Sunday, May 15, 2011

Heritage in Uniform

Telling the story of your family history is so much more than amassing a collection of names and dates. There are all sorts of angles to explore.

For instance, today is Peace Officers Memorial Day, a national recognition of those in law enforcement who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Public safety is something we all need but seldom think about. I didn’t think much about all that police work entails, either...until I married a cop. When I delved into his family history, though, I discovered I didn’t just marry a law enforcement professional—I married the great-grandson of two police officers!

John Kelly Stevens (the one pictured above) served in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, police department from his appointment on May 21, 1896, through his retirement in 1922. I was delighted to find out that, during his time of service, the local newspapers were peppered with his escapades and tart comments. Accessing the archives of these reports through various online subscription services gave me a whole new lens with which to build a more three dimensional portrait of this man.

Traveling to Fort Wayne helped flesh out that portrait. Our family made it a project to stop by the city’s History Center, run by the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society. We were delighted to tour the facility, which just happened to once house City Hall and, in the basement, the city jail and police department.

A little advanced planning allowed us to connect with the current historian of the local police fraternal organization, as well as a staff member at the museum who helped us locate and obtain copies of John Kelly Stevens’ photos in their archives. During that meeting, we also tried to follow up on the possibility that a Kelly cousin also was on staff, but that will have to remain one of those loose ends that needs more research.

The other great-grandfather was John Tully, who served the South Park Commissioners of Chicago on their police force for 37 years. According to family records, he was “the oldest member of the police force of that body.” I wasn’t too lucky with my search there, though. Fortunately, I had already learned through my experience in Fort Wayne that there are police fraternal or benevolent societies—or sometimes people right on the police force currently—serving as historians of the police department, who are quite helpful with this sort of inquiry. With a city the size of Chicago, however, I found what turned out to be all sorts of dead-end leads, mainly because the bigger the organization, the more uncertainty over who takes care of what. I did a lot of searching online, used my forum networks...and was just about sickened when I happened upon a news blurb that mentioned all the archives of the Commissioners’ police department were to be disposed of after a certain date. You guessed it—that date had, by then, passed.

What I learned from all these research experiences was that, if you have a relative who served in a public capacity, be it anyone from mayor to city dog-catcher, there is probably some record of that service. Depending on the time period, those records may also include photographs, as I found for Fort Wayne’s police and fire departments. If you are willing to spring for about twenty dollars in subscription fees for a concentrated month of research, you may also find—handily indexed, I might add—records of your relative in the various online historical newspaper archive services.

And if, like I did, you discover one of your ancestors served as a police officer, when the next annual Police Officers Memorial event takes place, you will find just a little bit more of yourself vested in that commemoration.

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