Monday, July 16, 2012
Whether he’s teaching about the workings of the National Archives or how to breathe life into ancestral records or how to overcome brick walls in genealogy researching, John Philip Colletta, Ph.D., can’t get away from using the word “fun.”
“I do indeed have fun,” says the Washington, D.C.-based lecturer and teacher. “We have a ball. I feel enthusiastically about what I teach. My lectures are full of humor, and I teach through real, true stories. I present real examples, showing real documents. No matter what I’m teaching – about the Archives or problem-solving, I am using stories, and that’s what keeps it fun and entertaining.”
The main speaker for the Illinois State Genealogical Society’s (ISGS) “Family History in Profile” Fall Conference to be held Oct. 19 and 20 at the Best Western Clock Tower Resort & Conference Center in Rockford, Illinois, Dr. Colletta received his advanced degree in Medieval French in the 1980s, but soon switched his career to genealogical research.
“I was teaching French at the American University and getting bored,” he recalls. “I started to do workshops at the National Archives and I started working half time at the Library of Congress – 20 hours a week for 20 years. But then I decided to make the big plunge and leave government employment.”
Today, Dr. Colletta is a popular lecturer and authority on genealogical research who conducts programs for the Smithsonian Institution’s Resident Associate Program, the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, and Boston University’s Certificate in Genealogical Research program. He also is a faculty member of the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Al.
At the ISGS Conference, Dr. Colletta will be speaking on “Is Any Body There? – Tracking Ancestral Remains” at the Friday dinner banquet at 6 p.m., and will lead three sessions on Saturday, beginning at 9:30 a.m. with “Breaking Through Brick Walls: Use Your HEAD!” The other two sessions include “Our National Archives: The Astounding Institution & How to Use It” at 11 a.m., and “Discovering the Real Stories of Your Immigrant Ancestors” at 1:30 p.m.
“I was so delighted the ISGS chose the “Is Any Body There” talk for the banquet,” Dr. Colletta says. “I am going to present three real experiences I had trying to find the graves of my ancestors. I had one ancestor that was buried in three different graves at three different times. Another story will be about a great great grandfather of mine. I spent 30 years researching that story, but I never did locate a grave for him. I’ll talk about that particular funeral with it rosewood casket, but no bones. His body burned up in a fire. Genealogy can lead you to some interesting stories.”
Dr. Colletta has written a book about the graveless great great grandfather’s story entitled “ Only a Few Bones.” It recounts not only the facts about this grandfather’s life and death, but also the world he lived in – from Buffalo, New York, to post-Civil War era Mississippi. Putting one’s ancestor into context is a thread that runs through many of Dr. Colletta’s lectures.
“You always begin with the biographical facts,” he says, “but then you explore the time and place where those events were lived. You investigate what the land was like, what people were around them, what religious groups were in the area. You pull it all together so you see each ancestor as a distinct individual, and you then can see how vastly different their stories are.”
Dr. Colletta says many people have wonderful things they have inherited – jewelry, furniture, clothing, and oral histories. But they don’t pull these things into the story of their ancestors.
“Doing that brings your ancestors so much more vividly to life,” he says. “It takes more time, but when I lecture on how to do this, it’s the kind of talk that really gets people excited to go learn more about their ancestors.
“I don’t think anyone can go away from this Conference without gaining some information about new sources. There’s bound to be something there for anyone who comes.”
For more information and to register for the ISGS Fall Conference, which is co-sponsored by the Winnebago & Boone Counties Genealogical Society, visit the ISGS website at www.ilgensoc.org. To learn more about Dr. Colletta, visit his website at www.genealogyjohn.com.