“Clearly it meant a lot to her as it means to all of us as we research our families’ past,” said Richard Turley of Barbara Walters’ reaction to receiving her family history. Turley told the story during his opening keynote at the Brigham Young University (BYU) 2012 Conference on Family History and Genealogy.
Turley had the opportunity to share Walter’s family history with her when he appeared on the View in July 2001. At the time, he was serving as managing director of the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints. Walters thanked Turley immediately after the segment as they left the set. Several minutes later Walters sought him out in his dressing room and thanked him again, making it apparent that she truly appreciated the gift.
During his tenure as managing directory Turley experienced many ups and downs. Several occurred in the year 1999. In March he appeared on the Today Show. In April a gunman showed up at the Family History Center and began shooting. Turley said that the gunman put his gun to the head of Nellie Leighton, one of the greeters, and fired. Miraculously, she survived. Today at the age of 93, she’s still greeting visitors.
In May, the Church launched FamilySearch.org. “Today people are used to having family history online, but in 1999 it was truly revolutionary,” said Turley. They didn’t know how many people would use the service. For a beta launch, they expected a million hits a day. The address leaked out and they got five million hits. For the public launch, they thought they were overly optimistic planning on 25 million. They got 100 million and had to limit people to 15 minute sessions.
In August, Salt Lake City experienced a freak tornado. Turley was at lunch with several aunts for their regular genealogy session when a strong storm hit. He stepped out on the balcony and saw debris swirling on all sides of him as the tornado bore down. He saw it drop a tree behind him and calmly announced to his aunts that it was a tornado. One suggested that perhaps he should move away from the window. He came inside, sat back down—his aunts hadn’t even moved—and they continued their work. “We weren’t about to be interrupted from discussing our family history.”
The tornado passed the Church Office Building, which houses some personnel of the Family History Department. As it passed, it lifted a large concrete tile and thrust it through the window of one of Turley’s colleagues. The office furniture was crushed against one wall. Fortunately, the man was not in his office at the time. (Coworkers tell me the tornado damaged cars in the Family History Library parking lot, but the library was not damaged.)
Even though there are now billion of records online, “we have all focused not on the billions, the millions, the thousands, or even the hundreds, but the individuals,” said Turley. “Genealogy and family history are really about individuals when it comes down to it. In the end we find our hearts turning to individual ancestors.”
The BYU conference continues through Saturday. Day registrations are available.