My Great Grandfather Was a Boss

posted in: Adventures, Blog, Life | 0

I love adventures.  Most of these happen on mountains, rivers or in the desert.  This one is different:  I’ve taken time over the past three years to adventure into my personal and family history.  It’s a path overgrown and slightly uncharted, but it’s been a rewarding journey as I seek answers about my personal pedigree.

Big Ted after one of many hunting trips.
Big Ted after one of many hunting trips

“My Dad was my Hero.”

This is my great grandfather, Big Ted.  I never met him, but he’s a man to admire.  He had five kids, two jobs and one World War to handle.  He’s a guy that worked hard to support the family he loved, then played hard to maintain his personal well-being.  He’s the type of person that his daughter still says is her hero.  He’s a man that I can emulate, picking up bits and pieces of his life, then reassembling them to enhance who I am.  He’s someone that I don’t want to disappoint.  Getting to know about Ted’s life has been meaningful and helpful in my life.  It offers perspective and depth to who I am.  Research shows that people who are aware of their family history are more resilient and able to deal with the stress of life.  They’re part of a larger family narrative and culture that gives them the ability to cope and overcome.

“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” – Bruce Feiler

A good friend wrote a blog post recently about his great-grandfather’s lasting legacy and family culture.  Theirs is a strong family narrative built around the concept that “Work is Fun.”  I’m inspired by this 3rd generation story of a family being bound together by a forefather.  It feels good.  Clayton Christensen explains why this idea of a family culture is important in his book How Will You Measure Your Life:

“One of the most powerful tools to enable us to close the gap between the family we want and the family we get is culture.  We need to understand how it works and be prepared to put in the hard yards to influence how it is shaped.

Make no mistake:  a culture happens, whether you want it to or not.  The only question is how hard you are going to try to influence it.  Forming a culture is not an instant loop; it’s not something you can decide on, communicate, and then expect it to suddenly work on its own.”

In the coming weeks and months, my wife and I are going to sit down and deliberately decide on how we will influence our family culture.  A family mission statement and long-term goals are in order.  We’ll both bring multiple generations of our families’ ideas and values to the table to craft our personal family narrative.  I’m convinced that researching your family history gives significance and depth to the life you’re living (or should be living).  Studying family history helps guide your long-term family culture.  So, with that in mind, I’m going to cordially invite you to work on learning your family history.  And you need a starting point.  My path isn’t perfect, but perhaps it will be helpful in your journey:


Every adventure I’ve ever set out on started with a seed of desire: I want to climb something or do something or see something.  In this case, I wanted to know more about myself and my ancestors.

The Phillips Family– Late 1930s. Notice that no one is looking at the camera. The eye lines add an interesting dimension to the flow of the image.

My father-in-law has written volumes of family history that he’s passed on to his kids.  I looked around and no one was handing me books of my family history.  No one was writing it down for me, so I set to work finding my own family history trail.  If a desire to know about your great-grandfather doesn’t eat at you at all, dive in and see what happens.  You too may start to realize your great-grandfather was a boss.

Sources and Interviews

My great aunt and great uncle are still alive.  They’re getting up there, but they’re still kickin’.

Cork, Pauline, Esther and Me in Georgia– 2013

I stopped by to visit and I started digging.  It turns out, my great aunt had assembled three massive binders of family photos over the past couple years.  The vintage images of my kin ignited something inside of me.  I needed these photos.  So, my brother and I spent hours scanning photos at high resolution; this was a family history gold rush.  I then digitally reassembled the books for easy viewing.  Once the book was assembled, I was blessed to sit down with these aunts and uncle to interview them about the photos, one by one.  What a thrill.

As they talked, the photos came alive and the significance of the people in the photos became apparent.  These people worked, suffered, lived, loved, smiled and passed on their heritage to me.  From stories of seedy Louisiana brothels to deep kindness by strangers, the thrill of my family history adventure was starting to take shape.

Visit with the people that are still alive.  Take your phone or a camera and record what they say, then transcribe the interview for easy archiving and reading later.  ExpressScribe is a free transcription program that makes transcribing slightly less painful.  Program keyboard shortcuts within the program and you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll be able to transcribe an hour-long interview.

Notice the photo cut into a circle to fit better. Not ideal.
One of the original pages of the Phillips book, assembled by my aunt Esther.

If you’re the member of the family that ends up the family bucket full of pictures, here are a couple tips:

  • Organize by family, then assemble the pages into an archive book.  If you must paste your pictures in the book, avoid overlapping images– it makes scanning hard later.  Also make sure to write down notes on the backs of photos.
  • Don’t cut pictures down!  Backgrounds tell an important story.  It might save space, but you’ll lose story depth.
  • Scan at high resolution.  We scanned the pages of our Phillips family archive books at 600 dpi.  There were usually 4-5 pictures per page, so the high resolution allowed us to scan fewer total images, yet be able to zoom in an individual pictures for cropping and to see more detail.  High res takes longer to scan, but it’s worth it.


Joyce (cousin), Cork (uncle) and Ruthie (grandmother)– Early 1930s.

Family history has been a burgeoning hobby for millions of people and a major business for others.  I’m no expert at this stuff, but I’m a dedicated novice that’s stoked about finding more stories about my people.  If you’re serious about it, here are a couple excellent resources to get you started:

Family Search— a free service from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that helps you assemble your family tree, then allows you to input pictures, stories and documents about members of your family.  Think of it like Facebook for your ancestors.  It’s easy to use and it rocks.— a paid subscription service (anywhere from $99-$299, depending on the plan)  that has documents from centuries ago.  The amount of census data and documents in their library is staggering.  If you’re digging deep into your family history, this is a treasure trove.

– Your kin!  Call up that uncle you don’t really know and raid his picture box.  Ask him questions.  Dig into his history and his father’s history.  Record it, write it down and get your hands dirty in your family history.

–  More tips and tricks.


In April of this year, my second child was born and we decided to name our little boy Theodore.  We call him “Teddy” and sometimes “Little Ted.”  His namesake comes from the great-grandfather that I met on an adventure into my family history.  I found Big Ted to be worthy, noble and dedicated– all attributes I would hope my son appreciates and develops.  Teddy now has the influence of our emerging family narrative built into his name.  His journey is just beginning, but if he takes the time in his life adventure to get to know the men and women in his family history, I’m confident it will make him a better man, husband, father and contributor the world.  I’m sure of that because I’m watching it happen in my life.  Family history makes me a better, more aware individual.  And that’s why I do it.

Little Teddy
Little Teddy