26 March 2010

A chat with Carpatho-Rusyn genealogist Megan Smolenyak

In my day job, I write a daily media column for OnMilwaukee.com, and thanks to that job, I had a chance to talk yesterday to Megan Smolenyak, one of the more accomplished genealogists around. She's worked with five of the seven episodes of NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" show about genealogy, and was on camera a couple weeks back in the episode about Emmitt Smith.

While our interview didn't focus on Rusyn matters, I thought some folks might be interested in hearing what she has to say about the show, which I really like:

OnMedia: NBC turns genealogy into TV drama

Genealogist Megan Smolenyak delivered the news to former NFL running back Emmitt Smith that DNA evidence showed his roots were in the West African nation of Benin as the cameras were rolling for NBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?"
Smith's face betrayed the emotions that making a connection to the past can conjure up.

"The celebrities who do this show, they really don't know where they're going, and what they're in for," she says.

And that look on Smith's face wasn't rehearsed.

"You're seeing genuine reactions," she says. "The ones who are going to put themselves in that position, are probably people who are genuinely interested in their roots."

The limited run series -- airing at 7 p.m. Fridays on Channel 4 -- traces the families of celebrities, but these stories have a broader reach. This "reality" series connects with the sweep of history that has transformed diverse people into Americans.

Sarah Jessica Parker discovered ancestors who were involved in the Salem Witch trials. Lisa Kudrow learned the stories of ancestors lost in the Holocaust. Smith, in addition to traveling to Africa, learned that his ancestors include not only slaves, but a slave owner, as well.

Tonight, Matthew Broderick, who played a Civil War officer in the movie "Glory," learns of an ancestor's role in the Battle of Gettysburg.

"I don't think the show would fly if it was just celebrities," says Smolenyak, a veteran genealogist who worked on five of the episodes and wrote the companion book of the same name. "There has to be a story."

But after 10 years working full-time researching family stories, she's learned, "there's no such thing as a boring family."

"Who Do You Think You Are?" began on the BBC in 2004, and while the show has been licensed to other countries, the U.S. version has the same people involved as the British original.

Smolenyak met with them five years ago, and now find herself working with them. While the U.S. version doesn't have the same pace as the BBC original, Smolenyak says it's the kind of "reality" show she's proud to work with.

"The term I've always used is 'redeeming reality'," she says.

Smolenyak runs her own "reality" channel, an online genealogy outlet called Roots Television, featuring hundreds of videos available to watch for free. She's the chief family historian at Ancestry.com, has been on news shows like "Good Morning America" and "Today."

Back to "Who Do You Think You Are?," Smolenyak offers a bit of proof of just how seriously the celebs involved are taking the show. Parker gave birth to twins last June, their middle names "Elwell" and "Hodge" came from ancestors she found while filming the show.

"That shows you that she was for real," Smolenyak says.

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