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  • #81 Royal Descents, Notable Kin, and Printed Sources: Some Reminiscences of Gary Boyd Roberts Over 20 Years

    Julie Helen Otto

    Published Date : July 7, 2006
     For a seminar at NEHGS in October 2005, billed as a “celebration” of my career, impending retirement (at least from full or half-time work, beginning January 1, 2006) and 62nd birthday, I invited various colleagues to participate in a two-and-a-half hour “roast” of funny stories and general reminiscences. The first, and among the longest, such “tributes” was from one of my closest long-time colleagues, Julie Helen Otto, fourth- and sixth-floor reference librarian and former co-editor of NEXUS, who drew the genealogical charts for Ancestors of American Presidents, has input and helped me with many Internet and earlier columns, and is herself something of an authority on southwestern (Fairfield County), Connecticut, matrilineages, given names, death by lightning, families of Milton, Vermont, and descendants of Rev. Adam Blackman of Stratford, John Blackman of Dorchester, and Humphrey Tiffany of Rehoboth, Milton and Swansea – among various other odd-lot things. I hope you find Julie’s “Roastaroma” as amusing as did most of the audience. –GBR

    On the fourteenth of August 1984, with the last of my available funds, I determined to give myself a 30th birthday present. I entered the doors of 101 Newbury for the first time and took out a membership on the spot. I was immediately impressed that the Society owned a copy of Rev. W.C. Poynton’s Memoranda of Kelston, Somerset, the only English ancestral parish I have ever been able to visit but which is still a very tiny and obscure place – but still the book was here on the shelves! I pulled out my notebook to take some notes and got up to find yet more books, at which point my pen slipped to the floor. This object, tragically since lost, was a lovely confection crafted in plastic to resemble a life-sized, very realistic carp. I returned from my foray only to be confronted by a large, pear-shaped personage in a short-sleeved shirt, a stained and pilled polyester tie thrown over one shoulder. The poor soul was obviously suffering from a fit of the vapors. He tugged at the arm of his colleague (a serious, dark-bearded man with glasses), and with his other hand gestured apoplectically at the hapless fish on the floor. “Get-that-THING-out-of-my-library!!” Such was my introduction to Gary Boyd Roberts.

    All of us know and love the complex bird scratchings by which GBR communicates his genealogical thoughts to the wider world. When I first saw it I said to myself, “HIT ME! That’s the neatest illegible handwriting I’ve ever seen!” So when I learned that he was working on Ancestors of American Presidents, somehow I found myself offering to draw a few charts, basing the design roughly on the charts in George Thoroton’s 18th-century history of Nottinghamshire (because too many straight lines are boring). Part of my payment for this project consisted of innumerable dinners at Burger King, some of which I wear even now (“LOTS of people want EXTRA CHEESE!” Gary would crow at top volume to the perplexed counter help). Another part of this arrangement consisted of the very last sets in Baltimore of both series of English Origins of New England Families From NEHGR, known to most of us as EO1 and EO2, which I still consult. Gary earned the occasional nickname “Trash Boy” from yet another part of my remuneration: admission to a series of really bad, muscle-bound action movies at such choice venues as the (long-departed) Sack Beacon Hill, where the popcorn flew and your feet stuck to the floor. So, as you can see, no expense was spared: I have seen the face of Dolph Lundgren, and lived. Over the years preparation of our charts has financed the lavish lifestyles of many paper tycoons and pen manufacturers – and it’s heartwarming to think of all the art-store clerks we’ve kept in hair dye.

    In 1989 Gary published the first version of his presidential tome AAP, which contained 110 or so charts hand drawn by yours truly from Gary’s data on the tangled kinships among some, but not all, of our stellar chief executives. Book production of course involves lots of fun processes, including making camera-ready copy. The best copier then in the building was a hulking monster, leased from Kodak for the Society’s photoduplication program, that lived in the very back on the fourth floor. I suggested making our camera-readies on the Kodak. “Have you ever actually ,used that machine?” “No, but I’ve used similar, it’s no big deal.” “Are you sure?” “Yeah, you turn the thing on, it gives you instructions. I’ll just follow the prompts.” “But what if smoke comes out of it?” came the plaintive cry. At this point, I had had enough. “Gary, I’m an engineer’s daughter – I can deal with a photocopy machine.”

    Just after the book was published, in early 1989, Gary and I went down to New York City, and he’s told you something about that. Everybody should have more days like that one to remember, and you can read even more about it in the June 1989 NEXUS, pages 94 and 95. The account reads well, even now, sixteen years and several wars later; and if it’s not on the website, it ought to be (hint, hint). And I think I can say now that at least one of the hundreds of troupes of acrobats and baton twirlers in the Presidential Bicentennial Parade following the Wall Street commemoration and the actual President’s motorcade was composed entirely of transvestites – and very spry ones, at that. (And if I can’t say that, I just did.)

    AAP came out just as the first Bush administration began, and BushDaddy’s people worked something out with Gary so that his material on the Bush ancestry was what they’d send all the folks who wrote them saying, “My great-grandpa’s dead sister’s best friend’s aunt was married to somebody named Bush, so how am I related to the leader of the Free World?” Some savvy operative knew that a nice letter back from Washington should generate good feeling and happy votes, so they assigned these tasks to some very nice young folks who, in handling these requests, often phoned Gary for help. He also fielded calls from the media when BushDaddy went to ancestral places like Leyden, Holland. Both of us were “shocked and awed” by the ability of the New York Times and other great journalistic organs to get the simplest lineage utterly and hopelessly screwed up. Some of these articles taken from Gary’s phone dictation could compete seriously for the Hugo award for science fiction, maybe the Nebula too. At least the first Bush’s people tried harder to get it right. Now one thing about the White House on the line is that they never say so, it’s just “I’m calling from Washington, D.C.”

    So what do you do when you get a call from the center of power? At least one of these calls came to me at the sixth-floor reference desk, I think during “Come Home.” Gary was a few tables away, helping some patrons. “One moment,” I purred, and covered the mouthpiece. “Yo! Gary.” Heads swiveled. “White House. Take the call?”

    Now we all know Gary’s, shall we say, ideological differences with that and the current administration, but he always enjoyed talking with the young folks from the press office and treated them kindly. One young lady developed health problems and had to leave her job, so her parents brought her to Boston for a visit. At that time Gary took great care to help her with some of her own research and tried to make her trip here special. We heard a very little bit of “oh gosh” and “gee whiz” from the first rush of Young Enthusiastics in the Clinton White house, maybe even a few “oh boys”, but then came the news about various unscripted full and half-siblings, so their attitude dropped from lukewarm. We’ve heard nothing from the current administration except for one call a few years ago from Mrs. Cheney’s office, and she’s not president... yet.

    We tend to think of Gary in full cry, completely over the top. I mentioned Gary’s kindness to the young White House girl, and am grateful to for some shown closer to home, when one Tuesday in November ’91, about 3 pm, I got The Call at work: my 91-year old father was going. Gary arranged with the late Natalie Marko to drive us to my house to pack. He and I flew up the stairs and packed; then dear Natalie raced us to the airport, and onto the L.A. plane by 6. I was with my dad all Wednesday and he died the next day, so I’ll be forever grateful to Gary and Natalie both.

    Now those who know and love Gary will definitely agree that he’s always been one for foolproof logic. In 1992 the mattress on his bed grew holes, so he of course wondered why his back hurt. Some of us went over on an errand one evening to “Tijuana,” his troglodytic Marlborough St. basement apartment; made the mistake of sitting down on the bed (since the sagging couch was piled high with books and papers); and began to sink toward the floor. “Gary, there’s a lunar crater on this bed, no wonder you’ve got back problems.” We were co-editing the June 92 issue of NEXUS at the time – that’s the one with an elegant article on silhouette portraiture by this BU graduate student named Brenton Simons who’d recently joined. “I’ll call him up, he seems pretty knowledgeable,” Gary said. “I’m sure he’ll know how I can go about buying a new mattress.” Here was a guy who had actually sent us an article in publishable form, and hey, it was only 11 p.m. Thus Brenton became the amazed recipient of the first of many brainstorms.

    Early last year Gary and I embarked on a quick trip to our nation’s capital for a surprise 50th birthday bash for our friend Bill Reitwiesner, Gary’s collaborator on the Princess of Wales book. This extravaganza was scheduled for midday Sunday, so we left the previous night after work, hoping to make Washington by dawn. The Chinese bus only goes as far as New York on Saturdays so we slithered crosstown to the cozy charm of the Port Authority. About ¼ to 4 the Greyhound driver steered the chariot off I-95 into the Chesapeake Inn, a fine establishment in North East, Cecil County, Maryland, and debouched us into the Burger King, where Gary wasted no time surrounding himself with fried food and crumpled paper wrappers. “Don’t worry, the bus’ll wait,” he assured me, wrapping himself around some more hash browns. “I’m going to finish these.” “I don’t think so,” I demurred, but then again Gary has long held forth about how the rich are different… and anyway, the bus driver had already left. Now because the Chesapeake Inn is not a regularly scheduled Hound stop, we got to savor the infinite gradations of light on a nearby clump of trees as the sun rose, and rose, then for the next seven hours as it rose and rose some more. Every so often a charter coach from the Holiness Tabernacle of Whatsit would alight, releasing a horde of teens or folks in full African regalia or a host of Pentecostals all in white, all very nice except that no Holiness anything would give this boy a ride, nor (probably) would he take it. Finally, finally, the shadows of the trees had changed direction and a Greyhound happened by with two empty seats. In Washington, reunited with most of our possessions, Gary quite rightly insisted on a quick cab tour of the city, which truly is a wonderful place – and as always with the Texan, the grand sweep came alive. Then it was onto the Metro for the ride out to Gaithersburg where we’d be only pretty late…and onto the platform where we waited (of all the places available in Washington) strolled the birthday boy. Despite Gary’s hissed assurances to me that Bill would never see us, Bill of course recognized us at once and spent the train ride gleefully pretending we were not there in front of him.

    Perhaps one of the more telling tributes to your work is how many people steal it. Plenty of Gary’s ideas show up unattributed all over the Web, so he must be doing something right. There’s even an amusing mistake which you can Google in which somebody has actually, painstakingly cited him, dozens of times – always as Gary BODY Roberts (it’s in at least one Rootsweb database). And many of us treasure his one-of-a-kind pronunciations. Some of these are standard Texas, others unique to Gary. Years ago I came up with a sentence enshrining some of them: Many of the most prominent arthers in the whirl – many of those being from Sufferk County – make a real brouhalla about buying a cumberbund. And Gary’s not a bad sort: my late cat Jasper, a discerning man in pinstripes who didn’t take just any preapproved credit card, found him fascinating on one rare visit to my old apartment. Here was Gary (no neatnik himself) getting the vapors over my bad housekeeping, and Jasper at his feet just couldn’t get enough of Gary’s authentic Texan cowboy boots.

    The Muse we normally deal with here is Clio (who presides over History), but there’s also Terpsichore – the Muse of Dance. No description of GBR and his ways would be complete without a spin around the floor. In his late 60s grad-student days at Berkeley, of course, he found himself (one night at the Fillmore) dancing with Janis Joplin. Gary’s approach to the Muse is not so much worship as taunt’n’flaunt – I remember partnering him at an unforgettable night in the hotel bar at the Farmington Marriott, as he spun and twirled his sport coat, tie in flight, clearing the floor and quite amazing the locals. (Those of the genealogical community who witnessed this display have, I’m told, never recovered.) I’m also informed that, years ago, Ralph Crandall used to bribe one or more of his young daughters to come to Society functions on the promise that they could watch Gary dance. Since 1990, at the standard five-year intervals, GBR has taken me to his Yale reunions, cleverly assuring himself thereby of a dance partner and giving me an inimitable tour of a great university amid its “dreaming spires.” With that eye for the grand view, he’s an incomparable, let me say generous, tour guide to anywhere with any sweep to it, as I remember not only from New York, Yale, Washington, but from our life’s work – our countless research forays at 101. So let’s turn up the Elton John and the Bruce Springsteen REAL LOUD, and celebrate our friend. Many long and happy years may you taunt and flaunt, Wild Boy, and long may we all enjoy it.
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