Turning Hearts in the Ozarks


How does a small family history center maintain high productivity and build a strong feeling of family at the same time?

Marilynn Barnes drives the thirty miles from her home in Springfield to Monett through the southwestern Missouri countryside. She is anxious to visit her old friends at the family history center, where she volunteered as a librarian for two years. She drives past grassy pastures filled with grazing cattle. The soil is too rocky here to grow vast fields of wheat or corn, so the pastures run for miles between the small towns that populate this part of the Ozarks. Thick woods occasionally shelter a farmhouse or break the horizon and link pastures with the broad summer sky; the silence and open space is invigorating.

Today Marilynn is nearly pain-free, but she remembers the many times she used to drive to the family history center when she lived in Monett. She felt tired and nauseated. The joints in her hips, feet, and hands hurt, but she knew that those symptoms of Epstein-Barr virus would lessen or disappear after she began to work in the family history center.

“I was given a blessing promising that my disease symptoms would be relieved during the time I worked on my family history,” says Marilynn. “Everyone knew I didn’t have the energy to walk down the stairs. Yet I would drag myself to the library, and as soon as I started getting out my family history, I began to feel better. I didn’t feel great, but I was symptom free and I had the energy to do what I needed to do. Often I just stayed and stayed because I knew that as soon as I left, I would feel terrible.”

Marilynn’s experience is only one of many spiritual experiences enjoyed by those who use the family history center in Monett. Established in April 1986, this library with its eighteen volunteer librarians has become a spiritual haven for those who use it. The presence of the family history center has done much to improve attitudes in the community toward Latter-day Saints, increase spirituality in the two Monett wards, strengthen the testimonies of individual members, and increase temple attendance. This family history center submits, on the average, about three thousand names per year, but in 1990, they submitted twelve thousand names.

How has this town of 6,500 people in a rural area been able to maintain such a successful family history center? The answer is, in part, Ed and Mary Tomblin. Ed and Mary moved from Fresno, California, to Missouri in 1977. Before long, the Tomblins were called to serve as stake missionaries. Because misconceptions about Latter-day Saints were common among people in the area, Ed and Mary thought that establishing a family history center would help improve relationships between the Church and the community. They were right.

Getting Started

A series of family history workshops piqued an interest in genealogy in many of the fifty people who attended, with the result that Church members and others in the community made a commitment to work in the proposed family history center. Ed worked with the stake presidency to prepare for the center. Soon Mary was called as director of the new family history center and Ed as the assistant director.

“Ed had a very clear vision of the impact a family history center would have on this particular group of people,” says David Vandagriff, then a member of the stake presidency. “And this center was booming from the day it opened.”

Jack Cooper, a bishop in Monett when the library opened, says that, in his opinion, “The family history center changed the whole atmosphere of the ward and stake. People began to bear their testimonies of family history work, of the temple, and of spiritual growth. Others could see what was happening and wanted to join in.”

“Ed and I prayed in our personal prayers for the spirit of Elijah to come into this area and to help people understand,” says Mary, who lost all but her peripheral vision in 1991 and is now legally blind. “We are aware of the hand of the Lord in everything. That is why it has succeeded like it has.”

“Mary is the key to the whole thing,” says Ed. “She’s got the enthusiasm, is willing to give of herself, and has the ability to motivate people. She makes family history come alive. She got a little discouraged after her eyes went bad, and she didn’t think she could do the job, but she can still inspire people. That’s what she does best.” Many of the librarians and patrons agree. “She is the heartbeat of the library,” says one patron.

Joyful Bonding

Keeping the library open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from noon until nine requires a lot of librarians. Men and women of all ages, including members of the Church and nonmembers in the community, make up the library staff. The Tomblins began to hold a librarians’ meeting the fourth Thursday of every month, with a potluck luncheon afterward that is now a much-loved tradition.

“We do training and talk over new things,” says Mary. “We share our family history experiences and often share our testimonies. It keeps us all close.”

A sense of teamwork among these librarians allows them to unselfishly help one another and patrons with large family history projects. “The spirit works within each of us to help us want to serve,” says Edith McQuoid, who serves as the Tomblins’ library assistant and who now concentrates on how to make the library easier for people to use. “I gain a great deal of inspiration working in the library, and a stabilizing of my testimony. Sometimes I have come to the library with problems, but then the peace of the library takes over and relieves all my tension. That isn’t the main reason I come, but it is one of the blessings.”

Edith has cataloged the books, organized the filing cabinets, and laminated the index cards for the microfiche so they will last longer. She also takes care of ordering films and oversees the sign-up sheet for the computer.

The Youngest Librarian

Ben Leavitt, eighteen, comes every Thursday evening and works in the library. At his suggestion as first assistant in the priests quorum, the young men are working toward a goal of gathering some of their own family names. The eight young men in the Monett Ward use the family history center to help them find the names of family members who still need baptisms performed.

“I can’t get over how easy it is,” says Ben. “I am descended from long lines in the Church and I thought all the temple work was already done. But I found so many names in the Ancestral File™ that still needed their ordinances performed, even after I ran the names through TempleReady™.”

Joyful Conversion

Though 83-year-old Katherine Love was baptized only three years ago, she has known about the “Mormons” since she was a child. Her grandparents’ house in Iowa was a way station for the Mormon handcart pioneers.

“I loved to hear the stories of the pioneers,” says Katherine, who taught German, French, and English at universities in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Texas before she retired. “The women would wash and bake bread while the men repaired the handcarts. At night, the women and children slept wall to wall in my grandparents’ one-room log cabin, the men slept outside in the open, and the family slept in the loft.”

Katherine came close to baptism several times in her life, but it was not until after she began working at the library that she joined the Church. Active in family history research all of her adult life, Katherine served as one of the library’s most knowledgeable librarians until she moved to Wisconsin last year. “This library means a lot to me,” says Katherine, who helped establish this family history center and still visits Monett to see her friends and do research. “The people here are like a second family to me.”

“My Heart Attack Was a Blessing”

On 20 November 1991, Jack Cooper, a dentist, had a heart attack. Both Jack and his wife, Joycell, were looking toward retirement, but this event changed the direction of both of their lives.

“I wouldn’t have wished for this heart attack,” says Jack, “but I wouldn’t have passed it up for anything. It brought me back into reality and helped me see what is important in life. Now nothing is as important to me as getting my family history done.”

Joycell agrees. “Jack’s heart attack changed our whole lives, our outlook, and our priorities. The only thing that is really important is to live the gospel and become sanctified.”

Both Jack and Joycell each had strong personal spiritual experiences while Jack was in the hospital. As a result, their priorities changed and they both committed themselves to compile their family histories and to do the temple ordinances for their ancestors. They sold their home and moved into an apartment so that they would not have yard work and other time-consuming demands. Jack even cut back his office hours.

“Material things used to be so important to us,” says Joycell. “Now we say, ‘Let’s go to the library.’”

The Best of Both Worlds

When Donna Bowman was six years old, she named her dolls Linda and Brenda in memory of her two sisters. At the time, Donna didn’t understand what had happened to them. All she knew was that she and her two sisters and her brother, George, had gone on a long trip and were left in a children’s home. All four children were placed out during the next week into different families, and it was more than twenty years before they were together again.

But as the children gradually found one another, they decided in December 1991 to honor their parents by trying to find their graves and, if needed, buy new tombstones. They chose Donna, who grew up near Monett, to make the initial search. She hired a researcher in another state to help her, made many phone calls, and wrote many letters. In February 1992, she came to the family history center in Monett to see if she could find information on her parents, using FamilySearch® which includes the Social Security Death Index. This U.S. government index, which lists Social Security numbers of deceased persons only, includes the Social Security numbers of 39 million deceased persons. Mary and some of the other librarians befriended Donna. A joyous shout went up when Donna found her father’s Social Security number. But her mother’s number was not there. Donna soon realized that her mother might still be alive.

Throughout Donna’s search to find her mother, she relied on prayer and enjoyed coming to the library to share her findings with Mary and others. Donna kept a journal to buoy her up in her search with such entries as “Don’t give up. Stay calm. God’s working. Be patient.”

Donna’s patience and hard work paid off, and in May 1992 she found her mother. “This library played a part in getting me started,” says Donna, who is a member of another faith. “I don’t think luck had anything to do with it. I think God was right behind me.”

Five on a Horse

Both David and G. G. (Gail Gibson) Vandagriff love to do family history, and they have had some remarkable spiritual experiences in the process of gathering the names of their ancestors and doing temple ordinances for them.

“When you find out about your past,” says G.G., “you find out about yourself.” Jane Bane Weir Ringland is one of David’s ancestors, and a favorite of both G. G. and David. Jane came to the Iowa frontier in 1850 with her husband, who died a few months later. She reared her four children while she earned a living by teaching school. They all rode to school on the same horse, with two in front of Jane and two in back. Later she also reared the children of her three deceased sisters.

“I got the feeling that, during her life, when Jane was around, things happened,” says David. “She created an intense sense of love among her children, nieces and nephews, and all of their children. When G. G. and I went to the temple to do the ordinances for this family, the spirit in the sealing room was overwhelming when Jane’s name came up. Instantaneously, everyone in the room began weeping. Even the sealer had tears in his eyes and could hardly go on. It was astonishing because everybody felt the Spirit at the same time.”

Protected from Fire

When Marilynn Barnes still lived in the Monett area, she and her daughter temporarily lived in the Victorian home of her grandmother. They shared adjoining rooms divided by solid wooden doors. Everything they owned was in these two rooms, including not only Marilynn’s family history but the family history of four other people and a set of valuable reference books. When the lights went out one day, Marilynn and her daughter went downstairs to the basement to flip the circuit breaker. By the time they got back upstairs, one whole wall was in flames. They barely had time to rescue their dog and to close the heavy wooden doors to prevent the spread of the fire before they left the house. When the firemen arrived, they would not go upstairs because a case of bullets on one of the bookshelves was going off.

“It sounded like a war,” says Marilynn. “It seemed like a long time before the time the bullets were gone and the firemen could go inside. My heart just sank as I pictured all of my family history work going up in flames in front of my eyes.

“The next morning when I walked into the room, I was amazed; everything was destroyed except the stacks of family history and the reference books. Something had protected each item from the fire. In one instance, an antique clock with a metal bottom had fallen right on top of one of the stacks of genealogy. Elsewhere, beams of wood had protected the family histories. It seemed like the flames just jumped over them. Of course, the papers were wet and burned on the edges, but they were readable.”

In many ways, it is not a surprise to hear of so many amazing experiences in connection with this family history center in rural Monett; the spirit of the gospel is strong here.

“When you do family history, you can expect miracles,” says G. G. “We live eight hours from the Dallas Texas Temple and hunger for the blessings of a temple close by, but we find we can feel its sweet spirit in our own family history library when we are engaged in work for dead.”

[photos] Photography by LaRene Gaunt, except as noted; historic photos courtesy of G. G. Vandagriff.

[photo] Marilynn Barnes

[photos] The Monett family history center; Mary and Ed Tomblin

[photos] Edith McQuoid; Fun and food at a librarians’ luncheon

[photos] Ben Leavitt; Katherine Love; Jack and Joycell Cooper; Brenda, Linda, Donna, and George (photo by Dennard).

[photos] David and G. G. Vandagriff; “When you find out about your past,” says Sister Vandagriff, “you find out about yourself.” Her ancestors are pictured here and on pages 44 and 46.