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Twila Van Leer: What family history treasures are in your shoebox?

What's in your shoebox? If it's just shoes, you have my permission to bypass this column entirely. But if you stick with me, I'll tell you a tale of a shoebox, or a small box similar to a shoebox, that changed the course of a young man's life.

I learned the details when I wrote a story about Michael A. Kennedy in May 2008, when I was a reporter for the Deseret News. Because I have a missionary assignment now to write about family history, I recalled the interview and pulled the old story out of the newspaper's archives. Here, in a much abbreviated form, is the gist.

Young Michael had a school assignment back in 1972 when he was a junior in high school in Tonopah, Nevada. His American history teacher had written "genealogy" on the board and challenged the class to find out something about life in America by researching an ancestor, particularly, if possible, someone who might have played a role in some historical event.

His father offered three suggestions: Jonathan Swift, author of "Gulliver's Travels"; a man named Wright, who played a small part in the first airplane flight undertaken by Orville and Wilbur Wright; and Joseph Smith. Swift was quickly eliminated, being British, not American. Joseph Smith seemed a possibility because, as Michael incorrectly remembered, "He was the guy who discovered Utah."

With that settled, his father dredged up the box from its resting place on a shelf. It contained genealogical information on the Smiths, pictures, a Bible and other artifacts related to Joseph Smith's family. The box had been given to Michael's father by an aunt, who said it had come down through several generations of the family.

When Michael learned that Joseph was the founder of the Mormon Church, his question was: "Who are the Mormons?"

Just by coincidence, the Kennedys were about to have guests who could answer that question. Michael still had the Smith memorabilia spread out on a coffee table when two young men, both ironically with the same first name, Elder, knocked on the door. Seeing the items and making a big assumption, the elders thought they had a slam dunk. Not so. Michael explained that he was just doing a school assignment on "this guy named Smith."

Even after learning that Joseph Smith was his third great-grandfather through the line of Alexander, the next-to-last son of Joseph and his wife Emma, Michael had no particular interest in learning more. (Alexander's daughter, Emma Belle, married William Forrester Kennedy, giving Michael his surname.)

He got an A on the history assignment and was content to let it go at that. But the missionaries persisted.

He was baptized in 1973, more, according to his own confession, because a girl he was interested in had become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a fully converted member. She refused to marry him unless they could be wed in a temple. His pursuit of the young woman kept him on track until real conversion occurred. He and Darcy were ultimately married in the Provo Utah Temple. When he was ordained an elder in preparation for that event, Michael became the first of Joseph's male descendants to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood.

Michael was among the first of Joseph's descendants to join the church. Many of Joseph's family had affiliated with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a group that broke away from the LDS faith after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and is now the Community of Christ. Emma did not emigrate to Utah with other Saints, and some of their descendants took other religious paths.

As he matured in the church, Michael Kennedy developed a passion for his family's history. He has been instrumental in creating a family association and promoting the preservation of all the details of the Smith story. He engineered a movie about Emma Smith, hoping to dispel what he felt were misunderstandings about her life.

At the time I interviewed him, 129 of Joseph's descendants had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There probably are more now. I tried several times to contact him and was not successful.

If there’s anything of family history value in your shoebox, don’t be so quick to discard it. It is so easy now to go online to save and share digital copies of vintage photographs or cherished family documents, and to donate or digitize copies of old historical books.

The thing to remember is that for Michael Kennedy, it all started with a box. Don't throw your box away until you know what's in it.

Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who has recently been called to serve as a family history missionary.