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Discovering Sinners and Saints

Genealogy fanatics find wealth of help locally.

What do Shirley Temple, Joanne Woodward, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon have in common? They’re all cousins of Patrick Wardell.

Then again, so is his wife.

“My wife and I are ninth cousins twice removed, and 23rd cousins,” said Wardell, an Alexandria genealogist and author.

Wardell, 88, has found thousands of his ancestors all across Europe, and has written over 20 reference books on genealogy, covering everything from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812. His first foray into genealogy came after he retired, after a career that including military service and a stint with NASA. His mother had mentioned an ancestor that led a wagon train across the Oregon Trail, and Wardell researched it. “I got the bug,” he said, “and then I tracked my family back to Adam and Eve.”

Indeed, Wardell has traced his familial lines back as far as they can stretch. “I go back to Charlemagne,” he said. “The Royal London Society of Genealogy tracked Charlemagne back 60 generations to Adam and Eve. I go back to Charlemagne, and that got me back to Adam and Eve.”

If baseball is considered the nation’s pastime, genealogy might be the national obsession. A 2005 poll by Market Strategies, Inc. revealed that 73 percent of Americans are interested in discovering their family history, which is a 13-percent increase over a similar poll conducted in 2000.

“There are genealogy clubs all over the country. It’s the most popular pastime,” said Wardell.

He is both a student and a teacher of genealogy, having led a class at the Alexandria Library on Queen Street for several years. On Sat., April 8, Wardell will teach his final class of the spring on “Locating Virginia/West Virginia Ancestors” from 1-3 p.m. The cost is $29.

Although his classes concentrate on research techniques and the science behind the study, Wardell said he also stresses what it is that has millions of Americans invested in the hobby.

“It’s fun finding out what I call ‘saints and sinners,’” he said. “I’ve got murders in there, but I’m also a cousin to the Blessed Virgin, the mother of Jesus.”

HAROLD MCCLENDON thinks the biggest obstacle in genealogy is just getting going.

“We’re trying to get people to come in and get started. You hear people over and over say they have things from their parents or grandparents and they didn’t really get around to doing it yet. A lot of it is very easy. The basic stuff you can get done, like access to census records and other such things,” he said.

McClendon is the publicity director for the Mount Vernon Genealogical Society, a group of 250 people that meets monthly at the Hollin Hall Senior Center. The hall’s library has over 1,700 books on genealogy. McClendon said local genealogists have an advantage in the depth of materials available to them.

“Consider the fact that we have three of the best repositories in the world in the D.A.R. library, the National Archives and the Library of Congress. If something exists in terms of a book or a record, chances are they’ve got it. Then it just becomes a matter of finding it,” he said.

The National Archives, for example, has census records from 1790 to the present, McClendon said.

“But they have so much more, be it microfilm or be it original records. It’s a real art, knowing where to go look. There are millions and millions of documents that have secrets to unlock for your family,” he said.

WARDELL’S MISSION in his classes is giving that sort of direction to genealogical research.

He hands out blank documents that can be filled in with several generations of a family tree, asking for basic information like dates and locations of births and deaths; full names of spouses; and the number of children the family produced. An ancestral chart Wardell gives out looks a bit like an NCAA tournament bracket, with horizontal lines shooting off each other through the generations. In Wardell’s own family history chart, short summaries about each ancestor range from “sent and received first wireless message between Alaska and Siberia” to “killed in a railroad accident” to “bigamist.”

Though he said it isn’t a prerequisite to successful research, Wardell had the advantage of learning French during two years at West Point and after serving in World War II. “I was sitting in the mud, in a tent city, after the war. They have an order for one officer to go study French for six weeks at the University of Paris. All the other guys wanted to go home, so I got to go,” he said.

Knowing a foreign language may break down some barriers, but Wardell said English can get a researcher far enough. “You have to know where to look, and where to write too, also. I subscribe to five or six different genealogy magazines, and there’s information in them all the time,” he said.

Wardell said the process of researching can be challenging. A hand-out he gives during classes is a biological illustration called “The Perfect Genealogist,” including a “padded elbow to prevent calluses caused by leaning on reading tables” and a “steam gauge and pressure value” on top of the head.

ALTHOUGH BOTH WARDELL and the Mount Vernon society cover local family lines and history, McClendon said the scope of research is never limited.

“One of the misconceptions about genealogy societies is that they’re focused on the community in which they’re located, and that’s not the case. It’s people who are interested in genealogy, and we get together to share information and provide training to research the world,” he said.

McClendon is currently researching William Lewis, a third great-grandfather on one of his lines. He was a Lt. Col. in the Kentucky Volunteers during the War of 1812, fighting in a major battle near Detroit and captured by the British. But McClendon’s focus is on another militaristic aspect of Lewis’s life.

“My whole interest in him is that my mother, who’s now passed away, joined the D.A.R. and he was the patriot by which she was able to get in — supposedly, he was in the Revolutionary War,” he said. “Since then, the D.A.R. looked into other records and [said it] can’t support that idea. They call it ‘closing the line’. This happened after my mother died, and they don’t kick you out — they just don’t take more [in your family] in.”

McClendon has taken on the task of finding conclusive evidence that his ancestor was a Revolutionary War veteran.

“Bit by bit, I’m finding little pieces of the puzzle,” he said. “It’s sort of like paying my mother back for all of the work she did to get me started in the first place.”