High School Yearbooks shed light on Alumni

The Stuyvesant High School that my father attended was the breeding ground for FOUR Nobel Laureates [ Roald Hoffmann (1955), Joshua Lederberg (1940), Richard Axel (1963),Robert Fogel (1944)], the current Attorney General Holder, a handful of U.S. Senators, celebrities such as Telly Leung (this year’s commencement speaker), Lucy Liu, Tim Robbins, James Cagney (1918), jazz musician Thelonious Monk (1935), four-time Oscar-winning producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1924) and many other notables in a variety of fields.

“Stuy” continues to turn out great students (including my son). Each year approximately a dozen of its 800 grads go on to Harvard, another dozen to MIT, a few dozen to Cornell, a long list attend U. Chicago, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Cal Tech, etc.

About 20 years ago, New York City decided to erect a NEW gorgeous, 10-story, state-of-the-art building to honor this “jewel in the crown” of public education. One of the building’s unique features are the escalators that move students two floors at a time, between even-numbered floor, and between odd-numbered floors. It houses an olympic-sized pool. Another amazing touch are the glass bricks interspersed around the halls and stairwells. Many contain artifacts donated by individual alumni or an entire graduating class. Others are empty, awaiting future installations. They are like little jewel boxes of memorabilia that add a sense of history to a modern building. Yet another charming touch was the re-cycling of an entire classroom from the “old building” to the new. That new room contains the old wooden desk sets with the lift up lid like my father may have sat in in 1937. History is now taught in this vintage room.

The school has photos and more info at its website, but its yearbooks can provide additional info about alumni, as shown in the image below.


Posted in research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree

I grew up in Philadelphia.  My mother and her parents were born there, too.  My dad?  His parents met in this country after arriving at Ellis Island and took up residency on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  That’s why Dad was born in New York City.

When I was little, we would make the semi-annual trek to  N.Y. to celebrate holidays with my paternal grandparents, who had eventually “moved on up” from the L.E.S. to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. [This broad thoroughfare was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris but is considerably larger,  four miles long, 180 feet wide, separated into three roadways by tree-lined dividers.]  We’d usually detour into Manhattan to see Radio City Music Hall or to catch the ferry over to the Statue of Liberty (I got to climb up the whole height and into the crown long before the events of September 11 forced restrictions).  In the 1960’s heyday of  “West Side Story” I only wanted to see all the tenements and boarded-up buildings where the film was shot (the current location of Lincoln Center). I thought it so cool — there was nothing like this where I grew up!

My feelings as a child were always the same:  New York was bustlingly loud, dark with the height of the buildings, and gave me a headache.  It’s ironic that I chose to spend four years of college living in an idyllic isolated part of Manhattan, and never imagined returning when I left to go to graduate school.  Life took its twists and I eventually accepted my first job offer (it was an offer I couldn’t refuse) in —of all places—midtown Manhattan.

While hunting for my first apartment, my half-sister took me to a neighborhood she just knew I’d love, because it resembled Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, one of the most charming quarters of my home town.  Unbeknownst to me, this was just a short walk from where my father had gone to high school, and a little further from the very building where he was rocked as a baby.

I’ve asked my father many questions about his life, about his parent’s places of birth and the stories of how they came here, of how Grandpa served in the U.S. Army during WWI and was a barber cutting off the hair of all the soldiers, of their small dry goods store and how Dad used to stop at their suppliers on his way home from school to pick up needed merchandise. I never thought to ask him to show me the building where he first lived.

How thrilled I was,when I learned how to research census reports, to find that the first several places where my great-grandparents and grandparents lived and worked when they arrived in this country 100 years ago, were just a short walk from where I’ve lived for three decades!

Where Dad lived as a child

NYC Public Bath House in their neighborhood.

Posted in research | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

No one was saying, “Beam me up, Scottie”

If you want to know how long your ancestors’ voyages took, be on the lookout for travel schedules like this one. It gives you a sense of the patience people needed to have.   If you missed this week’s departure, you might have to wait an entire week to catch the next ferry.  In 1890, if you were in transit from Odessa, Ukraine to Alexandria, Egypt, this table shows that you’d leave Odessa on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. , arrive Constantinople on Monday at dawn, leave Constantinople on Tuesday at 5:00 p.m., arrive at the Dardanelles the following morning, Smyrna on Thursday, ultimately arriving at Alexandria on Saturday evening, a full week after the original departure.

Posted in research | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Genealogy for School Children?

When my son was in 4th grade his class did a unit on immigration. The teacher asked, “Who was the first person in your family to come to this country?”  An innocent question, which prompted a phone call to my maternal grandmother’s younger sister (age 99): the last living member of her generation.  I really had no idea at that point, about when my son’s great-great grandparents had arrived on these shores or which ports they had sailed from.  I did know that since my maternal grandparents had been born here, the answer was to be found on my mother’s side.

Because we live in a large city with many ethnicities and recent immigrants, I thought my son would take pride in knowing that as a 4th generation American that his first ancestors came to the U.S. a long time ago, in 1898. As it turned out, the child who had the longest history of ancestors here, also had the shortest!  His mother’s family had come here  in 1620 on the Mayflower, and his father was a recent immigrant.

There’s a great deal of history to be learned from such an exploration into your past, isn’t there?  Even a high school curriculum could bring history (my least favorite subject when I was in school) to an exciting crescendo when put into a personal context.  Who wouldn’t be interested in knowing at least some of the following topics:  What is your ancestral town?  What do you know about the customs and culture there?  Do you know the circumstances surrounding why your family came here (to escape a war, to marry) ?    When your ancestor came here, did they leave anyone behind? Was it due to illness, business ties, lack of finances???

I wouldn’t have waited half a lifetime to start enjoying history if it had been taught in a way that was personalized.

Posted in research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Soundex Codes

Did you ever wonder about how names written in other alphabets became codified in the Latin alphabet, indexed by how they sound?

Take the Yiddish name     ט ק ל.

The Soundex Codes help us unravel how that name came to be pronounced either Tekel or  Tackle (or Tockle). They have the identical Soundex Code.  Typically, when searching for a name (that’s often misspelled) you’ll need to check many possible spellings (e.g. Greenberg, Grinberg, Grimberg, Gruenberg).  With certain databases you’d have to search one combination at a time.  But, if the database uses Soundex, you can search a group of potential names at once.

Here’s how it works:

  • Except for the first letter of surname, disregard these letters:  A, E, I, O, U, W, Y, H.
  • Each code begins with the first letter of the SURNAME.
  • Code the first 3 consonants (do not include the first letter of the surname).
  • Begin coding the first consonant AFTER the first vowel in the surname.

Example: S C H W A R T Z
……………S                   6 3  2 = S632

  • Double consonants (or two consecutive consonants with the same code number are CODED AS ONE letter.

Example: S U SS M A NN
……………S       2   5        5  = S255

  • Each code must have first letter of surname and three numbers. If surname lacks enough consonants to create 3 numbers, add one or two zeros.

Example 1: H A SK E LL
……………..H       2      4 + 0 = H240

Example 2: B U LL
………………B       4 + 0 + 0   = B400

Posted in research | Tagged | Leave a comment

Mystery solved…new mystery

For years my distant cousin insisted that her great-grandmother (my great-great grandma) was related to a descendant of a famous musical family whose worldwide concerts are well-documented. She even showed me a limited edition of a book written about the family, whose unusual cover had an actual family portrait tooled into the binding. “My father told me……”  “Yeah, yeah, yeah….we cousins told her….where’s the proof?”   We were skeptical; without proof how could we believe her?  Then one day I had a brainstorm!  The death certificates of g-g-grandma’s children might reveal her maiden name, potentially linking her to the famous clan.  With that, I located the death certificates of all 3 children (who, although they were born elsewhere each died in the U.S.) and voila! — 2 had the maiden name of their mother as a match to the suspected name.
As always in these endeavors, one mystery solved led to the next unsolved: only 2 of the maiden names, so who was the “other woman.”  Did the siblings have different mothers?  Were there enough years in between births that a widowed husband could have taken another wife and conceived?  Why do the siblings have such a strong physical resemblance if they have different mothers? How reliable was the information provided by the elderly wife of the decedent?

These questions are still unanswered (for now).  However, I think the death certificate is suspect.  Who gives the information?  The bereaved 95 year-old wife whose memory of her long-since-dead mother-in-law is hazy?  Or the 76 year-old grieving child who just lost a beloved parent? These are the kinds of things to watch out for when dealing with complex evidence.

The moral of the story is: sometimes the farfetched nonsense you hear actually does turn out to be true!

© 2012 Copyright Billie Elias

Posted in research | Leave a comment

Wedding Bell Blues

The big 3 in genealogy are birth, death and marriage records.  Don’t be sad or frustrated if you can’t find marriage records on people you’re searching for in the counties you’d expect.

Think of a young woman born in Philadelphia, who moved to New York at age 16 to attend university.  She resides in New York for nearly 20 years after that, more than half her life, before choosing a husband.  New York is a fabulously expensive place to make a wedding, and a Philadelphia wedding will cost her family significantly less.  Only 100 miles from New York, where the groom’s family will travel from, Philadelphia is also close to her parents and their families, making it a most satisfactory destination for her wedding.  After their nuptuals, the couple resides in New York and has their only child there.  All current searches for the woman would lead to New York.  How would you know to look for her marriage records in another state?

Some people have a “destination” wedding on a beach in Tahiti or Cancun.  Others have “Gretna Green” marriages transacted in a jurisdiction that was not their residence.   This might help them to avoid restrictions or procedures imposed by the parties’ home jurisdiction, to avoid public scandal or to consummate a quick, surreptitious union.  In the United States, these towns have famously included Elkton, Maryland, Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada.

Never rule out the birthplace of a person as a potential wedding site, for the very reasons I’ve given! You just have to look for clues that may lead you to different locales.

© 2012 Copyright Billie Elias

Posted in research | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Family Tree

People are fascinated by family trees.

This is an enormous tree (~16 feet in length) that I created for a large family gathering to honor my son. The large blue dot represents him, and the boxes to the left of that represent all the relatives on his father’s side. Those to the right represent my side of the family. The top section of my side, shown is shades of pink/purple are my mother’s family, starting with my great-great grandparents at the top.  The lower portion, in blue hues, represents my father’s branch, with those great-great grandparents at the bottom.  In all, there are nearly 800 names represented.  Many of those people were in attendance and could see exactly how they were related to one another.

I have devised a way of digitizing your information into this format, so that you, too, may have a comprehensive family tree.  Please contact me for more information.

Family tree on display at family gathering

© 2012 Copyright Billie Elias

Posted in research | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Census 1900 and the Alaska-Yukon Goldrush

When tracing your ancestors, should you find a head-of-household gone missing at his old address in the 1900 census, don’t assume he’s deceased!  He may have gone prospecting for gold in the gold rush like our friend, pictured above in front of his 1912 grocery store, Samuel Ortman.  The following image shows him hunkered down in Alaska at that time.

Prospectors came in many flavors, their previous callings included grazier, farmer, ranchman, student, upholsterer, shoe clerk, bookkeeper, physician, sea captain, carpenter, steamfitter.  They hailed from such places as Allegheny City, PA, Pickering, MO and Berwick, Victoria, Australia.

© 2012 Copyright Billie Elias

Posted in research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ancestry Map in Census 2000

In the 1750s British settlers in Pennsylvania began to fear and resent the fact that a third of their fellow Pennsylvanians were German speakers.  Frederick Muhlenberg, the first Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, abstained from voting in the 1794 House vote proposing to translate some of the laws into German. The vote was defeated, 42-41.  Muhlenberg, who abstained from the vote, commented later, “the faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be.” Despite not having voted against the bill, the Muhlenberg Legend developed in which he was responsible for prohibiting German as an official language of the United States.

Nevertheless, German is the 3rd most offered language at U.S. colleges, after French and Spanish. Any wonder why we have so many words in common use that stem from German:

wunderkind, concertmeister, kitsch

frankfurter, hamburger, delicatessen, sauerkraut, spritzer, coffee-klatch, kindergarten, Oktoberfest, pretzel

schnauzer, doberman pinscher, dachshund, rottweiler

Why all the fuss about German? According to this chart from the U.S. Census Bureau, 42.8% of the population identifies themselves as being of German or part-German ancestry.  Who knew?

This map (discovered by my husband, an economist) also shows that the census reported in 2000 that the plurality of people in a preponderance of U.S. counties identified themselves as being of German ancestry. Wherever you see light blue, that county claims Germans as the highest percentage of their population’s ancestry.

The U.S. Census 2000 gathered data on 86 ancestry groups

French Canadian
Pennsylvania German
Subsaharan African
Cape Verdean
South African
United States or American
West Indian (excluding Hispanic origin groups)
British West Indian
Dutch West Indian
Trinidadian and Tobagonian
West Indian

© 2012 Copyright Billie Elias

Posted in research | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments