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Big names — and bigger stories — revealed at RootsTech 2015 conference

Laura Bush  speaks at the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 13, 2015.
Laura Bush speaks at the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 13, 2015.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When I was a child, genealogy was all about names.

There was a chart of names on the bathroom wall. There were several dusty old books with my last name on the cover. And my father never wasted an opportunity to rattle off the names of people to whom I was distantly related.

I could never keep those names straight — even when my dad offered to pay me a quarter for every one I memorized. (I didn’t earn a penny.) To me, the names were just letters of the alphabet gathered into unfamiliar groups. They didn’t mean much, and they certainly didn’t interest me. To me, genealogy was a boring, tedious task dealing with conjecture and irrelevance. It not only bored me, it repelled me.

Little did I know.

Fast-forward 30 years and I found myself driving into Salt Lake City on a Friday morning, fighting a sea of traffic headed exactly where I was going: the RootsTech 2015 convention. My heart was pounding. I had exactly 20 minutes to park, pick up my badge and find a seat in the — as it was quickly becoming apparent to me — hottest meeting in town. I ran.

This was my first time attending RootsTech, the world’s largest family history conference, which joined with the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ national conference this year. I was in awe at the sheer size of the conference, which was hosted by FamilySearch. Some 20,000 people registered to attend, and I started researching which classes I wanted to take weeks in advance.

I felt a little in over my head at all of the choices. For example, do I take “Deciphering Old Handwriting Online” or “Culinary Family History”? There were dozens of choices and I had little time. But as I was going through the expo schedule, I saw two names that I recognized, former first lady Laura Bush and her daughter, Jenna.

I’ll go to that session, I thought.

I wouldn’t call myself a Republican, but Laura Bush has always reminded me of my mother, who is a Republican, and I was interested to hear what she had to say about family history. (As was everyone else.)

I made it into the enormous conference room just in time and settled into my chair. Phew. I was sweating a little. I felt nervous to be around so many people who knew so much more than me. Who did I think I was, going to a family history conference?

Before I could make myself feel any smaller, Laura Bush entered the stage wearing a smart black blazer and bright red lipstick and I was instantly mesmerized. She was poised and funny. Warm and endearing. She didn’t look even the tiniest bit nervous.

She talked about being a grandmother — how no one wants to be called “grandma” or “grandpa” anymore because it makes them feel old. (Funny, I thought. That’s just like my mom, too. She goes by Nana. Laura Bush and my mom should be friends.)

“George just wants the baby to call him sir,” Bush told the audience, and we all laughed.

Bush told a few other stories that drew chuckles from the audience. Like the time her husband, former president George W. Bush, was getting ready to throw the opening pitch at Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium in New York.

As he was warming up his arm below the stadium, Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter asked the commander-in-chief if he planned to pitch from the mound.

“What do you think?” President Bush asked Jeter.

“Be a man,” Jeter said. “Pitch from the mound.”

Then, as Jeter headed to the field, he added, “Don’t bounce it — they’ll boo ya.”

That was the last of Laura Bush’s worries. As she thought about her husband standing in the middle of an open field, just days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil, and especially in New York City, she had other things on her mind. But as she watched her husband take his place, alone, she was filled with a sense of awe at the image of him, and all of America, “standing proud in the face of fear.”

“By the way,” she said, “he threw a strike.”

And then, after the laughter and tears of listening to this woman speak for about 25 minutes, it dawned on me. Hearing tales from the White House is certainly fascinating, but you don’t have to be a first lady to be fascinating.

We all have experiences and emotions to share that are captivating and compelling.

After all, genealogy isn’t just all about the names — it’s about the stories.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.