Leslie Huber’s passion for genealogy started with a simple story about roller skates, and after exploration of the career path, she decided to make family history her life mission. Leslie discusses how she got her professional start and how her faith in the eternal significance of family history work intersects with her professional industry.
Would you start by describing how you originally became interested in genealogy?
My first experience with family history was when I was about 16 years old. I grew up in Texas but all of my extended family is in Utah. One year we went to my mom’s parents in Torrey, Utah, which is in Wayne County in central Utah. It was a very small community. My grandfather’s mother lived down the street from them and my mom had this idea that I should go and interview my great-grandmother just to get her stories down on paper. I also think she hoped I would connect with her. I thought that was the worst idea I had ever heard. It seemed very intimidating and awkward to me. Growing up in Texas, I didn’t really know my relatives well and the main thing I knew about my great-grandmother was that she was very old, she liked to quilt, and she read Readers Digest in the large print. But nonetheless my mom made this list of questions, got me in the car and drove me down and kind of kicked me out there.
So I started asking the questions and within that hour or so I was there, something within me really changed that shaped the way I saw family history from then on. I remember asking her, “What did you like to do when you were young?” and she said, “I loved to dance. I would rather dance than eat.” And she used to go roller skating and she loved to dance when she would roller skate. I asked her about meeting my great-grandfather who had passed away when my mother was 8 so none of us had known him. And she told me, “Well, we got married when I was too young to mention.” Of course, later I looked it up and I found that she had eloped when she was 15 and he was 24. They didn’t know each other very well and her dad had chased them down to stop it, but it was too late and they had gotten married. So then I realized my great-grandmother had a very different life and she wasn’t always this old person. She was a person with this life story that was very interesting.
I went to BYU for college and as a freshman I took an Introduction to Family History class really just to fill a religion credit. I found that I was fascinated by the class and I was sitting on the edge of my seat absorbing everything that the professor said. I would look around thinking everyone else must think this is so great too, but the person next to me would be asleep on their desk and I realized that family history really spoke to me in a unique way. At BYU I majored in History. I did not major in Family History specifically because I always knew I wanted to go to graduate school and my professors talked me out of Family History thinking that it would be easier to get into graduate school with a straight History degree. I did do a family history certification there and I studied with some of the world experts there at BYU and at the BYU family history library and the Salt Lake Family History Library.
I graduated and I got married the next day. We were living in Provo and I took a job for a genealogy research company based in Salt Lake City. I was doing research projects for clients. My specialty was German Family History and I had absolutely loved everything about family history as a college student, but I found that I did not actually love being a professional genealogist, sitting in the library reading microfilms. This was 1998 and you actually were spinning microfilms and I didn’t love it. I would spend hours and hours and hours looking for a name on a passenger list. I was kind of banging my head on the wall. I switched jobs to working at the United Way and then I went back to graduate school.
Let me ask you about that for a minute because I think lots of people enjoy learning about their great-grandmothers and their family members, but it seems you didn’t enjoy learning about other people and their family members, is that accurate? Or did you find that same passion and interest in learning about other people’s family members?
I found later that I enjoyed helping other people find information on their families as opposed to doing the research myself for clients. I think part of it was simply it doesn’t fit with my personality super well to be in a library with a cubicle for 40 hours a week and so it was the amount of time spent doing that that frustrated me. I think that with family history, but also with so many other different careers, you have to play around and find a way that it works for you and for who you are. It wasn’t that I didn’t like family history, I actually still loved it. It was just that setting of being by myself in the library all the time.
You’re distinguishing between being hired to find family history records and actually sitting down with the client and helping them find their family members on their own. Is that the distinction you’re making?
Well, yes there is that distinction, but what I ended up doing is writing for family history magazines and speaking at conferences about family history. I enjoyed much more the education aspect and the writing aspect. I think for me it was important to achieve a balance: I could do client work part of the time and writing part of the time and also go out in the community and speak with people and help them make connections and see that excitement when they do. For me I needed that! I needed those different pieces and so I had to create a different path that was outside of the box of what I first thought it would look like.
Take us back to the United Way then and tell us how you figured those things out for yourself.
So I went to graduate school in Wisconsin at the University of Wisconsin School of Public Affairs and I got my master’s in public affairs focusing on social welfare policy. It seemed like a big departure but my minor was in Sociology and I grew up in a home where both my parents are professors in Sociology and so that was always a part of me too. I graduated at 25 and I had this master’s where I could go work in Social Services with non-profits and this Bachelor’s genealogy experience… I also had a deep passion for writing and I had a two-year-old and I was eight months pregnant with my second child, so at that point I was thinking, “Okay, now what?” I think it was one of those moments where you have to look back at what you thought was your life plan and think, “Where do I go from here? And what do I do with these different things? And how is it going to work in my life?” I don’t think there is one answer but that you have to continually reevaluate this.
Going to work for non-profit didn’t make sense for me financially because I wouldn’t be able to cover childcare with my salary. So I started to think about writing. It seemed like something that was more flexible. I saw my training in history and genealogy as an entry point because I had this unique skill set that I felt that I could leverage to help me enter that world. I spent some time walking around bookstores reading magazines and getting a sense of what was out there. I decided that writing for magazines about history or family history would be a good fit for me so I began to pitch magazines.
So you did a traditional cold call pitching?
I did. I got traction in the family history and history arena. I didn’t get it very quickly, but the truth is there aren’t that many people who love to write and have a background in family history and so it wasn’t that hard to break into those types of magazines. In fact, my first article that I published was a back page article about the story that I just told you about my great-grandmother and “Roller Skates” was the name of it. So it was an essay about my entry into family history.
What publication was that in?
That was in a magazine that doesn’t exist anymore. I think at that time it was the Family History Magazine and later it became Everton’s Genealogical Helper. o I wrote a lot for those trade magazines, ancestry magazines, and I wrote a lot for Family Chronicle. Then for some more straight history, History Channel Magazine, American History Magazine…
You had a marketable niche that you were writing in. If you were to give someone advice about magazine writing what are some other secrets of the trade that you would share? Is it important to have patience and build up your network?
I actually lecture on breaking into magazine writing and some of the things that I talk about is that people always tell you to shoot for the moon but that’s actually a bad strategy. As a newbie, a big publication is not going to hire you, so you need to build up some “clips” that you can show at each step. You want to start with some sort of publication that is small enough that you don’t have to have previous publications: your local newspaper or a small magazine or whatever, but start to get your name in print. That might mean writing a few for free at the beginning. As you start to look into magazines, it is important that you study their admission guidelines so that you’re pitching things that make sense for their readers. It usually makes sense to start by pitching to one of their specialized departments more than by a feature. They are much more willing to take a risk on a small feature than their cover story. So maybe you write a little half page. The first time I wrote for Family Tree Magazine they had this little place where they highlighted traveling experiences with family history, and I had gone to old world Wisconsin where you can learn about your ancestors and how they lived in the 1800’s. My article was just a paragraph or two, but the editors also need to see that not only can you write but you’re dependable and you can meet deadlines. If they tell you that it needs to be 1,200 words it cannot be 1,250 words. But if they edit your piece, you have to be flexible about that.
There is another part to the writing path: speaking. We lived in Wisconsin, but then we moved to Spain, and writing for magazines was something that’s very flexible so my editors didn’t even know that I moved to Spain except for that I changed where they sent my checks. In 2006 we moved to Massachusetts and by that point I had become aware that there was a genealogy community. Not just these magazines, but societies and conferences which I hadn’t even realized there were before. After we moved to Massachusetts, one of the national conferences was being held in Boston that year and so I decided to go. I had never been to any sort of genealogy event at a local level but I thought, “This looks fun. I think I could do this.” I took copies of their brochures, went home, made up my own brochures based on articles I had written and I sent it out and within a few weeks they had booked me to speak. So the first time I ever went to a local genealogy society, I was their paid speaker. I loved speaking. It was really fun and it got me out talking to people and I enjoyed that and so I spoke locally. I had to broaden myself beyond German heritage because Massachusetts isn’t really a German place so I talked about immigration, writing, telling the stories of your ancestors. My speaking engagements grew to national audiences. I felt like I really got an energy from talking to people and feeling their enthusiasm about something that I was enthusiastic about.
And tell me about your book. So how did that come out?
My book is called The Journey Makers. I had a desire to use the story of my ancestors to tell the broader story of the European immigration experience. I didn’t want to just write a family history for my family because I feel like there are so many people in this country who are descendants from the 1800s European immigrants and their amazing story is under celebrated. But I used my family’s story to make it less like a documentary and more like a personal journey. I went all the places that they had come from – Germany, Sweden, England – and they had all joined the church and settled in Utah. I wrote about how this immigrant history affects the way I feel about myself, my role as a mother. The book is mostly sold at family history conferences and historical societies and ethnic societies like German and American societies. It’s not really a Mormon story, and so I didn’t target a Mormon audience.
Is there anything in particular related to digital content that you would suggest to someone who takes a lot of photos and leaves them on their phone or their computer? How will that affect family history in the future?
Digital devices create kind of the opposite problem than we used to have. You can hardly find any photos particularly of women who were not prominent in the 1800’s whereas now all of us have hundreds of pictures of ourselves and our kids…. Labeling digital photos is equally important, but we can also write our stories in a way that can be digested and preserved, instead of leaving a computer full of emails for someone to sort through.
Genealogy is so intertwined with Mormonism, you as a member of the church have a spiritual motivation as well as this personal interest. What have you learned about the importance of family history as a part of the doctrine part of the gospel?
For me, family history is something that unites us with many other people. It’s not an LDS church phenomenon. When I would go to these conferences – especially when I lived in Massachusetts – there would be 700 people there and maybe four would be in the church. And these were all people that felt drawn to this work. To me, that is really powerful and something that I think many members of the church don’t see: this work affects so many people who also feel drawn to learn about their family and understand them. I’ve heard non-member genealogists talk about how they have dreams that lead them to particular information or they have promptings to look certain places. One man said, “I don’t chase my ancestors, they chase me.” Those kinds of experiences have always been powerful witnesses to me that this work is very far reaching and has an impact on so many others.
In the church, we do have that other step of taking names to the temple and sealing families together which, to me, is something that is very important. But other people still feel that draw of bringing families together, of being able to do for someone what they cannot do for themselves. And to me that is what true service, is whether its genealogy or something you’re doing for someone in your local ward: helping them meet a need that they are unable to meet on their own. That is certainly something that family history does.
Would you share your thoughts on how we find and bring family names to the temple?
I have some strong opinions on the way that we approach family history at church. I feel like sometimes within the church we get very focused on finding a name to take to the temple, and while that is important I think that family history is bigger than that. There are lots of ways to be a part of family history. My husband laughs because someone will get up in sacrament meeting and talk about how they were on the computer for 30 minutes and they found 1,000 names and all the muscles in my body get tight and I start to clench my teeth and I’m like “Ahhh!” We also extend these challenges to find names by a specific date and I feel like this is actually very detrimental and damaging. The reason I feel that way is because every day names go through the temple that are wrong, that have already been done, that are so broad that no one can tell who they are… and while it is still a valuable experience for a person to go through the temple individually, of course, I feel like we are not actually doing the work that the temple has been set up to do on the other side. So by all means the person should go to the temple and have that experience for themselves, but to me it’s much more important to do it correctly than to do it quickly. It is so easy to get bogus names or repeat names. I wish we spent more time educating people about family history and how to evaluate records. The church’s Family Search is amazing and people get on and they look at their names and family tree, but that is a drop in the bucket of what is available on Family Search. They also have lectures, classes, research guides, outlines, directories, tons and tons of original records constantly growing. We as members need to put forth time and effort up front instead of promoting the notion that having never looked at your family tree you can get online and in an hour have 1,000 names to take to the temple.
I feel like if we believe this is so important than it’s worthy of our best efforts. So I wish that we spent a little more time. I had a professor in college that used to tell us a story: you get a name at the temple and it might say Mary Smith born about 1800 in England. So up in heaven it’s announced, “Great news! Mary Smith was baptized!” and thousands of people come forward. “Oh no no, Mary Smith born in England,” and a few people leave. “… Born around 1800…” Who is that? That’s not a name, that’s a group of people.
I wouldn’t want my comments to sound discouraging because I do feel like there is a place in family history work for everybody. There is a place for everyone to contribute no matter where you are in your life. Writing your own life story, writing the story of your parents, labeling your photos, all of this work is also priceless and important and doesn’t require a giant commitment. I feel like it is an amazing and rewarding thing that brings blessings to ancestors but also in your own family.
At A Glance
Name: Leslie Huber
Location: Middleton, WI
Children: Four (ages 6, 11, 14, 16)
School: Bachelor Degree in History from BYU, Masters of Public Affairs from University of Wisconsin
Favorite Hymn: Lead Kindly Light
Interview produced by Neylan McBaine