The genealogical community suffered a devastating loss this week with the unexpected death of John T. Humphrey. In Seasons of Love, the cast of Rent asks “How do you measure, measure a year?” How, then to measure the value of a colleague, mentor, and friend?
After a career renovating townhouses in the District of Columbia, John became a professional genealogist. Since then he has made incredible contributions to the field, both professionally and personally.
He worked for a time at the National Genealogical Society. He was in charge of the Society’s annual conference, one of the largest genealogical events in the country each year. He left there to focus on his own work.
John was from Pennsylvania, and one of his major achievements was the publication of his fifteen-volume series of Pennsylvania birth records. He was also considered one of the leading experts on German research. His sessions on this topic at institutes around the country routinely were among the most quick to sell out. His work was so respected on both sides of the Atlantic that he was invited to speak about research in Germany. All of that, however, is his work and summarized in his obituary and his biography at the IGHR website.
Beyond that, John was an amazing man. He was always charming and friendly, and more than willing to share his knowledge on any subject. When I was on the board of FGS, he frequently gave me advice about program planning. I quickly came to consider him a friend.
Every time out paths crossed he was ready with a smile and a story. His passion was incredible. He was one of the genuinely nicest people I’ve ever known.
The emails, texts, telephone calls, and Facebook postings have been flying around since word of his stroke started getting around. The sorrow and sense of loss in the community is tremendous. From those of us who have known him for years, to individuals who have simply attended a single presentation, John’s loss is being felt everywhere in the community.
The stories being shared are filled with the respect, admiration, and affection that embodied John. He was always there for his friends to listen, offer advice, or tell a joke. One woman who had sat in a lecture with him lost her mobile phone. After the lecture, even though John didn’t really know her, he helped her look for the phone for an hour until it was found. This is the type of man he was.
I still hear John’s voice in my head. Fortunately, thank to the age we live in, there are many ways I can continue to hear him. John was featured in the National Genealogical Society video Finding Your Family at the National Archives. In addition, many of his presentations through the years were recorded and are available from Audiotapes.com and Jamb.
As we gather in Birmingham in a few weeks for the FGS conference, our hearts will be heavy. One of our family members will be missing. But we will tell stories and remember him in ways that only genealogists can. To paraphrase the ending of the movie Ever After, while John lived a full and happy life, the important thing is that he lived. Let us all take a lesson from his life. Share your knowledge freely with others. Play well with others. And let his early and unexpected death be a lesson to us to treasure the people in our lives, and to be certain to spend time doing the things that are important to you. . You never know when the end might come.
Thank you, my friend. Our thoughts are with your partner John, and your sister and her children. You are missed, and will always be remembered.