Finding the Historical Articles That Tell My Ancestor’s Story

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott writes about finding old newspapers articles about a foreign-study program called “World Campus Afloat” that he once participated in—the same program, it turns out, that a family member had attended years earlier.

As a genealogical historian I often include what some people might call the “back story” on many of my ancestors. I, however, much prefer to call it the “front story.” I take great enjoyment and pride in being able to add more to my family members’ profiles on my family tree than just facts, figures, and dates. I think of each person’s profile as a quilt. As a result, I need to find and attach as many of the unique squares—the stories—that represent their lives. I believe a terrific place to find such ancestor stories is in the historical newspapers of the time.

So it was that I found myself using GenealogyBank.com while I was working on stitching up the “quilt” for one of our family members. I had made the discovery that they, too, had attended “Semester at Sea,” the same foreign-study program that I had, although they had done it many years before I attended. Not being familiar with this program’s roots, I decided to take a look for what was originally named the “University of the Seven Seas.” Not expecting much, I was amazed to find that my search provided me with over 240 results!

photo of the author, Scott Phillips, as a youth on board ship, participating in the World Campus Afloat program

Photo: the author as a youth (left) on board ship, participating in the World Campus Afloat program

The first article I read was a terrific find from the Springfield Union. It featured an article that covered more than half a page of newsprint and told a detailed story about the very first voyage ever undertaken by the University of the Seven Seas program, and featured the first Academic Dean and a local student as well.

SC Professor Back after Semester on High Seas, Springfield Union newspaper article 23 February 1964

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 23 February 1964, page 51

The next article I read was published in the Boston Herald. Again I found that the wonderful focus on detail provided by good newspaper reporting paid dividends: the news article listed dates of sailing, duration of the voyages, and ports of call. It also gave a bit of history, talked about the partners in the program at that time, and gave some personal insights by students.

New 'Semesters at Sea' Scheduled by Ship Line, Boston Herald newspaper article 19 April 1964

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 19 April 1964, page 264

My next discovery led me to the fact that the program officially changed names from the “University of the Seven Seas” to “World Campus Afloat.” Thanks to another capable newspaperwoman or man, this fact was nicely showcased in an old article published in the Trenton Evening Times and provided me with yet more detailed information.

Floating Campus Cruises the World, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 10 December 1967

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 10 December 1967, page 53

From a report in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set from the “Historical Documents” portion of the GenealogyBank.com database, I learned that a member of the program’s faculty testified on United States policy toward Asia in front of a subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee in 1966. It was interesting to read the biography of this individual, Dr. C. Y. Pan, and then to follow along and read his actual testimony.

United States Policy toward Asia, U.S. Congressional Serial Set: Vol. No.12725-3; Report: H.Doc. 488; 19 May 1966

U.S. Congressional Serial Set: Vol. No.12725-3; Report: H.Doc. 488; 19 May 1966

At this point I had lost all track of time and must have read more than 50 historical articles and scanned many more, but another one caught my eye and I had to keep going. It was published in the Greensboro Daily News, and when I opened the article—there was an old classmate of mine looking back at me from the newspaper photograph showing up on my computer screen!

New Program Lets Students Help Plan Courses, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 26 December 1972

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 26 December 1972, page 51

I was about to conclude my searching for the evening when I found one more article of interest. Sadly, it was an obituary for the actor Jeff Corey. Jeff had been our Actor-in-Residence, drama professor, and a wonderfully friendly, open, and approachable member of our shipboard faculty. This was certainly a bittersweet find.

Jeff Corey death notice, USA Today newspaper article 3 January 2003

USA Today (Arlington, Virginia), 3 January 2003

So not only did I find enough material to more fully tell the story about my family member as I had set out to do, but I also found out a great deal more about an educational organization we both attended. In doing so, I rekindled old memories of my own. What a tremendous side benefit to my family tree research!

Do you have anything like this in common with your ancestors? If so, please share with us in the comments. We love to hear your family stories.

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Written by Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. Scott specializes in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the United Kingdom, and Italy. In addition to GenealogyBank.com, Scott has been recently published by Ohio Genealogy Society, National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, SaveEllisIsland.com, MyHeritage.com, and Greater Cleveland Genealogical Society. He was a presenter at the 2012 World Congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in Slovakia. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page at OnwardToOurPast and on his website/blog at OnwardToOurPast.

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