Friday, July 13, 2012

The Search

As I continue examining this collection of Agnes Tully Stevens’ personal papers, my hope is to obtain a better understanding of her as a person. Perhaps that’s why I’ve moved away from dubbing my endeavor as “genealogy” and instead prefer the more open and descriptive “family history” label. I want to make the acquaintance of these people I will never get the chance to meet—at least in this world—and see them morph from static dates on archival records to flesh-and-blood beings. I want to engage them in ways not possible through mere genealogical records. To allow these statistics to blossom into real, live people, I need something much more tangential than duly footnoted, date-filled research. I need a 360 degree view of what went into inspiring the development of each ancestor’s character. I crave the stories—not of when or where they lived—but of how they lived.

Because of that, I don’t see what I do as research. I see it as The Search.

Reviewing the letter posted yesterday—including the finds mentioned in the comments revealing more of the possible identity of the letter writer—I realize how important collateral information is to The Search. If we see our discoveries as each creating a mosaic that eventually, filled in, gives us a composite picture of who our ancestor was, we look much farther than just to vital statistics, or census or church records. We broaden our circle of inquiry to include a greater personal sphere of influence.

Finding Family Through Friends and Neighbors 

In sifting through the many letters in the Agnes Tully Stevens collection, I’ve begun to piece together a sense of who this Chicago woman was. She was no celebrity, but her life had meaning, purpose, and achievement. Of course, she is important to those who descended from her—she was, after all, my husband’s grandmother—and to those cousins in both the United States and Canada with whom she kept in contact over the decades. Though in the greater scheme of things she is relatively obscure, I see within her life’s story the impact of the lives of others who, similarly unknown, became the obscurely significant in her life’s circle.

I’ve already written the stories of some who were tangentially important in influencing Agnes’ life, such as the pastor of her neighborhood parish, Father P. M. Flannigan—and those of his family members who, in turn, exerted their influence through him. I’ve noted the many letters from ailing priests recuperating in sanitaria in the southwest—not well known, perhaps, but sharing a formative role as she ministers to them in their sickness and isolation, and as they comment on the ups and downs of her own young life. Then, too, there have been the former-classmates-done-well from her Chicago parochial school who moved on to business accomplishments in the South, or region-wide renown in the legal profession of the Northeast.

Agnes’ relationship with each of these disparate players in her life’s story provides me with a glimpse of what she was like, how she saw life, who she personally valued as an important influence in her life.

A Friend and Neighbor Network

I see this type of research more as a diagram of a network than the grid of a family tree. The picture it draws looks more like a mind map than a descendants chart. It becomes a sketch of a network of the social relationships that held meaning for those particular people in the circles of my ancestry for whom I seek more details.

The little slip of paper I’m posting at the bottom of this page gives an example. This scan is of the first page of a simple recital program, printed on a standard sized sheet of paper. Folded in half, with the contents of the program displayed inside, the cover announces:

Mr. Herbert Butler
Child Violinist
(Winner Morris B. Sachs’ Amateur Hour Dec. 4, 1938)
in her
Sunday, March 19, 1939
3:30 P.M.
At Hackman Hall
96th and Throop Streets

This plain paper program was kept among Agnes Tully Stevens’ possessions ever since that date. Why would that program be important to her?

I scoured the four pages of this document to see if Agnes' name was mentioned anywhere. After all, Agnes was, at one point, a touring violinist, herself. But there was no trace of Agnes’ involvement in this program—not as sponsor, not as performer, nor mentor—if the many names listed were to give any indication.

I know from reading family letters that there were a few mentions of someone by that same name—Donna Grescoe. My father-in-law, in his letters home while serving in the Navy during World War II, mentioned that he was “surprised” that Donna Grescoe had written him from New York.

Why surprise?

To uncover such little details of life, I have to take a detour from genealogical research to The Search. I have to explore the intersecting spheres of influence that connect Donna Grescoe with Agnes Tully Stevens to see if there is anything edifying to be extracted from what I find. Once I discover the story of that other person’s life—as I’ll begin recounting tomorrow—I can see how it fits into the story of Agnes' own family’s history. At the nexus of those two, I can begin to flesh out the kind of details that will lift a mere name on paper, stand that name up and breathe some life into it.


  1. Such a beautifully written post!

    Indeed, "the search" is a great way to put it - its the seeking to understand more that who was who in the family tree, but why they did what they did and when... For me, it's why did my ancestors move to Texas? Each person is much more than an "empty name and start and stop date" - they have a story.

    There are so many places one could look further at - just from this cover - the address, was it near Agnes' home? the Rev.'s (one fittingly named Lord) are they from Agnes' parish? And now, at long last the 1940 US census is coming out in dribbles. It should be possible to locate the record (even if its not indexed by name yet) since you know the address. Of course, if this is her "final performance," she may have moved on before the census.

    Agnes definitely knew some power players in the Church, Rev. Bernard James Sheil (February 18, 1888 – September 13, 1969) was an Auxiliary Roman Catholic Bishop of Chicago. Born and raised in Chicago, Sheil was ordained a priest on May 3, 1910. He was named auxiliary Bishop of Chicago in 1928. Bishop Sheil was founder of Catholic Youth Organization (CYO).

    Rt. Rev. Msgr. James Horsburgh, ordained June 17, 1916, was appointed to the Holy Name Cathedral 13 days after ordination, and lived there all his life.

    Rev. Daniel Aloysius Lord, S.J. (23 April 1888 – 15 January 1955) was a popular American Catholic writer. His most influential work was possibly in drafting the 1930 Production Code for motion pictures. Born in Chicago, Illinois, he graduated from Loyola University in 1909.

    Finally, Hackman Hall was part of the "Academy of Our Lady" school, 95th and Throop Sts. Longwood, Chicago 43, Ill.

    Nice postcard of it here:

    Agnes has a most colorful story. :)

    1. Thanks, Iggy--and thanks for all the info you provided on some of the names included in that concert program.

      Yes, it's been interesting seeing all the people Agnes has made acquaintance of during her lifetime. Perhaps that was just the nature of living in a large city like Chicago.

      The picture of Hackman Hall in the postcard was a great find! Thanks for sharing that!

  2. The 1940 US Census record lists a Frances Dixon - Lodger at the Stevens' house.

    Illinois, Cook, Chicago, 103-1140 bottom of page 26 and cont. to 27.

  3. Hi Jacqi, I have nominated your blog for an Illuminating Blogger Award because I enjoy reading your posts so much. ( )
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  4. Couldn't agree more about The Search. Thanks for setting a good example of how to bring these stories to life.


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