The Indiana Genealogical Society’s 2012 Conference is fast approaching. It will be held Saturday, April 28 at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Debra S. Mieszala will be our featured speaker. Debra was kind enough to participate in an e-mail interview with IGS Vice President Tina Lyons. Below are her responses.
Debra: I grew up hearing stories about long-gone family members, so family history was always a topic of interest. When I was in high school my history teacher gave an assignment to make a family tree. Simple enough, as some great-aunts (that I never met) had done beautiful calligraphy trees for me and my sisters. I added a page of information found in a book about a person with the same name as an ancestor, and considered the project done. Not my most overachieving work, but it is how it happened. The teacher had all of the trees on the back wall. I enjoyed looking at them, so there was a spark.
We had a break. After it I went back to the teacher, looking for my family tree. "I threw those out," he said. And I immediately vowed to recreate it. It has grown and errors were fixed. But I still wonder how those maternal great aunts uncovered some of what they found long ago, especially on my father's side of the family. With modern access to older resources, we are a bit spoiled, but should aim to never neglect visiting courthouses, cemeteries, archives, and libraries.
How long have you been doing genealogy?
Over 30 years.
What does genealogy give to you, personally?
It allows me to be a detective, an analyst, a solver of puzzles, and a student of history on large and small scales. It has taught me where the artistic streak in the family came from, where the sense of humor carried down, and that the labels people place on themselves are so much more complex than they might imagine. I feel it gives me a more complete sense of self. And there is a great satisfaction in helping others to discover these things, too.
How did you get started helping the military locate next of kin for missing soldiers?
I was recommended (without my knowledge) by a colleague that worked with me on another project. I did a trial case to see what I thought of the work and was hooked. It really is humbling to be part of such an amazing and important project. I often think of these service members, most who died before I was born, and think what an interesting world it is where I am allowed a tiny role in their "lives" years after their deaths.
How does one go from being a forest ranger to being a professional genealogist?
In one way, going from forest ranger to genealogist is not that difficult a stretch. As a ranger I usually worked solo, aside from my favorite partner, a horse named Desperado. We had contact with park visitors and other staff. As a genealogist much of my work is done alone, with some contact with the outside world in the form of librarians, records clerks, and fellow genealogists. However, I miss my four-legged partner, and my old office, the woods, is hard to duplicate. A clipping of Desperado's tail hairs hangs over my office bookcase as a reminder of the many trails we took together over 23 years. Those trails led me here.
Do you consider volunteerism in genealogy organizations valuable and important and why?
Volunteerism is critical to the field of genealogy and to the personal growth of each genealogist. There is something about giving that inevitably makes room for this "give back" phenomenon. I interview newly Board-certified genealogists for press releases, and almost always see that they have had roles in societies large and small -- as officers, volunteers, and on committees. I think that is a very telling thing. One can't operate in a vacuum and learn enough in this field. Through volunteering we support our organizations, which allows records to be preserved and enables others to learn about their families. Those others often teach us about local history and communities in the process. The only people who lose in a volunteer situation are the ones who don't raise their hands and step forward.