to commute daily rather than commit to spending big bucks for several nights in a hotel. I can’t tell you for sure all the lectures I attended. I’m pretty sure I saw lectures about Pennsylvania genealogy and Virginia genealogy. I went to one about Irish research. I think I attended one about researching women ancestors. I know for sure that I attended a lecture about Civil War research.
I know this not because I remember the websites and other resources mentioned during the hour. I remember it because it was at that lecture that my genealogy career really began. I met Brent Morgan. And so it started. Brent and his wife, Sharon, were sitting next to me in this lecture. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation started, but after the lecture we were talking. Upon learning I lived in Cleveland, Brent told me that I should go to the next meeting of the East Cuyahoga County Genealogical Society. He said they were having a great speaker that night. I asked who, and he replied that he was the speaker. I did go to that meeting, and then I joined the group. And I’ve never looked back.
I didn’t attend many meetings that first year, but I also joined the Lake County Genealogical Society to attend some of their programs. I started blogging. At first, I blogged about whatever came to mind, but it quickly evolved into a genealogy blog. Later that year, Lake County hosted Elissa Scalise Powell. I had seen her speak at the 2009 conference, and blogged about the fact that she would speaking at Lake County. I didn’t even think about it at the time.
Enter the 2010 OGS conference in Toledo. By that time, I had gotten serious about genealogy. Just prior to the conference, I joined the waiting list to be part of a ProGen group. I asked if I could attend the ProGen lunch gathering at the conference. At that luncheon, I met a number of people, including local genealogist, Carla Cegielski, as well as not-so-local folks like Harold Henderson. The conversations were enlightening. Never before had I met so many people who were not only passionate about genealogy, but knowledgeable. After introducing myself, Carla told me that a number of people had attended Elissa’s talk because they had heard about it from my blog post. WHAT?? Someone actually found and read the blog? I had no idea.
My application to the First Families of Ohio was also accepted that year, and I planned to attend the banquet. One of the lecturers I saw at this conference was Craig Scott. Earlier that winter, Craig was speaking in Pittsburgh, but a winter storm prevented me from attending. In the lobby on my way to the banquet, I saw Craig, introduced myself, and told him that I was sorry to have missed his Pittsburgh appearance. He sat down in a chair and asked me what I wanted to know. He spent so much time talking one-on-one with me that I ended up being late for the banquet. I hate being late, but that was well worth it! At the banquet, I sat next to Jean Hoffman, who I had met somewhere along the line, probably having been introduced by Brent.
That conference was yet another mile-marker in my genealogical progression. The people I had met were so inspiring. We shared a common passion, and I jumped at the chance to completely immerse myself in genealogy, even if only for a few days, and with money I really didn’t have. Sitting in the lobby at that conference, I also joined APG.
Over the next two years, I kept my feet moving. I picked up a number of new volunteer commitments, and even started doing some client work. That summer I was put in contact with Margaret Cheney and– much to my horror at the time– launched my speaking career. I was now a member of East Cuyahoga, Lake County, Great Lakes APG Chapter, and the Western Reseve Historical Society’s Genealogical Committee.
The 2012 OGS conference was in Cleveland, my hometown! …and I couldn’t go. Not being able to get the time off work, I was relegated to manning the WRHS table for a few hours here and there. Enter Sunny Morton and Family Tree Magazine. While on my way to the vendor hall, I ran into Sunny. She offered to introduce me to her editor. Have you heard of the “elevator speech?” You know, where you have 30 seconds to tell all about yourself and how awesome you are? Not my strong suit anyway, I totally panicked. I was sure I sounded like a complete dolt and had totally tanked.
After the conference, I was glum, having only been able to spend a few hours there, all in the vendor hall. Even in that limited time, I managed to blow my chance at writing for publication. And a month later, out of the blue, I got an email from Family Tree. And a week later, another email. I went from thinking I’d blown my chance to suddenly having two articles with actual deadlines, almost like a real writer. Though I wasn’t even registered for that conference, it turned out to be one of the best ever, business-wise.
I could go on and on about the 2011 conference in Columbus, or the 2013 conference in Cincinnati. Each was spectacular, and each spectacular for its own reasons. But it’s really those first few conferences that set my life on its current path. Now I don’t expect you all to suddenly decide to become professional genealogists…especially if you like to eat, live well, etc. :) However: are you passionate about genealogy and not yet made a connection with the larger genealogical community? Are you are a newcomer looking for information and direction? A serious researcher looking to see top lecturers, immerse yourself in genealogical conversation, and make new connections? A conference can open doors to worlds you never knew existed.
That sounds cliche, but for me, it was totally true. I’ve met so many wonderful people since that conference in 2009– too many to name them all here individually, though I wish I could. I can’t even begin to imagine my genealogical life existing in total isolation. Many of you have provided me with milestone moments equally as important as these conference slices-of-life. Between conferences, institutes, and social media, my genealogical life is SO much richer with you all in it. I can’t thank enough.
So give it a shot. If you’re not sure and have some questions, drop me a line. I’m getting excited for this year’s OGS conference and would love to see you there. You can find the info at http://www.genex2014.org/ and register. Heck, make a long vacation out of it and head down to Richmond, Virginia to attend the 2014 National Genealogical Society conference: http://conference.ngsgenealogy.org/.