Saying goodbye to Midge

Midge's three children gathered with family to celebrate her life.

Midge’s three children gathered with family to celebrate her life.

It was a brilliant fall day in Palo Alto, the type of fall day you see in California and not too many other places. Sun shining, birds chirping, slight breeze.

Fourteen of us gathered for a private service at the cemetery to pay our respects and say a final goodbye to my grandmother, Marjorie Winter Johnson. Many of us hadn’t seen each other in years, in some cases decades, and I don’t know when or even if some of us will see each other again.

However, on this day we gathered, listened to some thoughtful words from a minister that were perfect for this occasion, and individually and collectively we remembered Midge. From my great aunt Florence, herself in her 90s but spry and witty as I remember from my youth; to my mother and her two brothers, Midge’s three children; to my daughter Sarah, not yet 20; four generations and untold numbers of memories were represented. Continue reading

Remembering Grandma Midge

Marjorie Elizabeth Winter Johnson, 1917-2014

Marjorie Elizabeth Winter Johnson, 1917-2014

I write this in memory of my grandmother, Marjorie Elizabeth Winter Johnson, who passed away early today at the age of 97. Hers was a life well-lived, full of grace and dignity. She was the only grandparent I ever really knew, and she had a huge influence on me that has continued to this day, and one that lives on in my daughter.

Marjorie, or “Midge” as she was known, was the daughter of a man who worked his way from teenage office boy to Chairman of the Board of Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co., and she knew the value of education, determination, and preparation. Continue reading

The curious case of Paul America

Paul America

An image from Paul America’s screen test, circa 1965.

I’ve done a lot of research on distant cousins up and down my family tree over the years, uncovering some fascinating stories and learning a lot about ancestors dating back centuries. I’ve written about a few of those stories here on this blog (see links at end of this post), and I’m sure there are many more to find. However, it was pretty striking to learn about a much more recent story, involving a much closer connection.

The story of my late cousin Paul Johnson, aka “Paul America,” is straight out of the movies, both figuratively and literally, and involves none other than ‘60s icon Andy Warhol and other characters from the wild decade in which I was born. I had only heard bits and pieces over the years, tales of a wayward teen with matinee-idol looks who spiraled downward in a haze of drug addiction and, ultimately, an untimely death at too young an age. Continue reading

Walking in the footsteps

Balnagarrow

The small dirt road on the left leads to what is still a working farm: Balnagarrow, just outside Kirriemuir, Scotland.

It’s a pretty intense feeling, walking in the very footsteps an ancestor once took. I had never experienced that feeling before, but now that I have I can’t wait for the next opportunity.

I remember very clearly when I first got interested in genealogy. It was one of those very rudimentary family tree assignments in elementary school, where we got a blank mimeographed family tree sheet to fill out and turn in as our assignment. We didn’t do big poster boards with photos and such back then. Things were simple. Purplish-blue, blurry mimeograph paper. Fill-in-the-blanks-type stuff. It was the 1970s. Continue reading

Another Lanning hits the big leagues

Spencer Lanning

Spencer Lanning, Cleveland Browns

As I wrote about last year, three Lannings have played Major League Baseball (the last retired in 1947), and I’ve had a fun time over the years tracking down artifacts and history of those long-lost ballplayers and linking them to my family tree. In fact, not too long ago I finally found a photo of Lester “Red” Lanning from his college days as a baseball star at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, before his short-lived career in the majors. However, there’s never been a Lanning in the NFL (or NBA, or NHL)…until now. Continue reading

A legacy of philanthropy: The Lannings of Hastings, Nebraska

As a lifelong collector and longtime genealogy lover, one of my favorite hobbies since the advent of eBay has been to find trinkets up for auction that might have some relevance to my family history, then actually be able to make a connection.  This hasn’t happened too often (Johnny Lanning’s autograph was one of the first), but when it does it’s well worth the time and whatever the small cost of the item.

Mary Lanning Fountain postcard

The old postcard that started the search…

Years ago I came across an old postcard on eBay of the Mary Lanning Fountain at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, a town I used to hang out in a bit when I was in grad school in nearby Amherst, oblivious to the existence of the fountain at the time. It turns out various generations of this postcard are readily available on the site on an ongoing basis. However, I knew nothing about the origins of the fountain or who Mary Lanning was, so I bought the card and filed it away as one of my “future projects.” Continue reading

Family history: The search continues…

There’s something very addictive about genealogy: the work is never done, but every discovery just whets the appetite for more.  As a lover of history, the thrill of finding a long-lost photo of a relative from generations before, or of uncovering a story about someone on your tree that brings that person to life…those are the things that keep stoking the coals for me. And every time I think I’ve hit a dead end, once and for all, on a particular line…something new pops up, one way or another.

Goosey headstone

This headstone told me that my third great grandfather Robert Goosey’s father was named John, and that Robert had two older brothers.

I was laughing at myself a couple weeks back when I got SO excited over a photo I found on a British website, the Billion Graves Project. It’s a headstone. Yes, I got excited over a headstone. But it was for Robert and Hannah Goosey, a couple (one set of my thrice-great grandparents on my mother’s side) who represented one of those proverbial dead ends for me. I’ve been stuck trying to research that line for a long time now. Finding that headstone not only confirmed information I already had and added a bit of character to the data, it also gave me a new lead. Robert is listed on the headstone as the third son of his father John…so now I know he had two older brothers, and I know his father’s name…clues I can work with.

While I think getting much further on this will require a visit to England (a goal of mine anyway), this discovery just renewed my desire to research every source I can find to try to put some more meat on the bones of this latest discovery.  Continue reading

The Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876

I’ve been doing a lot of family history work lately…I’ve dabbled in genealogy research for decades, and I’m constantly amazed at some of the discoveries that I make even to this day…long-lost stories of people, places, and events that I knew no connection to until my research found one.

Brooklyn Theater Fire

As many as 300 people perished in the blaze on December 5, 1876 in Brooklyn.

One of those stories centers around one of the great American tragedies of the 1800s, the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876. I learned a bit about it years ago reading my great-grandfather’s unfinished memoir, in which he tells the story of his own mother’s experience at the time of the fire.

It turns out I had four family members who perished in that fire, which occurred during a highly-anticipated performance that had a packed house. My great-great grandmother, who turned 30 just two weeks before the event, had a ticket as well and only missed the show because she got stuck at work while her four brothers (two brothers and two half-brothers) attended…and all four died. Had she made it to the show, I wouldn’t exist, as she undoubtedly would have perished as well and my lineage would have stopped right then and there in 1876.  Continue reading

Tradition: Dad, Daughter, and The Grand Old Ballgame

AT&T Park, April 15, 2012

Our father-daughter rite of spring: our first Giants game of the new season.

This past Sunday my daughter and I attended our first Giants game of the year. It was one of the Giants’ lesser efforts on this young season, a listless 4-1 loss to the lowly Pirates, but the game result mattered little.

After going to just one game in her first 10 years, my daughter and I have been going to multiple games together every year since my divorce seven years ago, and she’s become as big a fan as I am. We were lucky enough to be at Game One of the 2010 World Series, and we’ve been at Giants FanFest the past couple of years as well, where she realized her dream of meeting Brian Wilson in 2011, blowing right past one of my old heroes, Will Clark, to do so. Continue reading

History, Baseball, Life: Connecting with the Baseball Lannings

I first learned about a pitcher named Johnny Lanning back in the early 1990s when I started “managing” a fantasy team of old-time baseball players in something called “Bill James Classic Baseball” as a hobby my buddy Steve got me into when we were both working in the front office of the Albuquerque Dukes, then the Triple A affiliate to the Los Angeles Dodgers.  This was before the internet, and long before social media. Like with current fantasy baseball leagues, we had a salary cap and we drafted a full roster of players. The difference was that these players were all old-timers…players dating back to the very start of Major League Baseball in the 1800s. The games were played by some computer in Illinois, and we anxiously awaited printouts in the mail each week of the prior week’s box scores and stats.

Johnny Lanning

“Tobacco Chewin’ Johnny” was a journeyman hurler with the Boston Bees and Pittsburgh Pirates before heading off to WWII. He’s pictured here after returning to the majors with the Boston Braves.

It seems archaic now, and kind of bizarre, but it actually was great fun for a couple of guys fresh out of school, lifelong baseball fans working 80–hour weeks at the ballpark. We studied the history of the game regularly, learning about players and ballparks and historical comparisons between players from different eras. We were in a league facing off against each other and 10 other “owners” from all over the country, people who I came to know distantly through later generations of the game as it eventually moved to a web site and message boards, and in more recent years we started to find each other on other platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn.

While I haven’t gotten into a league in several years now (a different version of that same game still exists today, run by another company built by former BJCB players), I gained a lot more from that experience than a couple of mythical league championships (although as a lifelong Giants fan I do love the old-school fitted New York Giants cap I won as the league champion one year). I also gained greater appreciation for tons of players I knew little about in my childhood, including one who shared my last name: Johnny Lanning. Continue reading