09 August 2015

Cheers to 7 Years!

Where has the time gone?  I can't believe that seven years have passed since I joined up with a handful of bloggers who wrote about and shared anything having to do with genealogy.  2008 was a year of firsts for me genealogy wise.  In June 2008,  I attended the Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.  I had just finished a 2 year certificate course at Monterey Peninsula College called Family History Studies and felt I was ready for the week long intense course of work that IGHR offered.  I was ready for the class but found I was very disoriented in being away from home for the first time in a very long time and felt like I was in a foreign country.  To vent my frustration at being so uncomfortable I wrote about my week long adventure and posted the series on the APG maillist to share with others.

It was Randy Seaver who contacted me and asked why didn't I start a blog.  I wasn't ready at the time but he did convince me to be a guest blogger for his blog Geneamusings.  My posts were well received and in August 2008 the first post for The Educated Genealogist went live.  Thank you Randy for your encouragement and friendship.

2016 will be the last year that IGHR will be held at Samford University so it seems fitting to celebrate my 7th Blogiversary with "What I Learned at Samford."


  • Not all donuts have a hole in the middle and come in big, pink, square boxes.
  • "Motorcycle Mama" has new meaning for me.
  • I may be geographically challenged for opportunities to join my peers at events, but I no longer feel alone in my pursuit of a career in the field of genealogical research.
  • I do not like thunder and lightning storms as much as I thought I did.
  • There is room on the porch with the big dogs.
  • There's a whole new definition for humidity and a human being's tolerance for it.
  • I do not like grits but I really like butter beans.
  • I don't care what anyone says, I like the Waffle House!
  • There is nothing better than being around so many people who don't think you are crazy.

I feel the need to share my reasons for the statements above and my first academic adventure at Samford and so begin with Day 1.


Birmingham, Alabama

My flight from California was smooth and fast; after a mere 30-minute layover in Houston, I arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, about 2:30 PM. I have never seen a place as green in the summer like Birmingham. Birmingham sits at the bottom of the lower Appalachian Mountain Range. Everywhere you look are low, tree covered, rolling hills.

My roommate had arranged for us to stay with a shirttail relative of hers because we could not check into the dorms until Sunday. We went to dinner at a Chinese buffet called Aunt Lisa's where the only Chinese food I saw were the fortune cookies we were given as a parting gift when we left. 

I was promised dinner and a show and was not disappointed. In the Winn Dixie parking lot was a group of musicians who get together once a month and play. One of the band members appeared to be under the age of 65, the other 11 were not. Three of them were women (one of them playing a bass fiddle that was 3 feet taller than she was). A total of 1 mandolin, 1 fiddle and 1 bass fiddle and 9 guitars. They played everything from very old gospel favorites to Elvis. An addition to the festivities was a car show (Southern definition of a car show: A group of 3 or more newly washed vehicles that are NOT trucks parked next to one another). Dancing was an option that a few took advantage of.

The next morning was a church service that I still do not know how to explain. Finally, after church but before we were dropped off at Samford, was another dining experience that I feel I must share - The Waffle House. 

There is a Waffle House everywhere in the south. The places are no bigger than my bathroom at home so I am assuming in order to serve the masses of people who frequent the establishment, having one on every corner is not over-doing it. I had hash browns that were smothered, covered, diced, chopped and some others things that one can have done to their food order. As you tell your waitress all the different ways you would like your food to be assaulted, she repeats your request to the cook shouting your preferences across the room.


At an hour of the day that I did not know existed (6:00 AM) I dragged my behind out of bed so I could peel the bed sheet off of it (my behind, that is) and get ready for the day. Now I could have said that my eyes popped open at the sound of the alarm clock and as I leapt out of bed ready to greet the new day, blah, blah, blah. But you and I both know what a big fat lie that would be!

There is a nice air-conditioned shuttle bus available to take you where you need to go on campus. It is perfect for those perky; "early bird gets the worm" kind of people who can make it out the door in time. For those of us who are perhaps a tad cranky upon arising, do not like worms, and are fond of our snooze buttons, the walk from the dorms to the cafeteria is downhill and if the wind is blowing in just the right direction it is a very short 5 minute walk. I would recommend taking the shuttle on any return trip to the dorms until your body acclimates to the heat and humidity. No amount of wind, blowing in any direction, is going to get you up that hill without your calves screaming in pain that first day.

A short detour here - I am used to 100 degree summers here in Stockton. I want to be clear on this - the heat is not a problem for me, and neither was the humidity once I learned how to breathe without absorbing excess moisture and drowning.

Again, the food was very tasty. I still do not like grits but have a tip for new people on how to make friends and fit right in - scoop some of those grits onto your plate and surround it with some more of the local favorites. You are allowed to eat all the food you want, so get an additional plate of food that you are comfortable with and voila’, instant friends. Beware however of meat that appears to be a chicken fried steak - it is catfish in disguise and does not go well with spiced apple oatmeal.

At 8:30 a.m., I walked to my classroom and feel silly admitting that I was very nervous. All the bright, perky, worm-eating people were already there. I took the last remaining seat in the back row (which as I will later relate was the best seat in the house) and tried not to call attention to myself.

(Note to self: - Wardrobe color and selection DO matter. - Save the fluorescent lime green mini skirt for day 3 or 4.)

Birdie Monk Holsclaw was the instructor for Land Records Case Studies. I felt at ease as soon as she began the class. She provides a stress-free learning environment. This is a term we use in California. It is meant to encourage blonde girls to get an education. It basically means that blondes are capable of learning and that previous theories of an overload of information does not make your brain explode, as first thought.

I knew the basics of land records, but Birdie taught me how to use them more effectively. She gave me tools I had never thought of using before to make those kinfolk connect. I am the registrar for our local DAR chapter and need to make sure that applications for membership that I send in are well documented and verifiable. Many times that magic piece of paper in which someone declares …”to my son/daughter…” does not exist.

I learned from taking this course that different pieces of evidence, when analyzed and correlated properly, can present a convincing argument for the case you are trying make.

Claire Bettag was up next. Now I have to explain something here. I had done a little snooping to find out about the instructors I would be learning from. Claire was one of a few that scared the hell out of me. I just knew that she would be able to take one look at me at say, “Aha! You’ve never been to Washington DC; you’ve never filled out a slip of paper with all those numbers on it to request a single case file from NARA.”

(Note to self: Preconceptions are a bad thing to carry around.)

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Claire is not scary at all! Claire gave us a wonderful presentation on the use of Private Land Claims. She made sure that no one was getting left behind in the class. She didn’t move on until everyone’s questions had been answered. She is just as passionate about teaching and sharing her knowledge as I am about learning. 

I was in bed that evening at another time that I did not know existed - 9:00 pm. I learned so much, my head did not explode, and I had a smile on my face.
As genealogists we are always running into problems and have to use our skills to solve them. Sometimes we collaborate with other genealogists to solve them as I will now demonstrate:I left out a very important event that happened on Sunday. 

My roommate had become ill and couldn't make it down to the cafeteria for dinner. I mentioned this to some people on the shuttle bus and a wonderful lady, Katherine Hopkins from Tennessee, offered to drive me into town to get the roommate something to eat. She went above and beyond the call of duty by taking me to Wal-Mart so I could buy a coffee pot. I would not have made it through the week without it. I cannot even get myself dressed without a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. I gave the coffee pot to Katherine when it was time to go home so she could donate it to her church.

I had a problem and Katherine helped me solve it. See how nicely that worked out?

(Note to self and pat on the back: Nice job of working that in. Katherine should forgive me for omitting her part of the story and I do not make myself appear quite the strung out, caffeine addicted junkie that I really am).

An aside: I am working hard on my "image" ever since the regent of my DAR chapter popped in at my home to bring me some papers. She found me in the backyard, my hair pulled up in a bun that looked like a rat's nest, in my bathing suit and flip flops, cigarette hanging out of the corner of my mouth, stereo headphones on top of the rat's nest, rocking out to Stevie Ray Vaughan while mowing the lawn. No, please don't even try to picture this in your head. If you do, I cannot be held responsible for any mental health issues that you may develop. I only share this unfortunate event with you because there is a valuable lesson to be learned here and as soon as I figure out what it is, I will get back to you.


Before our first guest speaker, Birdie says that she needs to know who will be giving a presentation on Friday morning. She had emailed us before we arrived and asked us to share a case we have worked on that involves land records with the class. Remember this part of the story; it becomes very important a bit later.

Elissa Powell, from Pennsylvania, is our second guest speaker. She shares one of her own actual case studies to illustrate how to correlate records using the Genealogical Proof Standard. Elissa was not on my "Scary" list. This is because I had already met her online. I participate in an online study group (they do NOT know that I am blonde) that is made up of people who are serious about becoming professional genealogists. Elissa has been very generous and sits in on our discussions whenever time permits. Whenever I see Elissa she is always smiling, she has a great sense of humor and you can tell you that not only does this lady know her stuff, she truly enjoys her job. This is a fairly new concept that is extremely difficult for some people to grasp - having a job that you love.

(Note to self: Need to get a job so I can start the loving)She gave us a great hands on exercise in which the class was divided into groups to solve the case. Deb Deal, Ann Staley, Margo Fariss Brewer and Stacy Anderson and I were Group 4. Our group worked so well together, I could have sworn that we had done it a million times. All of these ladies have been coming to Samford for years as well as many other genealogical events throughout the year. These ladies were great and they even liked my outfits. One of them even told me that not many people can wear that shade of magenta and get away with it.

(Note to self: Magenta does go with orange, keep the outfit)

Each group was given pieces of the problem and then had to report our findings and how those findings tied into the other group's findings. I learn new things best visually. When I cannot picture something in my head, good visual aids are a must for me. Maps are key to finding the answers for a lot of land problems. Looking at pedigree charts fixes a person's place in a lineage in my head. Elissa provided great documents like those above to use as clues to help the groups along. I think the purpose of this assignment was not so much finding an answer to a problem as it was to show us how to interpret the records properly, what records are available and where to find them and the importance of developing a research plan.

Dr. Debbie Abbott was our 3rd guest speaker. If you haven't ever had the opportunity to attend one of Dr. Debbie's Lectures - find a way to make it happen. Her topic was completely new to me - Using land, tax and census records to find the owners of a slave family in Kentucky. Using a real case study that she recently completed for her pastor, she showed us step by step the records she used, why she used them and what that record told her. If you pay close attention and interpret a document correctly, it will tell you where to look next in your search.

Dr. Debbie had us divide into groups and like Elissa, gave each group documents that she used. Each group had different documents to analyze and then report their findings. I am so glad I paid close attention to the background information she gave us before she handed out the documents. All of us have seen a page from a deed book before. It is pretty straightforward: It records a date, grantor, grantee and a reference to where you can find the original documents. I have not had an opportunity to research a case that involved slaves before. Did you know that in the deed books if the grantee was only referred to by their given name (no surname) more than likely is was an owner granting that person their freedom, not land? After Dr. Debbie explained this to me it made perfect sense. Slaves were property and when property is transferred from one person to another it is recorded in a deed book.

I am fully aware that one person cannot "know it all", but the value of knowing a little bit of everything is priceless. Since I was becoming familiar with the time of day known as 10:00 PM, I went to bed and had a smile on my face.

I promised to let you know what lesson I had learned from the unfortunate incident in the previous post - The lesson is to get a better hair cut so there is no possibility of ever having a rat’s nest. Moving on….


Here is where I had planned to skillfully weave yesterday’s ending and today’s beginning. It was my intention to bedazzle you with my brilliance so that I would not have to tell you that I overslept and was 2 hours late to class. But I don’t know how to do that, so I won’t.

Birdie was again asking for volunteers from our class to consider giving a little presentation about their research on Friday. I felt so bad about being late (and was still groggy) I walked right up to her and volunteered. Don’t forget this part; you will need it later.Guest Speaker #4 was Mark Lowe. Mr. Lowe was not on the scary list. Last year I had downloaded a recording of a lecture he gave at a FGS conference. His voice in person sounded just like the recording; therefore, he was not scary.

Mark’s presentation was great. Although this was not a hands-on exercise, it was a case study. “In the Parlor or Dining Room: Marriage on the State Line” was about one man, one house, three counties and two states. For those who haven’t heard this lecture, I don’t want to give away too much. Mr. Lowe is a very experienced researcher. When a student asked him how long it took to go through all the deeds for the case, he revealed that he had some connections that allowed him special privileges. (Being sworn to secrecy I cannot explain any further, but if you have the chance you could casually ask Mr. Lowe about his keys. You did not hear this from me.)

Lloyd Bockstruck was Guest Speaker #5 and he was on the scary list. First, he is a librarian and second, he is a librarian. I don't know about anyone else, but our local librarian was someone you did not want to mess with while you were in her territory. One little giggle or whisper was all it took for her to give you that look (you know the look - peering over the rim of her glasses, her mouth looking like she sucked a big old lemon). This of course was in the olden days when libraries could afford to have librarians. Mr. Bockstruck is not scary, he is extremely intelligent and a gentleman in every sense of the word. His lecture covered different methods of discovering a married woman's maiden name using guess what? Land records!

I had a very busy evening after dinner. I went to the library on campus to do a little research in their Special Collections. Samford has a great library. The Special Collections house an extensive Irish Collection. On the same floor is the computer lab which is in an enclosed room and then an area with about 25-30 computers with an internet connection. I used these computers to type up a few reports.

Katherine Hopkins (who took me shopping Sunday evening) saw me at the computers and nonchalantly whispered to me that she received an email which gave her some privileged information - Macy's was having a midnight madness sale! Did I perhaps want to join her, she asked? I arranged to meet her back at the dorm.

When I came out of the library I noticed immediately that something was different. There was a breeze and it was almost chilly. There were also some of the largest and blackest clouds in the sky that I had ever seen in my life. I got as far as the cafeteria before I started with the "Hail Mary's". A bolt of lightning that Zeus himself must have thrown filled the sky. I hurried a little faster to my room. The deafening crrraaccckk of thunder that shortly followed made me scream for my mommy. I made it up that hill to the dorms from the cafeteria in less than 5 minutes. I have seen and heard storms before, but nothing that would have prepared me for this. Going to Macy's did not sound like such a great idea.

The evening was not lost, however. Fortunately I remembered about a little ‘soiree' that I had been invited to. It was held on the prestigious 2nd floor of Chi Omega. Those rooms have new flooring, a towel rack in the bathroom, and no cobwebs in the corners. I am really glad I went.

Margo and Ann and Stacey I already knew from class, and Katherine joined us as well. I met some new faces: Amy, Beth and Mary. .I didn't get their last names. I had come very close to a complete meltdown earlier what with the storm, and I was doing good to remember my own name. The refreshments they served were quite varied: Cheetoes, Pork Rinds and something called a soy chip that reminded me of the movie "Soylent Green."

Later in my room, exhausted from the day, I didn't even look at the clock to see the time, but when I closed my eyes, I had a smile on my face.


I am not a writer nor do I play one on TV. I had intended this to be a chronological accounting of my experience... but each time, as soon as I posted one part I realized that I had left something out. So to continue with that theme…. Dr. Debbie Abbott was on my scary list too. She was also a part time student in the Land Records class and sat next to me in the back of the room (this is were that “sitting in the back of the class was a good thing” comes in). Being the new kid in school I had no idea who she was at the time, but I had a check mark in the scary column by her name. When Birdie introduced her she stood and walked to the front of the class and gave me a little nod. I dug in my bag for the bottle of white out and took her off the list. My basic formula for the Scary List: Librarian = Scary, PhD = Very Scary, Elizabeth Shown Mills = Very, Very Scary. You’ll be pleased to know that I no longer have a scary list.

Today we had Birdie all to ourselves for almost the entire day. When it comes to land, the records they produce, maps and how to plot them - Ms. Holsclaw reigns as the Queen in my book. She took us through (what she likes to call) mini-case studies to teach us how to plot maps from the calls in survey descriptions and how to use that information to find our ancestors. We got into our groups again and Birdie gave us a hands-on case to solve using multi-partitioned deeds. The manner in which Birdie Holsclaw teaches her classes lets you know that she started out in the genealogical field just like everyone else - a novice who through hard work and a genuine love of her profession put her at the top of the field today. 

After break was when IT happened. We heard a deep rumbling sound. Ann Staley said it was thunder and the rain would start soon. I told her that I had just come in from outside and the sun was out, sounded like a motorcycle to me. 

She went to the window and peeked out the blind and said “Oh, it is a motorcycle” and started to turn away from the window looked again and said “OH MY GOD, IT IS A MOTORCYCLE AND CLAIRE IS ON IT!” We just about fell all over ourselves rushing to the window. I’ll be damned, there she was, Claire Bettag, wearing a skirt mind you, riding shotgun on a Harley, waving to us with the biggest grin on her face. I didn’t know Claire liked to ride. She did not have a single visible tattoo as most “Motorcycle Mama's” are known to exhibit. Maybe things were different in the East than out West. For more information on this historic event or to get on the waiting list to be Claire’s roommate next year, please contact her directly. P.S. - For those who want visual confirmation, photos are available.

Our 6th and final guest speaker was Carolyn Earle Billingsley, PhD. Ms. Billingsley was on the list, but I had bought her book and after the first few chapters I had erased her name. Her topic was “Kinship Theory and Migration.” Her explanations of how and why people migrated as groups made such perfect sense to me. I highly recommend her book. She was very entertaining and skilled at getting her points across. I may be wrong but I got the feeling that she and I both march to the beat of a different drummer. But ultimately we are all in the same marching band (See - I did understand the book!).

Before I could leave for the day Birdie asked me how long my presentation would take. Presentation? Yes, how long was it going to take and would I be using a PowerPoint presentation or would I need an overhead projector? I just about passed out. I thought she had wanted maybe a written paragraph or two about my work. OMG, I don’t have a laptop, much less any of those other things she mentioned. I had to sit down. I told her that the answer was none of the above. She smiled sweetly and said OK, an oral report 10-15 minutes would be just fine.

Samford has a tradition of holding a lovely banquet the last night of our stay. I am sure that anything you wear would be OK, but most wore something a little dressier than daytime wear. I went to the dorm to get dressed and made it inside just as the sky opened up and let us have it. It rained cats, dogs, sheep, elephants, you name it. I have since heard that the rain is traditional on banquet night. The food was wonderful as usual and the speaker, Paul Miller, was entertaining. I was having a hard time concentrating. I was still trying to make myself understand that I am going to talk to people, while standing in front of the class. Talk to them like I knew what I was doing. 

I got back to the dorm and went to bed dazed and confused but with a smile on my face.


For blondes in California, Friday the 13th is a legal holiday. This is what I thought might get me off the hook for speaking to the class. I was not having a good start to my day. I had not made the correct calculations and had run out of cigarettes the night before. I got more than a few funny looks as I was walking down the hill looking up into the sky and saying, "Just take me now and get it over with!" I was working on a legal holiday, they had run out of spiced apple oatmeal in the cafeteria, and I was drinking coffee without a cigarette.

Walking through the parking lot to my classroom to meet my fate, an angel pulled up in her car. Why, it was Ms. Martha from my class, Ms. Martha who sat in the Front row of my class. I must have looked really bad. She asked what was wrong and when I told her she took a quick look around and said, "Hurry quick and get in the car." Bless her little heart, Ms. Martha took some back road, got me to the mini mart and back to school in time for me to have a smoke and for us to get to class on time. PLEASE NOTE: Ms. Martha does not smoke, she did it for me out of the kindness of her heart which I blessed earlier. I am forever in your debt, Martha.

OK, so maybe the day was getting a little better. I was wearing my favorite fluorescent Hawaiian Print Dress and lime green sandals. My mother always told me when you look good, you feel good. 

It was nearing the time for me to have my turn. Everyone before me had power point things and laser pointers. I finally tore a piece of paper out of my notebook, wrote on it and waited. I dragged myself up to the podium, held up my piece of paper that said, “The Problem with Pauline,” and proceeded to tell everyone about my research. I did this with a classroom of new friends, some new found confidence, and a smile on my face.

(c) Sheri Fenley, June 2008
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