The stories within us

September 23, 2022

Genealogy

By Matthew Dewald

The way Jean Morrissey Sanner, ’93, now sees it, her dad “is in every kitchen drawer around the country.” She didn’t grow up thinking that. He was an engineer at Reynolds Metal, but she didn’t learn that he helped design the machines that produce its iconic aluminum foil until after he passed away about 20 years ago.

If a family story like that can almost be lost from just one generation to the next, imagine what can be lost over many generations. Sanner knows better than most because she’s a specialist in recovering lost family stories. Her area of expertise is genetic genealogy, which she says isn’t too different from her international studies major at Richmond.

“You take history classes, languages, art history, religion, economics — all these different subjects that I was always very curious about,” she said. “Genealogy is the same way. To be successful at it, you have to understand the push-pull factors of immigration, right? And why, almost always for economic reasons, someone leaves one place to go to another. And you have to understand agriculture.”

Finding great stories can be very transformative.

For years, Sanner worked in the Richmond area for clients ranging from regular people curious about their backstories to attorneys trying to clear deeds for property sales. Since relocating to the Tampa Bay area in 2018, she’s stayed involved with the research as a member of the executive board of the Florida Genealogical Society — Tampa.

In her own family, she’s found literal Bohemians and women who stood up to attackers a century before #metoo. For others, she’s turned up adoptees’ long-lost biological relatives and family legacies of resilience in pre-Civil War free Black communities. Not every discovery is happy, and she helps those clients too, sometimes referring them to experts for support. Uncovering facts, she said, is powerful.

“Finding great stories, especially when they’re true, can be very transformative,” she said. “When it’s about us — like part of the story takes place in our own genes — I think that’s even more compelling.”