Federation of Genealogical Societies

FGS History: Looking Back

by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking


Have you been in genealogy as long as the Federation? Do you remember when the Federation began? It was in January 1976 that the State of Illinois chartered the Federation of Genealogical Societies. FGS Vice President Loretto Dennis Szucs was the first FGS secretary. She and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FORUM editor since 1990 and active in FGS since 1986, are "looking back" to recall the beginnings and highlights of FGS history. Parts I through IV of this series (1975–1994) are adapted from issues of FORUM published during 1994 (Volume 6:1-4).

Looking Back, Part I: 1975–1979 by Loretto Dennis Szucs

It was 1975. The nation, weary from the turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s, was gearing up to observe its 200th birthday. The great Bicentennial commemoration of 1976, it was hoped, would renew our sense of national pride by reminding us of events that had forged the character of this great country. The celebration would be far more than parades, fireworks, and tall ships. This was to be an ongoing event in which everyone from school children to senior citizens would be involved. History was at the heart of it all.

Despite the patriotic fervor to save the nation's personal and collective past, historical records were being lost to floods, fires, neglect, and legislative acts. Vital records, critical to genealogical inquiry, were closed to researchers in some states, and the threat of more record closures was real. Concerned individuals and small organizations were having little influence on preservation and legislative efforts. A collective voice was needed.

One activity flourished: the unscrupulous were attempting to benefit from the newly awakened fervor for examining the past by selling would-be-family historians unauthorized coats-of-arms, fraudulent pedigrees, and worthless genealogical services. Conscientious researchers needed protecting. The unwary public needed alerting.

Programs and projects at the national and local level encouraged the study and preservation of American's past. Existing historical and genealogical societies were invigorated, while new organizations were springing up all over the country. Local, social, institutional, and family histories were being mass produced. Census records, cemetery records, military records, and indexes by the thousands were being printed in virtually every state and county.

In the absence of any national coordination of projects, there was a considerable amount of duplication. Overlap was especially noticeable with indexing projects. Small groups, for example, might undertake the creation of court record indexes, expending much time and energy, unaware that another group was working just as feverishly on the same records. Sometimes statewide project implementers would learn too late of local efforts that could have contributed to the bigger undertaking.

It was in this environment that the idea of a national umbrella organization was born. In June of 1975, a group of over 45 persons who were attending a conference in Salt Lake City addressed the problem by forming the Federation of Genealogical Societies.

Call for Membership

The first call for membership was mailed to several hundred organizations and institutions in August 1975. The purpose of the Federation, it was stated, was "to provide a clearinghouse—a center for an exchange of information—for organized groups to avoid duplication of projects, efforts, and keep informed on activities, conferences, and projects being undertaken in North America." Just two months later, in October 1975, a small Federation seminar was held in co-sponsorship with The Newberry Library in Chicago.

The first membership form promised a bimonthly letter to be sent to member organizations and a conference to be held each year. Potential charter members were urged to join by sending $20, their list of current projects, and names of individuals who might be willing to serve as regional vice-presidents. The response was gratifying. In less than seven months the Federation had enrolled 54 organizations as charter members. The Colorado Genealogical Society was the first to join when a Federation organizer, Colin James, paid its dues.

Establishing the Federation

Around this author's dining room table, articles of incorporation were signed and by-laws for the Federation were roughed out. A Midlothian, Illinois post office box was the Federation's first legal address. In August 1976, delegates from several member societies, attending the Bicentennial Conference on American Genealogy and Family History in Cleveland, elected the first set of officers: Barbara M. Dalby (IL), president; Helen L. Harris (PA), vice president; Loretto D. Szucs (IL), secretary; Herbert A. Hotchkiss (CT), treasurer; and Margaret Kern (IL), recording secretary.

Regional vice presidents were named as well: George E. Williams (CT),Thelma Kohlberg (IL) and Colin James (CO). John P. Megaris (IL) was newsletter editor and George E. Williams became membership chairman. Subsequent annual meetings after Cleveland, Ohio, were: 1977, Chicago; 1978, Silver Springs, Maryland; and 1979, Omaha, Nebraska.

The 1977 membership application announced the ambitious and thoughtful goals of these leaders, the member organizations, and their appointed delegates. Objectives were: (1) to promote the study of genealogy; (2) to assist members in educational programs and workshops; (3) to stimulate the activities of state and local organizations; (4) to provide for the exchange of information among its members; (5) to prevent duplication of effort; (6) to encourage the indexing of all genealogical material, published or otherwise; (7) to alert the public to any misleading genealogical advertising; and (8) to encourage acceptable genealogical standards.

Some Past Presidents (Left to Right): David Vogels, Artie Sniffin, Barbara Dalby and Ron Stratton
Some Past Presidents (Left to Right): David Vogels,
Artie Sniffin, Barbara Dalby and Ron Stratton

Three Presidents

The three presidents who first served the Federation brought to the office a significant diversity of backgrounds and skills. All had one thing in common, however: a commitment to raising the standards in the field of genealogy, and unusual courage to get the organization off the ground despite what seemed at the time to be unsurmountable odds.

Barbara Dalby, the Federation's founding president, came to the office as a prominent genealogical teacher and lecturer. She had served on the governing boards of a number of genealogical societies, including president of the South Suburban (IL) Genealogical and Historical Society. Mrs. Dalby had received the Illinois State Genealogical Society's award for outstanding service to the field of genealogy.

In 1978-79, George E. Williams served as FGS president. Mr. Williams had founded the Connecticut Society of Genealogists, Inc., and for ten years served as its managing secretary. During this time the CSG grew to over 4,000 members. Recognition for Mr. William's many Federation activities as president, the holder of other offices, and chair of critical FGS committees, particularly in the area of records preservation, earned him special commendation with the 1980 establishment of the George E. Williams award for service to FGS.

The third president, Ronald Stratton, was a radio station executive who was active in genealogy in his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Mr. Stratton was the Federation's vice-president under George E. Williams and had been vice-president of the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists. In his acceptance remarks, he suggested that the Federation was at a critical point in time, with an opportunity to grow significantly during the coming year.

Left to Right: David Vogels presenting George E. Williams with the George E. Williams Award
Left to Right: David Vogels presenting George E. Williams
with the George E. Williams Award

The Newsletter

Early Federation newsletters carried lists of publications and projects, by organization, similar in concept to the current "State Reporting" section of the FORUM. It was not until 1979 that a bulk mailing permit was obtained. Other highlights of the first five years include the initiation of a Speakers List, an innovation that was, through 1995, continued in FORUM with a column titled, "Profile." Excerpts gleaned from member organization newsletters, and announcements of workshops and seminars, the forerunner to "Calendar of Events" now featured in print and at the FGS Web site, rounded out the contents of these four-page issues.

Continue to Part II: 1980-1984