The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 3, 2011

BILL EGGERT | Who do you think you are?

— There is a fascinating NBC reality show on Friday nights called “Who Do You Think You Are?” It is sponsored by and focuses on celebrities who track down (with the help of historians and genealogists) their ancestors.

Recently, country singer Tim McGraw (son of the late baseball pitcher Tug McGraw) discovered that an ancestor and his wife housed a teenage surveyor back in the 1700s by the name of George Washington, the future father of our country.

He also found out that another family who came over on the same boat as his family to America had a descendant by the name of Elvis Presley.

Not all searches yield brushes with historical figures, but they are always interesting and poignant in their own unique way.

As my March 4 birthday was approaching, I have been looking back at my own ancestors.

I checked into this world at Magee-Womens Hospital in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, just down the street from old Forbes Field (1909-71), which was still standing then

My parents were born and raised in Pittsburgh, as were their parents. My father’s side can be traced back at least to my great-grandfather, Bernard von Eggert, who arrived from Germany at Ellis Island when he was just 14, back at the turn of the 20th century.

As was the case for many immigrants, his last name was Anglicized (dropping the “von”) and “old” Grandpap (who outlived “young” Grandpap) lived to be 103.

Old Grandpap was also one of Pittsburgh’s first mounted policemen. Dad said he was a tough guy; tall (over six foot) and large boned. When we kids knew him he was in his 80s and very sweet and kind to us kids.

He had a white walrus mustache and snow white hair shaved close at the sides.

He reminded me of Kaiser Wilhelm in a cardigan sweater.

Another great-grandfather on my mother’s side was known simply as “Pa,” and was a railroad conductor.

Back then, trains were the chief means of travel (as opposed to planes) and a railroad conductor was considered a prestigious occupation back then. Like Old Grandpap Eggert, Pa McCarty was a large, intimidating man.

A favorite story my mom and Aunt Alice used to tell was when Pa supposedly threw Clark Gable (before he became a movie star) off a train for not having a ticket.

Gable did come from Ohio, which would have been on Pa’s train route, so it could have been possible.

My question was always this: How did Pa know that it was really Clark Gable that he threw off the train? Did Gable shake his fist at Pa as the train was pulling away and yell: “See here Pa,  my name is Clark Gable, and someday I will become a famous movie star! You will rue the day you threw me off this train!”

More likely, Pa (who no doubt was good at remembering faces as a train conductor) recognized Gable’s face a few years later when he started appearing in movies.

While brushes with celebrities and historical figures are interesting sidebars, the important issue is who our ancestors were.

Children (and adults) should know about their heritage to understand the fabric of their families; not only for their genetic predispositions (which could be important in a medical context), but also to understand where their parents, grandparents and relatives came from: Figuratively and literally.

Granted, we are all brothers (and sisters) under the skin

– with each of us being six degrees from Kevin Bacon.

Having an informed background on our family tree helps us all to have a crucial understanding our own families, not to mention ourselves as well.

The better we understand our family, the better we understand others and how we relate to them.

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident.


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