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I never met my great-grandfather Harry Gordon Blaine. He died 11 years before I was born. Yet his presence pervaded my childhood. He was a medical doctor, after all! None of my other relatives — teachers, postal workers, furniture makers, laborers, farmers, office workers — had such an illustrious occupation. No others had saved a life as Dr. Blaine did when he performed an emergency appendectomy on one of his grandsons.

And what made this man even more fascinating were the objects he had left behind. We were the only family in our neighborhood who had a real skeleton in our attic and a real set of 19th century surgical tools in a back closet.

We also felt Dr. Blaine’s presence in a voluminous collection of photos and written records. As a young man, he had kept a diary for ten years which chronicled not only the mundane events of his life as a farmer, but also his growing passion to become a medical doctor and the steps he took to reach that goal. A stack of letters written to and from other family members and  a biography written by one of his sons filled in more gaps in his life.

All of this information, as I read it now, reveals a man whose enthusiasm for knowledge, especially for things mechanical, was unquenchable. And the new discoveries and inventions  of the early 1900s fed that enthusiasm: the first horseless carriages (early name for automobiles), telephones, phonographs, incandescent electric lights, airplanes, and so much more that we now take for granted. It was the age of belief in the forward progress of mankind, and Dr. Blaine was an ardent believer.

Yet, like most people, this remarkable man also had his dark side. Some of his letters contain disparaging remarks about minority groups — an attitude I am sure he shared with most of the society around him. Never a good manager of money, he drove his wife to sue for divorce on grounds of nonsupport of his family. And a family legend about his addiction to morphine was finally substantiated in a copy of the divorce decree. After his death, his estate was so tangled that it took many years to unravel all the details.

Even so, in his lifetime Dr. Blaine contributed to the well-being of countless patients in rural northwest Ohio, was a valued colleague in the medical community, and made his own mark on the society around him. I feel honored, as a descendant, to have him in my family tree.

Remarkable people may be hiding in your family tree too. Even if you never write a book about them, don’t miss the opportunity to make the acquaintance of any who pique your interest. Just as important, be sure to pass down family stories (including your own) to the next generations. As Russell Baker so eloquently put it: “We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.”

 

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