Branches of the Family Tree

Article excerpt

The genealogy bug bit Megan Smolenyak after a homework assignment about family names prompted her to dig deeper into her past.

One vital record led to the next, and soon the fledgling sleuth had uncovered family history dating back to the 1700s. She was surprised to learn she shared something in common with one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century.

"My mother's side is pure Irish, and on my father's side, it's an ethnic group called Carpatho-Rusyn who lived in the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe. Andy Warhol was one of us," says Ms. Smolenyak, 39, who lives in Vienna, Va.

Her sixth-grade genealogy assignment left an indelible impression: Genealogy has become her "one grand obsession."

To that end, Ms. Smolenyak has written a book - a companion piece to the upcoming PBS series "In Search of Our Ancestors." The 13-part documentary series begins airing on WETA-TV (Channel 26) on July 21.

Ms. Smolenyak's 237-page book with the same moniker, published by Adams Media Corp. in Holbrook, Mass., includes 101 stories of serendipity, kindness, coincidence and a connection in rediscovering family histories.

"Some people intend to dabble in genealogy - they put together a slide show (for a family reunion) and then they find out something they never knew about their family," Ms. Smolenyak says.

"It's like I say in the book: `It [happens] the same way one gets sucked into a good mystery novel.' Genealogy is basically a big old detective story. You are putting together this puzzle, and you are making friends on all kinds of continents," she says.

Luck is when opportunity meets preparedness.

* * *

Ms. Smolenyak befriended a team of PBS producers while working in Palestine for an international marketing consulting firm last spring. The producers called her when they decided to create an all-new "Ancestors" series. (The first "Ancestors" series aired on public television in 1997.)

"We hit it off and stayed in touch. They knew I was an avid genealogist, had TV experience and good research skills," Ms. Smolenyak says.

"So, when someone had to leave the project suddenly, they offered me the opportunity to become one of the researchers for the series," Ms. Smolenyak says.

Once the cameras stopped rolling, Ms. Smolenyak, the lead researcher on the project, was still surrounded by hundreds of fascinating genealogical tales. Rather than cast them aside, she decided to write the book.

The PBS research team used an assortment of techniques to obtain stories for the television series. The team solicited stories for consideration from people using the Internet, Ms. Smolenyak says. "In the first push we received 1,000 stories, but we could only use 13 for the television series," she says.

"That's how the book was born. I conducted a second round of research for the book and ended up considering over 5,000 stories. …