The importance of mentors



In observance of Thank Your Mentor Day, I am writing about the importance of having a mentor and being a mentor in our world of genealogy. This day is meant to honor those individuals who encouraged and guided us, and had a lasting, positive impact on our lives. I was fortunate to have a faithful mentor when I was young and just getting serious about researching my family tree. She didn’t call herself a mentor, but Lee Henderson became one to me.

I met Lee Ellen Estes Henderson through a query I made to a family newsletter called the Estes Trails. I was just starting to try to unravel the mysteries of my Estes family tree and this fifth cousin one times removed of mine answered my query. She would certainly not have had to take the time to respond. We are only very distantly related; she and my mom shared fifth great-grandparents.

Lee Ellen Estes Henderson (1917-2008)
Lee Ellen Estes Henderson (1917-2008)

What started with an initial answer to one of my questions, turned into a series of letters over the next sixteen years. Lee did not have a computer. She shared scores of information that she had collected, but everything she sent was hand written. I cannot even imagine how many hours she donated to me as she copied wills and documents and other information from her files by hand. Her letters were often 50-60 pages long. Talk about doing good deeds!

Those letters provided more than information regarding our shared family. They also contained advise, encouragement, and words of wisdom. She shared mishaps that she had made as a beginning genealogist and cautioned me to avoid pitfalls. She trained me to be vigilant in record keeping and skeptical of information that seemed too good to be true. I learned much from Lee regarding good basic genealogy skills, but I also learned the value of sharing and being positive.

I hope that she realized how appreciative I was of her assistance. I always sent sincere thanks, but I doubt she realized just how influential she was in inspiring me to keep chasing my family tree. I try to use her as a model when a family member comes looking to me for family information. I’ve yet to find a mentee who wants to delve into family history as much as I did and I don’t think I could handle hand-writing 50-60 page letters, but I share what I can when someone expresses an interest.

The world today moves faster than when Lee and I first started communicating. People come and go more quickly in the electronic world. There is something much more intimate about a hand written letter as compared to an email or text message. But even so, I would encourage experienced family historians to mentor those who may come to them for help. And, I would encourage every beginning genealogist to reach out to someone who is more experienced and work to establish an ongoing relationship. Ask for and take advice, be humble and appreciative for the nuggets of wisdom that are shared. Consider a mentor a gift!

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