Over the course of their 40-year marriage, John Rodwick, 77, and his wife, Jean, 79, have traveled extensively, crisscrossing the U.S. and the globe on amazing adventures.
They both grew up loving to learn and explore, but certain journeys have taken on a special significance: The Rodwicks have traveled the world hoping to learn more about the people responsible for bringing them into it.
Family history has always been important to the Rodwicks, but their interest in genealogy resurfaced about 30 years ago with the PBS mini-series, “Roots.”
“Jean had already been doing [genealogy] research for 20 years, but that added fuel to the fire,” John said. “This is how we have discovered relatives we never knew existed.”
Jean traced her family back to the 1600s, and John’s back to the 1700s. An interest in these forebears has taken the two of them around the world, where they connected with genealogy experts and explored courthouses, city halls, churches, museums and cemeteries. They’ve even met relatives along the way.
“Jean and I are both related to second cousins who were PGA hall-of-famers,” John said.
Jean is related to Byron Nelson, a legendary golfer in the first half of the 20th century who retired early and became a rancher.
“One of my relatives, Eddie Merrins, was one of Tiger Woods’ teachers. We got an invitation to Eddie’s installation into the Hall of Fame down in Florida. It was a remarkable experience for us. Plus, it brought in other family members who were golf aficionados who had never met Eddie before. They set up times to play golf together.”
That connection is one of the reasons the Rodwicks find genealogy intriguing.
“It’s the history,” John said. “It’s the people.”
The right way to research
Traveling has been the Rodwicks’ best method of research, as it enables them to gather information firsthand by checking town records, photographing tombstones, talking with neighbors and exploring relevant places and territories.
“Travel stimulates an understanding and appreciation of our past,” said John. “We have a passion for history and travel, and family.”
In the U.S., Jean’s family history is rooted primarily in Texas and Missouri; John’s is in New York City.
“Some of Jean’s relatives go back to the time of the Pilgrims, so we’ve spent a lot of time on the East Coast,” John said. “We wanted to know where they landed and we found it.”
The Rodwicks have gone even farther to find their families’ stories. John’s father emigrated from Croatia, so they traveled there and found the home where his father was raised.
Sometimes research leads the Rodwicks straight to what they’re looking for, but it’s not always so simple.
On one trip to Ireland, they were searching for family on John’s mother’s side—the Merrins—but didn’t find anyone with that surname in the area. It wasn’t until they returned home that they discovered that many Merrins intermarried over the last few generations and now go by Fitzgerald.
“We were a mile away, but didn’t know it until we got home. Jean uploaded the information to our website and someone in Ireland happened to get in touch with us,” John said. “That’s the kind of stuff that happens in genealogical travels.”
Strong research skills are vital when planning their trips. The Rodwicks use historical records and consult maps, old and new.
While genealogy websites like www.ancestry.com provide a good starting point for research, Jean warned not to rely solely on others’ information.
“You need to check their work,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation that gets done and it proliferates.”
The Rodwicks hire genealogy experts in the cities and regions they visit to do preliminary research before they plan their trips. Jean occasionally finds someone in local records offices who is willing do some initial investigating for free.
What’s your story?
John believes that everyone’s family has something special in its background and knowing one’s origins can help people feel whole.
“We’re relational people. We were never meant to be loners,” John said. “That’s what genealogy does—it puts us in contact with those who we’re most closely connected to.”
Learning about his family and listening to stories growing up helped shape John’s future.
“All my relatives were professionals—they were doctors and lawyers,” he said. “When you’re in that kind
of milieu, [your genealogy] says, ‘Well, are you going to come up to the plate or not?’” he said.
He lived up to his ancestors by obtaining doctorates in psychology and management. Jean also has doctorates in reading and special education.
“Learning has always been part of our lives and our travels,” John said.
Jean has five published books on their family’s genealogy in the Library of Congress. One clocks in at more than 1,000 pages.
“This allows us to hand over what we’ve discovered to the next generation so they have a story,” John said.
Jean has reached a standstill in her genealogical research due to a lack of records, but even though she’s done researching their families’ pasts, she is always adding information about new generations.
“We usually touch base [with family] at Christmas,” she said. “Everyone’s willing to help. When someone has a baby, I like to get that information.”
John said he’s surprised when he gets a blank stare from people when he asks if they know about their family history.
“We are not just here today, we are connected to history,” he said. “Most people only see the immediate present and don’t look beyond that. Your story has many more chapters than just the one you’re living.”
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