Storytelling Opens Thursday’s Session @RootsTechConf

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Rockwood Ties 2016-The Single LeafSteve Rockwood opened Thursday’s session of RootsTech with a few of his family stories. One story he told was when he was a young boy who, although he need heart surgery, didn’t want anyone “messing with [his] heart.” The doctor didn’t gain Steve’s trust by his medical degrees and training. He gained his trust by wearing cool and funny ties. Although the doctor’s expertise was essential to young Steve’s care, it was the ties that won Steve’s confidence. And subsequently, Steve’s doctor did not try to turn him into a heart doctor.

The same is true with family history. A family member may need the outcomes of family history: love, peace, joy, happiness, belonging, etc., but may not need to become a genealogist. Steve encouraged conference attendees to consider someone in their family who would benefit from sharing a family story. He suggested that a different approach may be necessary and encouraged everyone to make it fun, in small doses, to build trust and relationship.

Rockwood introduced his neighbor, Kathy Tarullo, a stay-at-home mom who recently graduated with a bachelor of general studies degree with an emphasis in family history and genealogy. Rockwood and his wife Jill were invited to Kathy’s graduation party where she served refreshments associated with her ancestors decoratively arranged with a story behind each one. Kathy also mentioned another project she is working on where she is taking an ancestor’s story and turning it into a children’s book written in poetic form. These are some of the ideas shared to inspire attendees to consider ways of making family history part of everyday life.

RootsTech began to trend #4 on @Twitter during the opening session of RootsTech Photo credit: Wendy Smedley

RootsTech began to trend #4 on @Twitter during the opening session of RootsTech Photo credit: Wendy Smedley

Next up was the host of BYUtv’s American Ride Stan Ellsworth. He surprised the crowd by entering the hall on his classic Harley-Davidson. I’ve been to RootsTech, even before it was known by its new name, and I have NEVER seen anything like it! Ellsworth shared his passion for the American story that is our collective story. Nevertheless, “every American family has its own unique heritage, traditions, its own roots ’cause all of us came from somewhere before we came here,” Ellsworth said. He continued, “every American family has its own story to tell … These people want their stories remembered; they want their stories to be celebrated. You can begin your own journey. You can start your own exploration. You can find your heroes. You can find your heritage. You can find your roots. So kick a leg over and begin to discover your family’s own unique American ride.”

After his impassioned speech, Ellsworth was delighted to introduce Paula Williams Madison, a successful businesswoman who retired in 2011 to pursue the story of her maternal grandfather Samuel Lowe. Madison thanked FamilySearch for helping her find her Chinese family. She credits FamilySearch and the individuals who index for solving this mystery in her family. If you are a volunteer and ever wondered if what you do makes a difference, Paula Williams Madison wants you to know that you do.

Before RootsTech I listened to her memoir, Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem. I chose the audio book so that I could listen to Madison’s story in her own voice. It made a difference to me. I encourage you to watch her keynote address, read or listen to her book, and watch the documentary. It is an amazing family journey.

Regrettably, Paula Williams Madison’s uncle, the youngest son of Samuel Lowe, passed away in China the Sunday before RootsTech. As her American family members returned to China to gather and attend the funeral, Paula determined that she would give her keynote address at RootsTech. It’s the way her uncle would have wanted it. After briefly meeting with the media, Paula began the long journey to China arriving with 4 hours to spare before her uncle’s funeral. My personal condolences to Paula Williams Madison and her extended family in Harlem, Jamaica, and China at the loss of such a wonderful patriarch. I am so grateful that Paula found her family and reconnected with them during the last few years.

Next, Bruce Feiler took center stage. He began his remarks by saying that he felt like RootsTech is the “Super Bowl of storytelling.” [This may be true but just an FYI, “Super Bowl” is a registered trademark of the NFL.] He told stories of his adventures in his keynote address:

Feiler says that the “secret sauce” of a happy family is that they TALK, they talk a lot, about what it means to be a family. He recommends 3 things that families can do to be happier:

  1. Write a family mission statement.
  2. Do storytelling games in your family.
  3. Tell your family history; use pictures.

Feiler said that the single most effective idea for a happy family is to tell your family’s story. It is the same for biological and/or adopted families. It is the family narrative that is critical for the resilience of its individuals. He recommends that a person grounds their story in the oldest stories ever told, find a way to make it part of everyday, and don’t keep the story to one’s self, but share it! He mentioned that his New York Times article, The Stories That Bind Us, was the most emailed article for an entire month and, out of the 850,000,000 articles saved to the Pocket app, it was the second most saved article on the entire planet for the entire year. It’s worth the read.

He also encourages seniors to tell their story. He is working on another book and made a request that attendees write to him and tell him their experiences of how they accomplished this in their own families.

Feiler was diagnosed with cancer a number of years ago. On the one year anniversary of that fateful day, he asked his doctor what advice the doctor would give Feiler’s daughters if they came to him. The doctor replied, “I would tell them what I learned. I would tell them that everybody dies, but not everybody lives. I want you to live.” As a family historian I would add, “and set aside time to record it.”

Bruce Feiler closed his keynote address with great counsel for all of us: “Every now and then find a friend, take a walk, and share a story.” I witnessed a lot of this as I went about my day at RootsTech.

RootsTech is a massive conference with many opportunities throughout each day, including the event organized to index the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau. These records were created when the bureau was established in 1865 by Congress to help former black slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. Although RootsTech is an unique experience to each person, it is almost universally a very long, engaging, and exhausting day for all!

Copyright ©2016 Lynn Broderick and the Single Leaf. All Rights Reserved.

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