Three years ago, on a crisp fall day, I was walking to my office at the New England Historic Genealogical Society when I received a text message that shook me to my core. George N. Parks, my college band director (and only ten years my senior), had died. He intrinsically believed in the power of people to succeed. In the thirty-three years he was director of the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band inspired thousands of students, and thousand more through his Drum Major Academy and his drum corps activities.
His “starred thoughts” taught us many valuable lessons about life. Back in 2010, I wrote a column about how I applied my lessons from marching band to genealogy. Today, I’d like to share five more lessons about what I learned about genealogy in marching band.
1. “Anyone can make a mistake.”
When we are researching, we can only do the best we can. Sometimes there is insufficient information. Or sometimes, we make a mistake when we are researching. A record is misread or misinterpreted. Our scholarly journals are filled with articles correcting previously published information because mistakes were made. The important thing to know is that we do the best we can with the information we currently have available to us.
2. “When things get tough, never give up.”
Brick walls can be aggravating and annoying to say the least. Often they can drive us to the point of being convinced that certain ancestors were transplanted here by aliens. Now, never giving up does not mean “continue to beat your head against a wall.” Sometimes it is best to lay down some research for awhile and focus on a different line. But remember to continue coming back to those brick walls. New resources can become available. And sometimes coming at things with a fresh eye gives helps you try a new approach that might help you break down that brick wall.
3. “You become the people you hang around.”
Find yourself some genealogy friends. Join your local genealogical society. You can go to repositories and research together. You can bounce ideas off of each other. And best of all, you can learn from each other. Surround yourself with great researchers, and you will become one yourself.
4. “One of the smartest things you can do is analyze a good teacher.”
There are many expert genealogists out there who teach us research techniques, resources, and other aspects of family history research. They do this not only by making presentations, but by writing how-to articles and publishing their work in scholarly journals and elsewhere. You can learn much from them, and not just be reading the article directly. Examine how they are approaching a problem, what resources, they use, etc. Then you can use these same techniques yourself.
5. “There are three stages in life: You believe in Santa Claus; You don’t believe in Santa Claus; You become Santa Claus.”
When we are first learning about how to research, we tend to be extremely excited. We look at other researchers and say to ourselves “How did they figure that out?” Then the day comes when we become experienced and research finds become a bit old hat. But the best time comes after that. When you share your knowledge with others, and get to see their eyes light up because they are finding more ancestors because of what you taught them.
The day after George died, he was at the top of all Google searches worldwide. His influence and impact on so many people was incredible. Out of all the things he taught us, the most important, and one I have tried to live my life by is this: “It is never too late to be what you might have become.”