Life Lessons Learned from Old School Records

Pages from a photo book created for my mother-in-law, Arlene Boubek Biallas. Included in the book are photos, awards and report cards from Arlene’s high school days in Chicago in the early 1950s.

Recently I’ve been taking some online genealogy courses through the National Institute of Genealogical Studies (NIGS) to enhance my knowledge in certain areas of professional interest—methodology, immigration, copyright, probate and social history to name a few.

One course I recently completed was “Institutional Records” which covers—among other topics—how to locate, understand and use hospital, prison, school and other institutional records in genealogical research. Like most classes, whether in person or online, there’s plenty of reading, writing and research involved as well as assignments and exams.

This was the assignment related to researching old school records:

“Describe an experience you have had finding an educational record for an ancestor amongst family papers or elsewhere. What did you find? Where did you find it? How did it help you understand the person’s life better?”

Part of my response to that assignment included the following:

Several years ago for about 6 weeks, my elderly mother-in-law Arlene Boubek Biallas, met with me weekly to share details on her family of origin and her  years growing up in St. Louis and Chicago from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. We also sorted, purged and organized more than 75 years of her personal photos, documents, awards, and other mementos. My goal—unbeknownst to her—was to create a personalized photo book for her that would showcase her entire collection of memorabilia all in one place.

All went well and I was very pleased to see that she loved the finished product—that is, until, wide-eyed—she stopped in her tracks on a page that showed a VERY large photo of her final high school report card from Oak Park River Forest High School from 1953.

Though it was laden with “A”s and “B”s in Public Speaking, Typing, Home Ec, and Phys Ed, Arlene was shocked and upset to see that she ALSO garnered a “D” that semester in American History.

She was mortified that the proof of her poor academic performance in that one subject was now permanently ensconced in a photo book for all time, for all of the world to see.

An unexpected grade in American History memorialized for all time.

She was 76 years old at the time and died a few years later—two years ago today, to be precise.

Arlene was always a good sport though, and got past her embarrassment over that unwelcome grade from 60 years earlier pretty quickly. We even had a few chuckles over it together in the years that followed.

I truly loved my mother-in-law, and the shock, embarrassment, and eventual laughter that incident provoked fosters fond memories of our weekly get-togethers when she shared her family history with me. And now, thanks to the generosity of her time back then,  I can now share her memories with her descendants.

Every time I see that report card of hers from 1953 in that photo book though, I can’t help but smile about how lucky I was to have her for so long.

I learned a lot from Arlene over the 33 years I knew her. Some of the best lessons I learned from this particular incident though, were to keep things in perspective, don’t sweat the small stuff, and learn to laugh at yourself. Most things we worry about simply don’t warrant the worry.

Arlene may not have not have excelled in American History back in 1953, but if she were taking a course in Family History today, there’s little doubt she’d earn a big fat “A” on her final report card—at least in my book, that is.


Copyright © 2017 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in Biographies, Family Legends, Family Stories, Social History | 6 Comments

Really? There’s a National Siblings Day?!

I just noted on Facebook via my friend Jana Last, that today, April 10, is National Siblings Day.

Who knew?!

Jana learned about it herself via Facebook and reposted it there.  I had to find out more so I “googled” the term.  That led me to this site for the Siblings Day Foundation. There, I read that the SDF is a public, non-profit charity “devoted to establishing National Siblings Day for the benefit of our families, our communities and our nation.”

Its  goal is to make it a federally recognized day, like Mother’s and Father’s Days. It also led me to this article that ran in the International Business Times a couple of years ago. For all the facts on National Siblings day, click here.

In the meantime, a salute to my 7 siblings–Barbara, Diane, Dorothy, Colleen, Gerry, Brian and Vinnie–from  your kid sister, Patti. These four images–the  only ones I’m aware of with all of us together–were taken over the last 59 years:


1956: A more formal pose of the eight Desmond siblings and their parents just prior to Diane's departure to join the convent.

1983: The Desmond sibs gathered for my wedding day August 20, 1983.


Officially recognized yet, or not: Happy Siblings Day, to one and all!


Note:  This post was originally published on GeneaJourneys April 10, 2014. There are now just seven of us Desmond siblings as we lost our brother Gerry in January. You’ll always be in our hearts though, Ger.

Copyright © 2017 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in Biographies, Just for Fun!, Photo Stories, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Social History: the Key to Producing Captivating Family Stories

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigital

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at

How does a genealogist or family historian write about an event that he or she hasn’t actually witnessed firsthand?

The Basics

Back in Journalism 101—many long decades ago—I learned the key to good newspaper reporting was to cover the 5 Ws and the H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

To add description, my professors suggested, throw in the five senses: Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch. What did it look like? How did it sound? What did it smell or taste like? How did it physically or emotionally feel?

Family historians, though, tend to write about people they most likely never knew or events they couldn’t possibly have witnessed. For that reason, there’s a third component to this writing recipe that should be included in their writing as well: qualifiers—words like “possibly”, “probably”, “likely”, “no doubt”, “presumably”, “could” and “perhaps”. There are probably other words just like them that can serve as qualifiers in our writing as well. (Did you catch the qualifiers in the first and last sentence of the paragraph you just finished reading?)

Of course, you’ll want to open your narrative with a “hook”; all good writing does that. It might even be a question as opposed to a statement. (Note the opening sentence in paragraph one.)

Finally, the wrap up. Here are three ideas for your finale :

  • a Summary, which recaps what you’ve already written; straightforward but can be a bit dull;
  • a Suggestion, which offers readers a theory as to how the situation may have developed, while leaving the door open to other possibilities; or
  • a Question which invites readers to consider, wonder, or surmise for themselves why the person did what they did, what may have happened next, or how the story may have actually turned out.

Putting the Flesh on Those Old Bones

Recently, I’ve been taking some online courses to sharpen my skills in genealogy research, analysis and writing. Two have been particularly useful. The first has to do with finding the women on the family tree. (Drat those married names like “Mrs. Cornelius Daly” and “Mrs. Daniel Deneen” that erect an immediate brick wall! What was her MAIDEN name, dang it? And could you give me her first name, please, instead of that of her husband?)

The subject of the other course is crucial though, for those intent on preserving the past. It’s all about researching and incorporating the social history of your ancestors’ lives into your writing to put the flesh back on their bones. (Pun intended.)

What’s “social history” you ask? It’s a branch of history that zeroes in on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people who lived in the past during a particular place and time: How they lived, worked, spent their leisure, or simply got along through life. Simply put, it’s the history of the common man (and woman and child) at the micro level.

Subject areas include birth, life and death; marriage and family life; food, clothing and community life; occupations, education and religion; customs, traditions, and celebrations.

The “big” topics–crime, war, epidemics and other disasters covered in traditional history books–are included in social histories too, but only as they relate to how they impacted the everyday lives of ordinary people who experienced those events.

A century from now,  for example, some future social historian may choose to research and write about how America’s current presidential election affected our everyday lives way back in 2016. Now, that would be quite a read!

Using Social History to Produce Captivating Family Stories

I’ll let you in on a little secret I’ve discovered over the years as a writer, genealogist and family historian: Weaving social history into your genealogical writing will breathe life back into those old ancestors’ bones (metaphorically speaking, that is.) And ultimately, isn’t that what most genealogists and family historians strive to achieve–to  “bring their ancestors’ stories to life?”

For examples of how I incorporated social history into some ancestors’ stories published here on GeneaJourneys over the years, I invite you to a click on a few of these posts:

Edward Kennedy, Civil War Pontonnier!

Searching for a Phantom Uncle in Depression Era Records

An Overdue Salute to an Unsung Hero

A Flower Girl’s Memories, 50 Years Later

Now, if  you’re not quite sure just how to research the time and place your ancestors lived in, no worries. I promise: You won’t have to retake high school history.

There are a host of reasonably short, easy to read, social history books that can introduce you to the everyday lives of ordinary people in the particular times and places in which they lived.

Did your ancestors live through Colonial times? the Civil War? the Victorian era? the Wild West? Prohibition? World War II? There are social history books on each of those topics, as well as on many more. Start with your library. If no luck there, check and other online booksellers or your favorite brick and mortar bookstore. You can also just google “everyday life” + “(the era you’re interested in)” to see what pops up.

Bookshelf basics I keep on hand when writing about people from the past include these social history staples:

Daily Life in Immigrant America: 1820-1870 by James M. Berquist, c. 2009

Daily Life in Immigrant America: 1870-1920 by June Granitir Alexander, c. 2007

Daily Life in Immigrant America: 1920-1940 by David E. Kyvig, c. 2004

And to look something up about life in the “old country” when all eight of my great-grandparents lived there, I have this standard to refer to:

Everyday Life in 19th-Century Ireland by Ian Maxwell, c. 2012

So if you want to breathe a little more depth, a little more breadth, and a little more life into your next family story, consider researching and including some social  history related to your ancestors’ lives into your next family narrative.

Your descendants will thank you.

(Your ancestors just might thank you someday, too.)


 Copyright © 2016 Patricia Desmond Biallas

Posted in American History, Family Stories, Research, Research Tips, Social History | 2 Comments