Megan Smolenyak didn't set out to write a book on serendipitous anecdotes, but fate intervened.
As the lead researcher for the PBS show Ancestors, Smolenyak had the job of finding personal stories to be featured on each segment of the 13-week series. (The series is now airing Fridays at 12:30 p.m. on WUSF-Ch. 16.) Taking to the Internet, she placed queries on various sites. More than 5,000 responses quickly poured in. Soon she noticed a pattern emerging. Few people wanted to focus on the nuts and bolts of genealogy. Most wrote about strange and eerie incidents they had experienced while tracing their roots.
"At our next meeting, I told the producers that it was too bad we weren't doing a series on 101 stories on serendipity because "I could give that to you right now,' " Smolenyak said. An idea was born. The book, In Search of Our Ancestors: 101 Inspiring Stories of Serendipity and Connection in Rediscovering Our Family History became a companion piece to the television series and garnered Smolenyak a stint on the Today show.
Each tale is unique. One woman discovered her great-great-grandmother's 1848 marriage certificate stuck between two antique postcards. Another woman, researching obscure records at a county historical society with the aid of a helpful clerk, discovered that it wasn't the first time his family had helped hers. The clerk's great-grandfather had signed her grandfather's citizenship papers. And one man had spent years fruitlessly searching for a tiny Irish town only to learn its exact location during a chance encounter during a business trip to the Middle East.
Her participation in the project itself was kismet at its best. Smolenyak, an international marketing consultant by trade, began producing documentaries as an avocation. While working on a film about a princess who lived in Zanzibar in the mid-1800s, she contacted a couple of documentary producers she had previously met "to pick their brains." A discussion ensued about their new project, Ancestors.
"I babbled on and on about my interest in genealogy," she recalled during a phone conversation from her home in Virginia. "When their lead researcher abruptly left the series, the producers flashed back to this conversation. I got an e-mail asking me if I could come to Utah _ tomorrow," she said, sounding somewhat awed by the quick turn of events. The rest, of course, is history.
An Army brat born in France, Smolenyak began tracing her roots in the sixth grade as part of a homework assignment. "Our surnames were written on small pieces of paper and placed on a world map to indicate where our origins were," she said. "It looked like I had the whole Soviet Union to myself. I started digging then."
In reality, her ancestors hailed from what is now known as the Slovak Republic. She has conducted extensive research there, and arranged family reunions in both the United States and the Slovak Republic. To her, that's what genealogy is all about.
"For me, it's the connection, the bringing of people back together these days as much as finding living relatives," she said. "I'm as welcome in Slovakia as my dad's home. I think it's important to know where you come from in order to gain a better understanding of yourself.
"What I aim to do with my book is to inspire as many people as possible to become involved in genealogy," she said. "I want to attract new recruits and keep others involved. To keep them addicted, in a good way."
Smolenyak's book may be purchased at most large bookstores, or ordered from her Web site: http://www.honoringourancestors.com.
Plans call for a sequel. If you have an interesting story to tell, send it to "In Search of Our Ancestors," Adams Media Corp., 260 Center St., Holbrook, MA 02343.
Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Home & Garden, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at rootscolumnaol.com.