There is an old, old joke — a Rodney Dangerfield, perhaps — that has a hapless sad sack lamenting that he had researched his family tree, only to discover that “he was the sap.”
That is the risk one takes, I suppose, when researching family history, that something embarrassing might be tucked into a closeted box of letters or hiding among public records or whispered by an aged twice-removed cousin. But for many of us in the area — particularly the 300-plus members of the Wabash Valley Genealogical Society — who find exploring the lives of ancestors a fascinating obsession, it is usually worth the gamble.
What has been a certainty for those who have belonged to the WVGS for the past 30 years is that Loran Braught seems to always be around, tutoring, encouraging, and growing the organization. Now 85, Braught says that, perhaps, more than ever before, we need to seek an understanding of our families’ pasts, so that we might know more of who we are ourselves.
“There’s a practical reason why we should all be genealogists,” he says. “We need to realize that our families have a lot of influence on our welfare. Our health and appearance are determined by our family; a lot of people are shocked to find out how much they have in common with their ancestors.”
If the number of friends a man has is a measure of his wealth, then Loran is one of the richest men around. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, at the depth of the Great Depression, he met his wife of 65 years, Ruth, in high school, went on to attend both Drake and Iowa State — earning a PhD in elementary education— and, believe it or not, came to Terre Haute and stayed because of the…weather.
“I came here in 1972 with the idea that I wasn’t going to stay very long. Indiana State was doing a project I was interested in, and I took leave from Iowa State for a year to take part in that. Well, the weather here was almost mild compared to the five months of winter in Iowa, and the property taxes were much lower here too, so we just stayed. We made a lot of good friends,” Braught says.
Ruth — the founding secretary of the WVGS — passed away recently, and Loran admits that he’s still trying to find his way without her, but it’s hard to keep a man who is interested in so many things confined to an apartment, and then there is his ongoing love for research, an interest that began back in Iowa.
“I had a great-great aunt who was a Quaker, and she was the family historian,” Braught says. “I was visiting her one afternoon, and she was telling stories, and I have to admit I found out a few things about my family that made me a little uncomfortable. I just stuck my toe in a little bit at first [family research].”
He added, “Des Moines was actually a center of genealogical study, so I got involved in the historical society. It eventually became a ‘disease,’ so for a good many years I didn’t go to bed without something about genealogy on my mind.”
Not long after the Braughts arrived in Terre Haute with three sons in tow, Loran looked into local genealogical efforts and found them barely breathing. In fact, the old society had disbanded.
“…The long and short of it was that not much had been going on for about 20 years,” Loran says. “I was excited about re-starting things, and I knew there would be other people excited about it too, so I got on the radio. I thought 5 or 6 might show up to a meeting, and 40 or more showed up. That’s how we got started.”
So, how did an education professor come to be the “founding father” of a large genealogy group?
Loran puts it simply: “I just talked to people who had research experience. Friends were always very patient with me, and I picked up great ideas. I was very fortunate, but back in those days, there weren’t many family historians. It was very difficult because there were no computers. We made a lot of long-distance calls in those days, and did a lot of pencil-and-paper work, and even drove to a lot of places.”
But things changed. “Oh, it’s a goldmine now,” Loran says. You can do a lot of genealogy while you’re sitting in your dining room. It’s a lot more tantalizing hobby than it was years ago, and not as expensive either.”
Loran also feels that studying and knowing our family roots serves us well in an age when we are spending more and more time alone with social media than connecting with relatives. He also sees Americans losing touch with their own country’s important past.
“Genealogy has really led me to enjoy American History,” he says. “I really think people have begun to lose pride in their heritage. I know that my father was active in the South Pacific [during World War II] because I could speak to him, but I can’t speak to my great-grandparents and learn who they were in Tennessee and Georgia. I get a feel for our national heritage by connecting with them.”
One of Loran’s more memorable genealogy-related moments came when he traveled to the mountains of Tennessee to retrace the steps of two great-uncles who served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
“I look at it from a standpoint of people, not just places and things. We can learn civic history through researching our families. I went down to Lookout Mountain where my family really lived, and it gave me a whole new perspective. I tried to hike a trail on Missionary Ridge where soldiers were pushing cannons up and down those mountains,” Loran said. “One of those two guys eventually married a Cherokee girl, and the other was captured and ended up in Andersonville Prison, so that led me in yet another direction of study.”
In the past year, I too have “dipped my toe” into genealogical waters and have tried to learn the fate of my grandfather’s young sister, Hazel, who was just 5 when she passed. We never knew what she died of or where she was buried, but part of that puzzle is now solved.
Using my own family records, suggestions from the WVGS, and the online tools Loran touts as essential, we found Hazel. Her burial in Arkansas in 1912 now explains a trip my grandfather took nearly 60 years ago, for he apparently took a stone for his little sister’s grave with him. Strangely, I feel a connection to family I’ve never met by discovering where she is.
Loran Braught has spent his life teaching, giving, sharing, and learning, and perhaps his greatest lesson is that nothing — not even death — should separate us from our families and our history.
Contact Mike Lunsford at email@example.com; his website is at www.mikelunsford.com. He will be signing his books at the Vigo County Library on Saturday, Dec. 7, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Learn more about the Wabash Valley Genealogical Society at www.inwvgs.org.