101 Stories of Serendipity
By DONNA MURRAY ALLEN
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 2000
Megan Smolenyak didn't set out to write a book on
serendipitous anecdotes, but fate intervened.
As the lead researcher for the PBS show Ancestors,
Smolenyak had the job of finding personal stories to be featured on each segment of the 13-week series.
(The series is now airing Fridays at 12:30 p.m. on WUSF-Ch. 16.)
Taking to the Internet, she placed queries on various sites. More than 5,000 responses quickly poured in. Soon she
noticed a pattern emerging. Few people wanted to focus on the nuts and bolts of genealogy. Most wrote about strange
and eerie incidents they had experienced while tracing their roots.
"At our next meeting, I told the producers that it was too
bad we weren't doing a series on 101 stories on serendipity because "I could give that to you right now,' " Smolenyak
said. An idea was born. The book, In Search of Our Ancestors: 101 Inspiring Stories of Serendipity and
Connection in Rediscovering Our Family History became a companion piece to the television series and garnered
Smolenyak a stint on the Today show.
Each tale is unique. One woman discovered her
great-great-grandmother's 1848 marriage certificate stuck between two antique postcards. Another woman,
researching obscure records at a county historical society with the aid of a helpful clerk, discovered that it wasn't the
first time his family had helped hers. The clerk's great-grandfather had signed her grandfather's citizenship
papers. And one man had spent years fruitlessly searching for a tiny Irish town only to learn its exact location during a
chance encounter during a business trip to the Middle East.
Her participation in the project itself was kismet at its best.
Smolenyak, an international marketing consultant by trade, began producing documentaries as an avocation. While
working on a film about a princess who lived in Zanzibar in the mid-1800s, she contacted a couple of documentary
producers she had previously met "to pick their brains." A discussion ensued about their new project, Ancestors.
"I babbled on and on about my interest in genealogy," she
recalled during a phone conversation from her home in Virginia. "When their lead researcher abruptly left the series,
the producers flashed back to this conversation. I got an e-mail asking me if I could come to Utah -- tomorrow," she
said, sounding somewhat awed by the quick turn of events. The rest, of course, is history.
An Army brat born in France, Smolenyak began tracing her
roots in the sixth grade as part of a homework assignment. "Our surnames were written on small pieces of paper and
placed on a world map to indicate where our origins were,"
she said. "It looked like I had the whole Soviet Union to
myself. I started digging then."
In reality, her ancestors hailed from what is now known as
the Slovak Republic. She has conducted extensive research there, and arranged family reunions in both the United States
and the Slovak Republic. To her, that's what genealogy is all about.
"For me, it's the connection, the bringing of people back
together these days as much as finding living relatives," she said. "I'm as welcome in Slovakia as my dad's home. I think
it's important to know where you come from in order to gain
a better understanding of yourself.
"What I aim to do with my book is to inspire as many
people as possible to become involved in genealogy," she said. "I want to attract new recruits and keep others
involved. To keep them addicted, in a good way."
Smolenyak's book may be purchased at most large
bookstores, or ordered from her Web site: http://www.HonoringOurAncestors.com/index.html
Plans call for a sequel. If you have an interesting story to tell,
send it to "In Search of Our Ancestors," Adams Media Corp., 260 Center St., Holbrook, MA 02343.