Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"The 'Forever Young'"


"...Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out;
Runners whom renown outran
& the name died before the man..."
exerpt from "To an Athlete Dying Young" A.E. Housman, 1896

Today would have been John F. Kennedy's 95th birthday.  Yet when we see him today in our mind's eye, the image is a picture of youth - the energetic, confident leader - the epitome of "vigah" - and alongside of him, his lovely young wife & little children. 

Popular culture is filled with figures whose lives were cut short in their prime.  A few that immediately come to mind: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Lou Gehrig.  They, too, are frozen in time, in our collective memory.

Even without fame and fanfare, each family has its own legendary figures taken before their time - eliciting the immortal cry "what might have been..."  Think about your own family for a moment - surely you've known, or know of, a relative who died defending our country, or one who got terminally sick at a young age, or one who was taken tragically in an accident.

On August 22 of last year I made a post on Facebook, noting the 100th birthday anniversary of Gerald Runyan, my grandfather.  The mere thought of him as an elderly man is as foreign to my family as the man in the moon.  That's because "Jerry" Runyan was killed in an automobile crash in 1939, when he was just 27 - and my father, who was still a baby at the time of the tragedy, responded to my post last summer that his dad was among the "forever young."

The forever young.  A beautiful sentiment that evoked the above lyric elegy by Housman.

I knew from a young age that both of my parents lost their fathers when they were little.  My dad was 16 months old, and my mom was just 5 years old when her daddy (she always referred to him that way) died, a 34-year-old mechanic named Ray Vanhorn.  Naturally, I had always looked at those tragedies from the vantage point of those left behind.

When I was a teenager, an evolution in my understanding began.  It started one afternoon when a beloved elderly neighbor a few doors down from my boyhood home in Milton, Mr. Fred "Skeet" Lohman, called me over to chat with him while he clipped his hedges.  He brought up the subject of my grandfather, and proceeded to tell me the usual things I'd heard before - Jerry's prowess on the baseball diamond; his fun, gregarious nature; and of his popular young wife & kids.  But then his demeanor changed as he began to describe the details of the night of the accident - the horrible crash, and the immediate and lasting reaction of our little town - shaking his head the whole time and speaking in hushed tones as if it had all happened the previous week.  I was left to ponder why it still affected him so, more than four decades afterwards.

The evolution continued, when, in the winter of 1996, I had driven up to Watsontown to take my wife to a "tupperware" style party of some sort, and while she was busy with that, I took our year-old son with me over to nearby Turbotville Cemetery, where many of the Runyan family, including Jerry and his widow, Miriam - my grandmother - are resting.  Holding my baby boy in my arms, I gazed down at the names and dates on the stones, and for the first time it really hit me - with crystal clarity I was able to see the tragedy from the vantage point of the young man who wouldn't get the chance to grow old with his wife; of the young father who wouldn't live to see his kids grow up; to see his little girl become a dark-eyed beauty and get married and have her own daughter & son; to see his little baby boy become a ballplayer like he was, a man, a U.S. Marine, a father.

I believe it's perfectly fitting that we remember the "forever young" as they were - virile and full of potential, smiling towards the future.  I imagine it's how they would like to be remembered, and perhaps remembering them in that fashion helps us to better cope with mortality - both theirs and ours.

But, having said all that, I also believe that Housman may have taken the sentiment too far, and by doing so, gave short shrift to the real meaning of life - Living; enjoying your family & friends, experiencing life's ups & downs, and looking forward (and backwards) together.

And I believe that Jacqueline Kennedy got it 100% right, when she remembered
her beloved Jack this way:

"now he is a legend when he would have preferred to be a man..."

Top photo:  Jerry Runyan getting ready for a baseball game.
Above:  Jerry & Mim (Heffelfinger) Runyan
with their children, Nancy & Jim.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The document above is a copy of the handwritten letter sent by
my great-grandfather Fuller S. Runyan
to genealogist Wilbur C. Runyan, Jr., of South Carolina.
This copy was given to me by my dear genealogy buddy, 
the late Hazel (Beck) Sheehan of Berks Co., PA.

One of the best parts about genealogy is the cameraderie among researchers.  There is joy in simply meeting a fellow tree-climber - say, at the library or in a courthouse basement, or even on a web-based community - and there is unabashed delight if the two of you happen to be climbing around the same tree.  It's safe to say that the vast majority of researchers feel exactly the same way.

Particularly, we revel in opportunities for collaboration.  For me, whenever I find something that has been difficult to track down, or even if I merely happen upon a serendipitous discovery while looking for something else - I can hardly wait to share it.  Likewise, I am like a child at Christmas whenever someone is able to hand me something that I need. 

Put another way - anything that any of us has collected/compiled/discovered, etc. is made available to anyone who wants it - a gift that should be, and is, cherished and appreciated.

All of the above is true, but let me add this on behalf of myself and every other researcher - you can have whatever I have, but if you got it from me, I want to be cited as a source. 

Not because I created anything, or because I "own" the material; facts are facts, after all, no matter who brought them to light.  Right?

I want credit, a nod in my direction if you will, for one simple reason -  it's because I want other researchers to contact me.  Information flows both ways - I may have additional data that they can use, and they may have some for me. 

If someone sees the fruit of my work in somebody else's published genealogy - or, more likely nowadays, an online family tree - without citation, you can imagine the untold potential opportunities that may be missed.

Collaboration is not only what makes this hobby so satisfying, it's what makes it work.

So, I hope all of you reading this will make a pledge with me - in appreciation for all of those who have paved the way before us, and for those we meet along the way - to show that we are grateful, out loud, and in writing.

Happy Hunting -

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Footprints Of Four Centuries"

I thought I would start out by explaining the title of this blog:

My interest in genealogy started in earnest in the summer of 2000.  I had been poking around the web for a couple of months, when I got an e-mail from my grandfather's cousin William T. Bobb (the little guy in the above photograph.)  When I began corresponding with Bill, he was no longer a little boy, but rather a gentleman of 82 years - and importantly for my project, he was eager to help with my research.

I can never give adequate thanks for all the help he has given me over the years - lending me dozens of old photographs, crawling around his brother Bruce's attic looking for the 1848 Runyan Bible (they found it!), and the gift of an old American history textbook, published in 1895, entitled, as you may have guessed - "Footprints Of Four Centuries."

This wasn't just an old book - no, there was something special about this copy - inside the front cover was a handwritten message - "To William Bobb, From Grandma Runyan, October 25, 1921."

Bill looked at me and wondered, "why would my grandmother give me a big book like this when I was only 4 years old?"

The instant I saw it, I knew why - she wanted him to have her husband's personal copy of the book.  You see, Bill was his grandfather's namesake, and the inscribed date, October 25, 1921, was the day that William Runyan died.

William Runyan had been, among other things, a schoolteacher.  But most of all, he was a family man - and I'm sure he was pleased and proud as can be to have a little namesake grandson.

The thought-filled, almost pensive look on Bill's face when I explained the significance of that simple notation, in a book that he had in his possession for almost eight decades; to see in his expression a connection from the present to the past, his past - a look I've been blessed to see over and over with many different relatives since that day - is really what got me hooked on the wonderful, interesting (and sometimes maddening) hobby of genealogy, and particularly, sharing what I've "discovered" in my search.

You can see the two Williams in the photo above, and with them is 
"Grandma Runyan", Icydora (Seidel) Runyan.