This month a new TV show, “Genealogy Roadshow”, is starting on PBS. As an FGS attendee last month, I was treated to a preview. If you ever watched, “Who Do You Think You Are?” or “The History Detectives” you can expect the same combination of good research, mixed with some good television drama to create a great show.
Sometimes the life of an ordinary genealogy librarian can be almost as exciting. Last month, we had an interesting case in The Genealogy Center that made us feel like The Genealogy Detectives. A patron, named Patty, came in with a letter written in 1944 by a World War II pilot, Wallace Harris. It was addressed to “Dear Friends” and told the story about how his first wife had died shortly after giving birth to his daughter but that shortly after her death, he found a wonderful woman to marry who loved his daughter like her own. The letter contained a photo of a young girl, probably less than a year old. On the back of the photo, it said, “Please return to me when you are done.”
Patty said that she found the letter in her aunt’s estate and had no idea who the pilot was but she guessed that he was a friend of her grandparents, (her aunt’s parents). She wanted to locate family members to be able to return the letter and photo.
Three of the genealogy staff and one of our volunteers worked together on the problem. We first found a Declassified Missing Air Crew Report on Fold3, that said he had been missing in action-just one month after the letter was written.
At that point we were not hopeful about finding anything further but we did locate a 1940 Alabama census before the war, on Ancestry. The census showed him with his family, Jimmie (listed as James in the Missing Air Crew report) and Ella. Ancestry often gives hints about other records to search and in this case, there was a record for a prisoner of war. His status was listed as Returned to Military Control, liberated or repatriated. Wallace Harris lived!
We followed the trail and discovered that he lived until 2003. He and his first wife have an entry on Findagrave. We found his obituary in the library’s newspaper database Newsbank and learned that his daughter, the little girl in the picture, had married and had children of her own. One more search on Zabasearch gave us some possible phone numbers.
A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from Patty and she had contacted the pilot’s daughter, who was thrilled to hear about the letter. The letter and the long lost photo were returned to their rightful owner-69 years later.
While as librarians we often say, “it’s not all online”, in this case, we found enough in a couple hours to feel like we were the real Genealogy Detectives.