Sunday, September 30, 2018
Of Nicknames, Pulitzer Prizes,
and Fourth Cousins, Once Removed
One of the things I clearly remember from those first days when I was old enough to start doing family history research on my own was finding published genealogies in the Sutro library. Back then, if I pulled a book down off the shelf at Sutro, I could be fairly certain its title would specify a surname and include the phrase, "the descendants of."
Now, things are different, and the general instructions seem to be, "start with me"—and then work your way backwards in time. While that is fine—and gives a researcher a wonderful perspective on all the ancestors of one given person—I miss the ability to take in the view from the reverse. I like, also, to be able to learn of all the people who are related to a specific ancestral couple from two, three, or more centuries ago.
Given that fascination, I suppose it will be no surprise to learn that that is one of my specific projects: to create what people now call the "reverse genealogy" of my ancestors. Of course, this is not all owing to simple flights of fancy. I have a secondary reason for doing that type of research: I want to be prepared to connect my thousands of DNA matches to the right branches on my family tree.
Admittedly, that type of task has its fill of grunt work, routinely going from branch to branch, adding every descendant of a couple, then moving to that couple's siblings, one by one, and doing the same for those descendants. It's a wearying process, one that must be painstakingly administered lest an entire branch be inadvertently omitted.
In the process, though, I run across some fascinating discoveries about my distant cousins. Yesterday, for instance, I learned that my fourth cousin once removed turned out to be a journalist with the newspaper of record for a major metropolitan area—who just so happened to be instrumental in that publication's receipt of a Pulitzer prize, back in 1966.
I probably would have glossed right over that tidbit, if it weren't for keeping a close eye on the obituaries for each of those relatives I was adding to my own exhaustive "reverse genealogy" project. In this particular branch of the extended family, I needed all the help I could find, for the surname in question was...oh, groan...Jones. And the man in question—the one where I was stuck—happened to have the handy first name of John.
Of course, this was not the first I had struggled to find some details on this family; his father's name was also John Jones. Their appearance in those regularly-issued governmental documents we genealogists come to rely on so heavily was, to say the least, spotty. The family seemed to move about often (okay, I admit: if you leave it to me, I'd say they outright disappeared).
Finding information on the younger John Jones' sister wasn't much of a help, either. Her obituary was vague, but I noticed there were no descendants for her branch of this line, leaving me no clues or resources with which to garner more details.
For some reason, last night I decided to go back and tackle the problem again. I went, step by step, over each person in the family, starting with the previous generation, as if to work up a running start to leap into this generation. And then, I re-read the lone obituary I had been able to find for this family—the one for that sister of John Jones.
This time, I noticed one tiny detail: her obituary mentioned the one survivor, her brother. But it didn't call him by his given name. The text had called him by a nickname: Jack.
While my brain automatically searches, when cued with nicknames, for the proper version of that moniker, this time I didn't fall into that trap. I tried searching specifically for the name as Jack Jones. I already had a date of death—presumably for the right John Jones—thanks to the California Death Index provided on Ancestry.com. This time, I looked to see if I could find an obituary for a Jack Jones with that date of death.
I found one.
Actually—and you know this is how it goes when researching a common surname like Jones—I found more than one with similar obituary dates in the search results for the subscription newspaper archives I use. But one in particular stood out.
This instance was one of those articles which was not the standard format for an obituary, but rather a report on someone of significance to the community. I found the details first in a transcription of the obituary at GenealogyBank. I followed up by looking up his entry at Wikipedia—using the name he was known by in his line of work—as well as what I could find on his second wife. It was at the Wikipedia entry that I found the link to the original article at the Los Angeles Times.
What I discovered about this man was that he was a journalist who had worked for the Los Angeles Times during the tumultuous 1960s. At the time of the Watts riots in L.A., Jack Jones covered the story, and in the aftermath, provided the byline for a series of articles on how the community fared, drawing from the reports of several fellow Times staffers working on the same detail. It was that October series that netted the newspaper the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in the "local general or spot news reporting" category.
Of course, as exceptional as that experience must have been, it was one moment in a man's lifetime. Jones was also a novelist, a World War II veteran, and had the unusual claim to fame of having his wedding to actress Barbara Stewart paid for by Jack Webb of Dragnet.
All that from a stubborn dash that didn't want to give up its secrets to a fourth cousin, once removed, who really wanted to know.