Family History Centers and Me

by Ileen Judd Johnson

I have always been interested in family history. As a child I remember with fondness the times relatives stopped by to visit. I was fascinated with their talk of home and family.

After I graduated from high school I attended business school in Salt Lake City. That’s when I discovered the Genealogy Library housed in the basement of the old Montgomery Ward Building on Main Street. There were shelves and shelves of big binders containing family group records submitted by Church members. Only one binder could be checked out at a time, relevant data carefully copied by hand, then promptly checked back in. I was delighted when the Library acquired a photocopier. With this new invention I could instantly copy an entire family group record for only five cents!

My marriage and move to St. Paul, Minnesota, far from home and far from the Genealogy Library, put a stop to the photocopying; but then ensued correspondence with relatives. This became my connection to “home”. I could not visit the Library, but I could type, and I had a typewriter. So in between typing theses for my husband Freeman, I typed family histories.

Eight years and four children later we moved to Northern Minnesota and the first real job! Over the next 10 years five more children were added to our family. There was little time for family histories. A new cash crop developed and Freeman was kept busy breeding hybrid oilseed sunflowers. The Europeans, especially the French, loved sunflower oil. This crop later took us to South Texas near the Mexican border to take advantage of the warm climate and extended growing season. Even though I studied the Spanish language, and attended bilingual church services, I could not carry on a conversation in Spanish. Then, after only two years in South Texas, the death of Freeman’s boss made it necessary for us to return to Minnesota.

As soon as we got “back home” I was asked to help staff the new Family History Center in Fargo–just across the Minnesota/North Dakota border–where I worked two days a week for the next nine years. During my sojourn there, I worked mostly with non-LDS patrons, organized and cataloged the Family History Center holdings and prepared patron how-to helps. Freeman now had an office in our basement with a photocopier, computers, and lots of filing cabinets. I have always liked filing things, and I love anything genealogical, so I enjoyed collecting and filing genealogical stuff and producing books about my own ancestors. When Personal Ancestral File 1.0 came into being in the 1980s, I jumped right in and started entering my family data. This occupied most of my evenings for nearly three years.

The French company Freeman worked for eventually decided they preferred producing their sunflower seed in France rather than importing it from the United States, but to do this they would need to hire someone who had worked with the crop and knew something about plant breeding. Freeman was offered the job, and rather than be unemployed, he accepted. Since he didn’t speak French, but did speak Spanish the company located the sunflower research program at a company-owned branch in Zaragoza, Spain.

In August of 1990 we called the movers, packed up household goods, arranged for transport of company equipment and automobiles, and visited relatives in Utah before leaving for Madrid, Spain. We left two boys (now young adults) in Fargo and took two girls 16 and 17 with us.

We couldn’t rent a vehicle at the Madrid airport that would accommodate four people and all our baggage, so we had to drive two cars on to to Zaragoza. The two girls were in one car with me, and Freeman followed us in another car with all our baggage. That was a hairy ride for a novice driver (me) who couldn’t stay awake. Freeman didn’t tell me we had to pass over a range of mountains. We nearly ran off the road, but not because I fell asleep. This big truck behind us wanted to pass, so I tried to drive as close to the shoulder as I could. He pulled out to pass just as another big truck came rolling around the bend towards us. The passing truck laid on his horn and I had to move over some more! I could feel the right tires of the car going off the shoulder twice, but fortunately our guardian angel was on duty, and we made it! I might mention too that this was a two-lane highway with no guard rails, and we were close to the summit. Pretty sharp drop off too. I still get scared remembering this 24 years later.

We did have a rental house near the U. S. Air Base in Zaragoza, and military families were kind enough to help us get settled and enroll the girls in the U. S. high school on Base. It was November, three months later, before our household and company goods arrived.

Plans were already under way to close the Air Base in the near future, and reduction of military personnel had left a vacancy in the local church district presidency. Freeman was called to fill this position and oversee the developing family history center. The District President was happy he could speak Spanish, albeit the Argentine/Uruguayan dialect.

The branch of the Church on the Air Base closed at the end of the school year, and we started attending the branch downtown Zaragoza on a regular basis. Our daughter Kristen, a senior in high school, returned to Minnesota to graduate from her previous high school and attend attend college. Jennifer, our 16-year old, continued high school on Base, and by taking additional correspondence courses she had enough credits to graduate a early at the end of her junior year when the Air Base closed.

President Javier Amigó had been researching his family genealogy and traveled every year to the Frankfurt Temple to perform the ordinances. He had prepared binders of family group sheets organized by year when temple ordinances could be performed. He knew the District needed a Family History Center and had commenced remodeling the church building in Zaragoza to accommodate it. The first time we entered the building downtown there were cabinets for microfiche and microfilm readers–custom built in Portugal–in the foyer ready to be installed. The only thing they didn’t have was someone who knew how to operate a family history center.

According to Freeman there was no discussion as to who should be called, only the declaration by President Amigó that “it’s about time we put Sister Johnson to work.” The start-up supplies were ordered. Thankfully there were English-speaking missionaries at the Frankfurt Distribution Center who could answer all my questions. Once the physical structure was finished and the start-up kit arrived, I spent two days a week at the church getting the reference microfiche and microfilms organized. The things I had copied from the Fargo Family History Center and my personal research experience were helpful, but what we really needed was a way to train the Family History Center staff. All my supplies and instructions were in English.

A way, however, had been prepared to overcome this problem too. A young, single adult sister in the Zaragoza Branch, Corporales Fernandez, had recently completed three years of school in the States, and her English was as good as mine! Even though she already had four or five church callings, she kindly agreed to help me translate an older out-dated English staff training manual to Spanish. Each Sunday I took her a few pages of the original English version and also my attempted translation using double or triple line spacing. With the English version in hand she compared my translation with the original and corrected or re-wrote words and phrases as needed. I don’t remember how long this took us, but in the end we had about 200 pages.

Using chapters from the book we had translated as a guide, training sessions were held with those who would staff the family history center. “Corporal” became the Family History Center director. I taught these sessions with Freeman translating. I couldn’t speak the language, but I knew enough that I could understand what he was saying. He liked to tell stories and add embellishments whenever he could, and sometimes I had to say, “no, that’s not what I said. . .” and have him correct his translation.

The high councilor over family history, Hermano Angel Del Solar lived in our branch, and as soon as supplies arrived he could be found at the family history center night and day researching his ancestry. He jokingly asked if he could move his cama (bed) over there so he wouldn’t have to go home.

We held an open house for members and invited the press. I wore a sign around my neck that read “Yo hablo Genealogia, Inglés y un poco de Espanol” (I speak English, Genealogy and a little Spanish). Announcements of our opening were in the local newspapers. Slowly word got out and we began to have patrons visit the Center. I worried about how I could help people with my poor Spanish, but I soon found that Spanish-speaking patrons enjoyed an opportunity to practice their own English.

I was in the process of formatting the final version of our new staff training manual when we learned that Freeman’s employment contract would not be renewed as we had expected; so we started packing up to return to the United States. The house we had been living in was quickly rented and the new tenants were happy to buy our appliances.

We printed five copies of our staff training manual and sent them out to the two or three existing family history centers in Spain and to Larry Jensen at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City literally as we were loading the truck the end of May 1992.

As I look back on this experience in the year 2016, I can see that we were sent to Spain for a purpose unbeknown to us at the time. Things just fell into place precisely when needed. They could not all be attributed to happenstance. Heavenly Father definitely had His hand in the timing of these events.


One thought on “Family History Centers and Me

  1. What wonderful memories, Ileen. You were instrumental in furthering genealogy/family history wherever you went. And you were a pioneer in Spain.


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