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June 2011 Newsletter

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How to Please Your 90-Year-Old Mother—and Have Fun Doing It!

By Scott W. Phillips

Almost immediately after I fell in love with genealogy and the quest to learn more about my family history, my 90-year-old mother asked me what I thought was a simple request—at least initially. In her best mother-to-son voice she said "Scott, please find out something about my grandfather, Joseph K. Vicha, for me." It seemed easy enough, so I boldly answered, "Sure, Mom!" Oh, was I wrong! Wrong, that is, until I discovered and began using!

(The author's mother, Laverne, at her 90th birthday reunion in Cleveland, Ohio, toasting with a Czech beer at a Czech restaurant.)

In the beginning, the only information I had to go on was my great, great-grandfather's name and his direct descendants in my immediate family. Using this information I could find only one U.S. Census record for 1900. I could find nothing more than tantalizing leads, none of which could be substantiated. After months of fruitless searching all I had was this same census form and a copy of the marriage license for Joseph and his wife, Anna.

Then a cousin mailed me a photocopy of two old, blackened newspaper clippings that he found when cleaning out his mother's desk drawer. Cracked, wrinkled, heavily discolored, and almost impossible to read, but gold all the same! They provided information on a connection of some kind between Joseph with the major labor union in Cleveland, Ohio. Unfortunately, there was no date, no attribution of what newspaper they were from, and for a genealogist perhaps the horror of all horrors—the more informative of the two was torn off before the end of the article! What a combination of elation and frustration.

I tried in vain to find the source of these newspaper clippings. What I quickly discovered was the fact that very little research and documentation has been done at all on the early Czech community of Cleveland. I began to scrape together shards of background on the Czech community of the late 1800s in Cleveland, but finding any core information on Joseph continued to elude me. In frustration, I put my efforts on my backburner, but the thought of letting my 90-year-old mother down kept knocking on the door of my conscience.

As I began working on a completely different branch of my family tree, I was directed to by a wonderful newspaper reporter for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee. While I failed to get this gentleman's name, he is in my personal Genealogy Hall of Fame!

While I first used for another family member, the second name I entered into their wonderfully simple search engine was Joseph Vicha:

To say I was dumbstruck to see 28 hits is an understatement. Here I had been unable to find anything on this man and this database held 28 leads:

My fingers were actually shaking as I clicked the Historical Newspapers link. The very first document in my list was, amazingly, an article from April 29, 1887, and even in the handy preview box was the name Joseph K. Vicha!

Clicking on the first preview "snippet" brought up this article, printed by the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) on April 29, 1887, reporting that my great, great-grandfather and my great, great-grandmother were licensed to marry:

Believe me when I say if it had not been 2 a.m. in the morning, I would have been on the telephone to my mother at that very moment! I would have enjoyed nothing more than reading it to her right there and then, but my common sense ruled the moment. Instead, I read the article in silence, with tears of joy on my cheeks. Opening before me was a full page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It was as if the actual paper was spread out on my kitchen counter for my usual morning reading.

I pored over document after document and soon had an amazing knowledge of my great, great-grandfather. By the time 9 a.m. rolled around and I was able to call my mother, I knew the following: Joseph K. Vicha had been a union organizer fighting against sweatshops and child labor in Cleveland; was held up on the streets of Cleveland by gun-waving thugs; was highly involved with the political machine of then-Cleveland Mayor Robert McKisson; ran the State of Ohio's Free Employment Office for years; was president of the national Czech Benevolent Society (the CSPS)—and then he disappears into the mists of time in 1911.

I am still hot on the trail of Joseph and am determined to find out what happened after 1911. Did he fall prey to some of his highly-placed political enemies, simply die, or did he have to get out of town? At least in the meantime I have a very happy mother and a wonderful sense of accomplishment, thanks to

Author's Bio:

(The author with his grandsons.)

Scott Phillips has always been interested in family history, but has been a serious genealogist for the past five years now. Born and raised in Cleveland, he attributes his love of family history to his Czech grandmother, who lived with him his entire youth, and the huge family gatherings that were always organized by his mother.

Married for over 37 years to a Northern Minnesota "Iron Ranger" and 100% Italian wife, they have two children, a daughter-in-law and two grandsons rounding out their family.

Scott writes a daily blog on genealogy at, has a Facebook page, Onward To Our Past, and is the owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services.

Scott has had his work published in the journal of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, "Slovo," on the Website, and in the blog for software company, at He is scheduled to have stories published by the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International this year and will be on the lecture and conference circuit this year and next.

You can contact Scott at