Out of the Past

There’s no time like the present to get in touch with the past.

I learned that lesson the minute I stepped into the Library of the Western Reserve Historical Society for the first time. I was no stranger to the museum, with its exquisite collection of artifacts dating back to Cleveland’s earliest settlers. But, I’d never taken time to venture into the adjoining library, renowned for its genealogical reference materials.

That changed, however, when Jane Lassar, the publicist for Gray & Company Publishers, asked me to attend a reception at the library a few years ago. The party was held to launch the book, “Finding Your Family History in Northeast Ohio,” written by Highland Heights author Vicki Blum Vigil.

As a child growing up in Independence, I was regaled with stories about my family’s past in Cleveland. My mother never tired of recounting what her life was like as a youngster, living on Anderson Avenue with her parents, Harry and Louise Kugler, and her older sister, Dorothy: They were surrounded by kindhearted neighbors who’d often seek advice from my grandfather, a Cleveland police sergeant and respected member of their community. My grandmothers apricot pies were always the hit of the annual New Year’s Eve block party. The original liberated woman, my Aunt Dorothy was an accountant at Republic Steel during World War II, and worked her way up the career ladder before retiring as head of the payroll department for a branch of the Eaton Corp.

All in all, my mother’s idyllic depiction of life more than half a century ago resembled scenes from a Frank Capra film.

But like all of us who at one time or another mistakenly think our parents are boooring, I frequently tuned out my mother’s anecdotes. There’d always be time later, I reasoned, to hear them. Years passed. I never asked for clarification about my ancestry, and the time for discussion slipped by. It ran out on June 19, 2000, when my mother died of a heart attack at age 84. Accompanying my grief was a litany of unanswered questions about my heritage.

So it was with more than a grain of pessimism that I entered the Western Reserve library on the day before Thanksgiving 2003 at Jane’s request. I knew embarrassingly little about my grandparents, and even less about those who came before them. How could I possibly discover anything worthwhile when I was so clueless?

Vicki Blum Vigil understands this lament. That’s one of the reasons her reference work remains a best-seller for Gray & Company.

“There are so many wonderful resources out there,” says Vicki, whose interest in her own ancestors served as her catalyst for writing the book. “My motto is ‘Absolutely never give up.’ ”

Western Reserve Historical Society reference supervisor Ann Sindelar (whom you’ll meet on page 22) echoed Vicki’s sentiment on that sunny November morning, as she turned on her computer and called up the 1930 census, a population count that includes ages, occupations, places of birth and the names of those living on the same street.

As if by magic, the years fell away and the slice of life my mother revered appeared before my eyes, along with the people she talked about but I never knew:

There were John and Lucille Langmeade, the next-door-neighbor schoolteachers who helped my mother grapple with algebra and geometry (subjects that I, too, passed by the skin of my teeth).

And, what do you know? My mother was right about Jerry Hausner, who lived two doors down. He was indeed the
actor who eventually moved to Hollywood and starred as Ricky Ricardo’s press agent in early episodes of “I Love Lucy.”

Even my mom would be surprised to learn that her paternal grandfather was born in England and is buried in downtown Cleveland’s Erie Street Cemetery.

Over the last five years, the pieces have continued falling into place.

I will always be grateful to Jane for introducing me to the world of genealogy research. By including me on the guest list, she gave me one of the best gifts I ever received: the passport to a voyage of discovery that never fails to captivate.

Now, it’s your turn.

Happy hunting.

Share this story: