Your ancestors, your story

Today’s family histories delve deeper than dates and descendants.

2nd Lt. Robert R. Kurtz, Pantanella, Italy, Summer 1944

2nd Lt. Robert R. Kurtz, Pantanella, Italy, Summer 1944

Jim Kurtz ’71 had seen the box enough times to know that the olive green tin was standard army issue. It had belonged to his late father. What he didn’t understand was why no one ever talked about it or was even allowed to look through it. The green box was most definitely off limits.

While his siblings seemed to abide by the rule, Kurtz struggled. Temptation eventually won— Kurtz was eight when he finally opened the box in the attic, while his mother vacuumed downstairs.

What he found lacked context. Army ribbons and medals, letters home to a young wife and new mother, flight logs and maps, and even a tiny baby slipper. None of it made sense to him, and he didn’t have long to explore the contents before fear compelled him to return it and close it. But his quick look fanned his spark of curiosity into a fire.

As the years passed, he filled in the gaps. He learned about World War II, the areas where his father was stationed, and the combat missions he was involved in. Kurtz visited both the Wyoming air base where his father trained and the place in Austria where his father’s plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner. And the book may be finished but the journey isn’t—Kurtz plans to visit the POW camps that held his father for eight months before being liberated by the Allies.

“We’ve had alums write about their war experiences, and alums who have done their own genealogical research but Mr. Kurtz’s story is derivative of his father’s story,” said history Prof. Michael Birkner ’72, P’10.

“We’re all connected to our past. Who we are depends as much on who our parents were and who their parents were before them,” Birkner continued. “I am glad that Mr. Kurtz has had the opportunity to connect with his father through the narrative and events of World War II.”

Kurtz built upon his research by looking to sources that could fill in the nuances of his understanding of his father’s experiences. He connected with the men who had trained beside and served with his father. He flew in a plane that is the only working B-24 Liberator bomber left—the same type flown by his father during the war. He even parachuted out of a plane in order to gain some idea of what his father had experienced when his plane was shot down.

And he wrote a book, The Green Box (available in the College bookstore), part his father’s biography, part his own memoir, and the result of decades of exploration.

After induction, 1941

After induction, 1941

“This is the first book I’ve ever written, and it will probably be my last,” Kurtz said. “It started as a way for me to learn about my father. I only have one memory of him, but now, I think I can say
with confidence that I understand him better than anyone, except for perhaps my mother. The more I learned, the more I knew that I needed to honor his legacy, and that’s what this project became.”

He learned the lesson that historians have been preaching for centuries: ask questions. Connections to family history, made through dinner conversations or diligent research, can be an entry point to engaging larger historical narratives—a launch to understanding historical periods.

According to Prof. Ian Isherwood ’00, the reason is simple: we are wired for stories.

“We all like stories about people,” he said. “Family history, in particular, is such a gateway to the story of all history because when you engage in family history, you engage in the same types of questions that historians ask, but just in a more intimate way.”

Perhaps the most direct manner of asking questions is through the collection of oral histories—interviews with people who have personal, firsthand knowledge of past events. It’s a method that Kurtz employed, interviewing people who had a connection to his father. It’s a method that Birkner and any of his students know well. He uses oral history both to teach students about the tools available to historians and to document personal stories from the World War II era before they are lost. What he and his students have built is one of the largest collections of World War II oral histories in the country.

“Everyone has a story to tell, and we want to get those stories before they are lost forever,” Birkner said.

He believes that after WWII, most vets were so focused on moving forward with their lives, careers, and families that they never felt the need to share their stories. Others didn’t feel their stories were important enough to tell. In the 1990s, public interest reached a peak leading up to the 50th commemoration of the war, the release of films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and many popular books.

Since then, Birkner finds that many from the WWII generation are willing to share their stories, often welcoming the questions when they are asked. The trick, more often than not, is asking the right kinds of questions.

Birkner doesn’t like telling students in the historical methods course the specific questions to ask.

“They’ll usually figure that out while doing background research and from listening to the conversation,” Birkner said. “The only thing I tell my students is that they must start from the beginning. They must ask their subjects something about their parents, their childhood, and their siblings if they had any—those kinds of questions. As William Wordsworth said, ‘The child is the father of the man.’ You need to start there.”

Another invaluable resource to explore is one that students of Birkner’s historical methods course are quite familiar with—Oral History: An Introduction for Students by James Hoopes. According to Birkner, nothing has come close to providing a straightforward and comprehensive overview of conducting an interview that examines both history and one’s personal memories of historical events.

Bob Kurtz, 1942

Bob Kurtz, 1942

Of course, oral histories are only useful for recording stories that have not yet been lost. While not everyone has a green box full of letters and mementos to kick start their genealogical  research, there are still some tools that can aid the process—relatives, family stories, and, of course, the Internet, with various ancestry tools and the databases they access.

However, not everything is online, cautions College Archivist Amy Lucadamo ’00.

“For people just starting out, patience is key,” Lucadamo stated. “While there are a lot of resources online, not everything is on the Internet. Sometimes, you need to go to historical societies, check out local churches, or pick up the phone and make a few calls.”

Just as everything may not be online, not every line of research will bear fruit. The bright side, according to Lucadamo, is that roadblocks can provide the impetus for researching a different branch of the family tree or history.

For the particularly adventurous family historians, learning about the time period that shaped their ancestors and the places that played a pivotal role in their stories is another avenue of research, too.

The context, Isherwood states, can help enrich the understanding of stories passed down through generations. Some themes may be familiar.

“From my experience, family stories tend to take on certain molds. Many times we hear of somebody’s ancestors who came over with nothing but five dollars in their pocket and the clothes on their back, and they make something out of nothing. Or, you hear the other version, where their family was successful but had a few setbacks, a few obstacles along the way that they had to work to overcome, but ultimately, they were all the stronger for it,” said Isherwood.

“Both of these kinds of stories are a part of our broader national story, an overarching historical narrative, into which we fit our ancestors’ stories.”

It’s why he thinks context is so essential to understanding family stories. It provides insight to potential biases, exaggerations, and more interestingly, stories that go against the grain.

“When you peel back the layers of the stories you’ve grown up with, you find that history is often a bit more messy than what you were originally told,” said Isherwood. “There is a lot of mythology in family history, but one of the great things about discovering your own family history is that you get to play myth buster in addition to family historian.”

Just as much as historical research can fill in the gaps in the documents one has, the documents can also bring historical research to life in unexpected ways.

Isherwood’s project with the letters of World War I Major Hugh J.C. Peirs offers a good example. The letters were loaned to the College by Marco Dracopoli ’14 and his parents, Nic Dracopoli P’14 and Diane Zorich P’14, who asked that they be put to good use. Peirs was a Dracopoli family forebear.

Isherwood and a team of students have been sharing the letters on a website and via social media—100 years to the day that they were written. They add commentary and historical context to enrich the interpretation of the letters.

Bob and Jim Kurtz, 1950

Bob and Jim Kurtz, 1950

In one example, a seemingly innocuous request belies the hardships Peirs endured. The newly minted officer wrote home, requesting a new coat and boots as he transitioned to life in the trenches.

“I am sorry to worry you about this,” Peirs wrote his father in early October 1915, “but it will be a great blessing if I get them as I have lost my Burberry.”

What would not be understood without the historical context, according to Isherwood, is how desperate that request could have been. In the trenches, Peirs would have encountered fall rains turning the dirt to mud. In the hastily constructed trenches, Peirs would have found himself taxed both physically and psychologically.

These letters and Isherwood’s work with Gettysburg College students underscore the importance of knowing the biases and unintentional modifications people make in their recollection of events—whether from memory or in contemporary accounts.

“You need to look at not only what they are saying, but also who they are saying it to, when they are saying it, and even what words they are choosing to say it. Nobody has to write a letter, but they do it because they want to convey something,” Isherwood stated.

Peirs would write interesting bits of gossip and everyday life to his sisters, discuss family business and finances with his father, and reassurances to his mother to downplay the violence and difficulties of trench life.

“Don’t worry about Snipers,” he wrote. “No one is more anxious to avoid them than me, & they can’t do much where we are going.”

Likewise, Kurtz found the dates of letters sent between his father and mother to be revealing.

One telegram in particular confused Kurtz. It bore a short message “Keep your chin up honey. I love you always. Bob.” It was a thoughtful sentiment, but a letter would have been less expensive to send. Then Kurtz caught the date: December 7, 1941. It was sent the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

While letters may not make up the bulk of historical documents that are available to family historians, they can often provide the liveliest accounts. There are other records that can provide glimpses of people and past events.

These range from census records, birth and death certificates, and wedding announcements in local newspapers to paystubs, passenger manifests, and maybe even a signature in an immigration record.

“You won’t ever get a full picture of what happened in the past, but you’ll get little snippets and glimpses of it,” Isherwood said. “History, at its core, is the act of trying to make meaning out of those snippets.”

Angela Walkden Levin ’72 and Jim Kurtz ’71, Reunion 2016

Angela Walkden Levin ’72 and Jim Kurtz ’71, Reunion 2016

For Lucadamo, the research isn’t done until she is confident she has found each of those snippets.

“I’m not done with my research until I’ve hit a wall and can’t find anything else,” Lucadamo said. “That’s not to say I won’t be able to navigate my way around that wall in a few months. But when you get that researching bug—whether it is for your own family history or for another topic—it is hard to stop.”

In the College bookstoreKurtz has gone further than most people would, and while it makes him wish he had asked more questions of his mother and other relatives when he could, it made him realize the importance of documenting his own stories for future generations.

“I know this book is going to be passed on in our family, and that is a pretty important legacy for me to leave behind,” Kurtz said. “While I won’t have my own green box to share with them, I’ll have this book, and I plan on writing down everything that I feel is important to share with them. Maybe we’ll even do one of our own interviews.”

“The most important thing I hope to have conveyed to my children and to anyone else who reads my story is the importance of asking questions. Don’t be complacent; don’t stop when there is a little bit more of a path to follow.”

—Kasey Varner '14


Cull or Conserve?

Wondering what from your life future family historians would want to know about? You’re not alone. In fact, College historians have mixed views.

“I tend to throw things away more than I save them,” Amy Lucadamo ’00 said, “but that’s only because I know I can’t save everything.”

For the items she keeps, she does so for the personal value they hold for her.

“Things like ticket stubs or other items, while they might be neat to someone in the future, they are important to me because of the experience they represent. Once I’m gone, though, those items will lose their meaning. You can’t necessarily transfer that meaning to someone else.”

For Ian Isherwood ’00, it’s less about the personal items and more about the personal stories.

“I had a grandfather who loved to tell me stories of his own upbringing,” Isherwood recalled. “That’s what got me first interested in family history. I’ve lived the rest of my life with the knowledge that however I live my life, no matter how mundane or boring, what I do could still potentially have value to some future historian, even if I don’t accomplish much, even if the impact is incredibly localized.”


Prof. Timothy ShannonCollege Connectors

The importance of creating context in a family genealogy led to Prof. Timothy Shannon meeting Sons of Anarchy star Katey Sagal. Producers for TLC’s popular television program Who Do You Think You Are? approached Shannon when they learned that Sagal’s ancestor was a colonial settler taken captive by Native Americans during the French and Indian War.

“We went through the documents related to her story, and I provided the context on the French and Indian War—explaining the places, people, and events referenced in the sources,” Shannon, history department chair, explained. “She had an ancestor who was part of the Mennonite migration to Pennsylvania, so I helped her understand what that means, what their motives were for moving to the colonies and to Pennsylvania in particular. We discussed why Native Americans were attacking frontier homesteads and the physical trials this family went through as a result of their captivity.

“Cultivating personal connections to history helps us understand what those events were really like,” Shannon stated. “The personal stories make the larger historical events seem more real.”


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Fri, 9 Sep 2016


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