The Hillsborough River, looking much as it has for the last several hundred years, winds its way through the city of Tampa, Florida. Life flourishes along its banks. Moss-draped trees cradle birds’ nests in their branches, and gnarled tree roots provide small, dark places for animals to rest. White herons swoop over the river through the late afternoon sunlight and shadows. Occasionally they scoop up a meal from the bright green growth floating along the river’s edge. The snapping, clicking, buzzing sounds of life fill the warm, moisture-laden air.
Nearby is the Tampa Florida Stake center, which houses the family history center. Unusually well-equipped, this center occupies five rooms. Like the Hillsborough River, the center also provides a rich environment that encourages growth. Two hundred patrons a week, including many “snowbirds” from the north who come to Florida to escape winter’s blast, take full advantage of the 10,500 microfilms on permanent loan, the 33,000 microfiche, and the hundreds of books. The center has five computers equipped with FamilySearch®, four printers, eight microfilm readers, seven microfiche readers, a copying machine, and a microfilm/microfiche copier. Computer classes taught by Ron Powell and Greg Haxton help new patrons become familiar with the basics of FamilySearch.
Two full-time missionaries help patrons and watch over the facilities during the day. Family history center director Bernard Williams and his assistant, Joe Groom, take over the responsibilities in the evening. These six provide the consistency of leadership necessary to keep things running smoothly, and volunteer librarians provide additional help.
This family history center is a wellspring for everyone from beginners to professionals, resulting in a wide variety of family history activities among its patrons.
Frances Taylor, who moved here about twelve years ago from Pennsylvania, is typical of many Florida residents—retired. After arriving in Florida, she served as the director of the family history center for three years. As director, she says, “we were particularly anxious to build up a collection of census and soundex films of the southern states.” She did this and built up the other resources of the center also.
Frances and her husband, Charles, spend a lot of time using the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; they are working to identify the Civil War–veteran parents of orphaned children who were schooled by the state of Pennsylvania. Their interest in this project began while at the Tampa family history center when they were asked to index a book containing the names of eight thousand of these children. During the last ten years, the Taylors have identified the parents of about five thousand of these children, using census and other records. They are grateful for the opportunity to be heavily involved in original research since much of their own family history has already been researched.
Frances’s influence has extended beyond her own projects. She has motivated patrons like Mary Mahon, Bonnie Marsh, and Myra Sims—who became friends as a result of their frequent visits to the family history center over the last ten or twelve years. “We made a little home here,” says Mary, an attorney. “Everyone was so willing to help us. Frances Taylor inspired us into doing bigger and better things.”
Among the “bigger and better things” the three women have done is to start their own genealogical center. Bonnie owned the property and renovated it to include a kitchen, a research area, a small bookstore, and an outside sitting area. Local patrons find that the two centers complement each other because of the variety of resources each offers.
Though Mary, Bonnie, and Myra are busy with their own center, which has an international family group exchange, research classes, and research help, all three still use the family history center in the Tampa Florida Stake center as well.
“I think the center is just fantastic, and I love having access to the records from Salt Lake City,” says Myra. “When I find something, I wish I could say ‘I found it,’ but it is like God put it there. I’m not a Mormon, but one of the things I really do feel in my heart is that this is something that God wants done.”
Bonnie adds, “Learning about my ancestors gives me a sense of identity and a balance in my busy life.”
Sandy Coleman, who has about eight thousand names stored on a diskette created using Personal Ancestral File®, often works eight hours a day on her family history and travels sixty miles to work at the family history center. She currently spends much of her time making corrections to her family records that appear in Ancestral File™. Sandy enjoys this detailed but vital work and encourages others to check their own records for accuracy. But the blessings of family history in Sandy’s life have extended beyond having accurate records; relationships with people have become an important reward of her work.
“It’s a heartwarming feeling to talk to relatives you never knew,” says Sandy, who is the only member of the Church in her family. “My renewed relationship with my father has been the greatest blessing.” Sandy and her father had not spoken to each other for about ten years. When she learned of the gospel, Sandy decided it was time to make amends.
“But what do you say to your father after you haven’t seen him for ten years?” she says. “Well, I went to him and told him I had joined the Church. During our conversation, he told me that he didn’t even know who his grandfather was. So I said, ‘Dad, I’ll find out.’ So I did. I found that grandfather and his father and his father. Now every time Father’s Day comes up, I say, ‘Dad, here’s another grandfather.’”
Joe Groom also had a special experience with his father as a result of family history. Unlike Sandy, Joe had a wonderful relationship with his father, who was active in another faith. “It seems like in every generation there are family members who have that spirit of Elijah,” says Joe, “and in our family it just happened to be my father and me. We published a family history book together.”
But Joe and his father had one line where their research came to a dead end. When Joe’s father became terminally ill, they joked about his sending back a message telling Joe how to get past that block. Three days after his father’s funeral, Joe took a trip to Atlanta, but he was able to spend only two hours in the Georgia State Archives. He reached down and picked up a book at random and began to flip through it. Stopping to glance at two pages, he found the information he needed to know to get past the block on his father’s line.
“I almost fell over,” remembers Joe. “I wanted to scream. Then a peaceful feeling came over me and a thought came into my mind: ‘Did you get it?’ I knew my dad had helped me.”
Greg Haxton, a Temple Terrace policeman, has been fascinated with his Scottish ancestry since he was a child. “My ancestors were falconers of King William,” says Greg, who was baptized in April 1991 but has used the center since 1985. “The Scottish are very interested in their family history. In times past, Scottish children recited their genealogy every Sunday after dinner.”
Scottish clans and societies maintain good genealogical files. Greg, who joined a Scottish clan in 1979, traced his line back to 1670, using these files in conjunction with his research at the family history center.
Currently serving as Florida convener for the eight hundred Scottish clan members in the state, Greg previously served as president of the national organization. He enjoys organizing such gatherings as the Highland Games, with competitive events based on farm activities. “The major reason people come to the Highland Games,” says Greg, “is to find their ancestry and become part of a family. That’s what I like.”
The Tampa family history center, established in 1968 by Grace Branch and Bernard Williams, has always had heavy usage by researchers of all faiths. However, it is only one of several important genealogical resources in the general area. Public libraries and archives in Tampa, Orlando, and Atlanta also contain important southern records. As is the case in many communities, a local support group for Personal Ancestral File (PAF) users is also active in Tampa. Most researchers use all of these facilities during the process of compiling their family histories, but the Tampa family history center serves as the central place for many of them to coordinate their work.
“I’m very enthusiastic about this center,” says Betty Yanchunis, who served as a volunteer for three years and who now does research for the Florida Genealogical Society. “It provides such a great service to the community. I didn’t know anything when I came in, and the librarians helped me so much. I appreciate this center. I am grateful, I really am. I don’t know what I would have done without it.”
Philip Harris, an avid genealogist, has also used this family history center for years. A member of the PAF support group, Philip recognizes that most Personal Ancestral File users are members of other religions. He encourages these users to contribute their research to the Ancestral File. “I’d like to see a link established between the family history centers and the local PAF support group units in a united effort to build up the Ancestral File,” he says.
When Charles Doll’s granddaughter was born four years ago, it triggered his interest in family history. He wanted her to know her ancestors, so at the age of sixty-seven he started doing research. “When Frances Taylor helped me find my family on the 1900 census, I was astounded,” says Charles. “I was hooked from then on, and I just kept going.” Though he soon traced his lines into Germany, Charles didn’t let that stop him—he just started to learn German. “The only real German I’m comfortable with is reading marriage and birth records,” says Charles. “They follow a pattern. It would have been impossible to do what I have done without having access to the records of the Church, and I’m truly grateful.”
The strong leadership of Bernard Williams has helped maintain the consistently high quality of the center services and equipment. As director, he focuses on the technical aspects of running the center. His assistant, Joe Groom, focuses on the people.
“I like helping new people get fired up about family history,” says Joe. “I’ve always felt that a little taste of success goes a long way in helping people stick to it when the research gets tough. There is a certain amount of free information out there, but after that it becomes work. I love to see the flush that comes over people’s faces—sometimes it’s tears and sometimes it’s laughter—when they realize they are part of an extended family. It’s like a fire that lights up in people when they find out where they came from.”
Temple attendance is an essential part of the variety of family history activities nurtured in the family history center. The construction of the Orlando Florida Temple, only a two-hour drive from Tampa, has started a groundswell of interest in temple work. Edna Waldron and Ed Dorough are two patrons who understand the importance of the temple.
“You have to have the big picture when you do family history, and that includes the temple,” says Edna, who is a granddaughter of one of the first members of the Church in Florida. “Eight of us took a van to the Atlanta Georgia Temple in the fall of 1991. We took our time on this week-long trip and spent several days at the temple. It was wonderful.”
Edna has dedicated her life to the Lord and his gospel—especially family history work—and remained active in the Church even when her husband, Dick, was less active. Now both Edna and Dick are active in family history and the gospel. “I wish I could give my testimony to the world,” says Edna. “I truly wish I could.”
In 1988, Ed Dorough provided about six hundred of his own family names for a temple trip with two bus loads of people. “Homer Dorough’s name was on one of the family group sheets,” remembers Ed. “I felt impressed one night that he wanted his work done, so I made sure we did his temple ordinances.”
Spiritual experiences such as that one were not new to Ed. Even before he joined the Church, Ed tried to live his life in tune with the Spirit and follow its guidance. It was in response to spiritual promptings that Ed met his future wife and was eventually baptized in April 1938. A gentle leader of the early Church in Florida, Ed has served as branch president in Ocala in the first stake in Florida, on the first high council in the Orlando stake, and as branch president in Tampa. Now a widower, Ed continues to keep busy by researching the Dorough family history.
Both Sister Waldron and Brother Dorough have learned that nothing compares with doing the temple ordinances for your own family.
Whether they work at identifying the parents of Civil War orphans, organizing the Highland Games, or correcting entries on the Ancestral File, patrons at this family history center consistently use their skills in a variety of ways. They are not afraid to learn German at the age of sixty-seven or to start their own genealogy center. They learn from one another, share their research, and carpool to any number of research sites. Some have written books on their families, and others have sacrificed to make the eight-hour drive to the Atlanta temple to perform temple ordinances for their ancestors. The directors, missionaries, and volunteer librarians continue to upgrade these already outstanding facilities. Like the variety of life flourishing along the shores of the nearby Hillsborough River, this center flourishes with its variety of family history activities.