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Jan Doan Retires After 40 Years as Genealogy Instructor

Jan Doan never imagined a simple visit to Olney Central College would lead to a 40-year adventure.Jan Doan Photo

“I came in one day to see if they would offer a genealogy class,” she said. “I met with the Dean of Student Services Dr. (E.L.) Bosomworth and talked about the possibility. He knew I had a teaching certificate and finally, he said, ‘Why don’t you teach the class?’ I had planned on being a student, but I ended up writing the syllabus and teaching it. I have never missed a quarter or a semester since.”

OCC offered an initial four-week mini-course in April 1977. Interest in genealogy was growing rapidly at the time following the success of the TV miniseries “Roots,” which traced the family of author Alex Haley.

Initially, the class met on Monday nights.

“I chose Monday nights because my husband never missed Monday Night Football,” she said. “I knew he would be at home with the kids.”

That May, Doan organized the Richland County Genealogical Society with help from members of the class. By the fall, she was teaching three genealogy courses at the college.

“We started building a genealogy library with four books of mine on a shelf behind the front desk,” Doan said.

They included “The 1884 History of Richland, Clay and Marion Counties,” Barbara Craddock’s “Cemetery Book,” “Early Marriages of Richland County” by Lola Taylor and “Gleanings from Old Newspapers of Clay and Richland Counties.”

That handful of books evolved into the Richland County Genealogy Society Collection, which is still housed in the OCC Anderson Library, and offers resources from across the region. Today, the collection includes census records, newspaper clippings, historical publications and even diaries and private scrapbooks donated by area families.

The society thrived in those early years and undertook a number of projects including transcribing census and marriage records and publishing a quarterly.

The Richland County Genealogical Society continues to maintain the genealogy section. The area is open to the public and people may use the collection during the Anderson Library’s regular hours. Several volunteers are available to assist patrons on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Over the years, Doan has spent countless hours assisting more than 1,000 participants in tracing their families from the Old World to Colonial America and on to Illinois, where their pioneering ancestors forged present-day Richland, Clay, Lawrence, Edwards and Wayne counties.

“It wasn’t unusual for me to come in the morning and still be here at 9 o’clock at night,” Doan said. “There were times I had to tell them it was time to go.”

In the early years, budding genealogists spent countless hours scanning microfilm in the library.

“I would order microfilm from the Shawnee Library System and it wasn’t unusual for us to have 30 rolls of census records a week,” she added.

Today, the collection contains census records for nine area counties covering the 1820s to 1940s, but Doan said they are rarely used since the information is now readily available on the Internet. Still, they remain a vital primary source for those wishing to verify facts. A large collection of newspapers also is available including Olney newspapers from 1876 until about 2000, the County Commoner from Noble, the Ste. Marie Tribune and the Sumner Press.

Often the classes would travel on day trips in the college vans to conduct research at libraries in Mt. Vernon, Urbana and St. Louis, Mo. Longer trips to Fort Wayne, Ind., Nashville, Tenn., Louisville, Ky., Columbus, Ohio and Chicago were taken nearly every year.

“We logged several hundred miles,” Doan said. “It was a fun time. The Internet has changed the way people do genealogy. We don’t travel like we used to.”

Another staple of those early days, letter writing, has also disappeared.

“We used to do a lot of writing,” she said. “We spent a lot of time working on how to write a query. Often, you would send letters to major publications with questions about families. That’s all gone now.”

Originally a credit course, Doan’s genealogy class later came under the umbrella of OCC Community Services. In recent years, the class has operated independently from the college, with Doan volunteering her services.

After reaching the 40-year milestone this year, Doan decided to retire. However, several of her former students asked if she would continue with the genealogy group in the future. After discussions with President Rodney Ranes, it was decided to offer a class for beginners and advanced students that would not meet regularly, but would follow a schedule agreeable to class members.

“I’ve enjoyed being here,” Doan said of working at OCC. “All of the librarians have been helpful and willing to share the equipment and computers. They have also given us hints on doing things. The deans of instruction were also very helpful.”

Doan’s interest in genealogy began as a young girl in Blue Island, when she would accompany her father to the cemetery to visit family graves. It sparked her imagination and instilled a yearning to know more about these people who lived and died before her.

When Doan and her husband, a native of Richland County, moved from Blue Island to Claremont, her interest was piqued further.

“He was taking me around the area and we went to the cemetery,” she said. “He had a brother, who had died young, and I noticed there were several Doans buried nearby. I asked him, ‘Who are these people,’ and he didn’t know. ‘Why don’t you know this,’ I asked. That’s when I started looking into the family’s history.”

Through their journeys, genealogists often encounter distant relatives. Doan recalls one summer in 1969, when a gentleman stopped by the Farmers Exchange in Claremont and asked her husband if he knew anybody named Hostettler in the area.

“My husband told him, ‘You need to speak to my wife,’” Doan said. “He, his wife and their six kids came to our house and stayed in their camper for a week. I remember while they were here, the train carrying (President) Eisenhower back to Kansas for his funeral came through Claremont. It turns out the grandfather of the man’s wife, Ruth, was a brother to my grandmother.”

The gentleman’s wife later mailed Doan a copy of “Searching for Your Ancestors” and pedigree charts. Doan has also encountered other distant relatives. Her grandfather came to America with his brother, leaving 13 brothers and sisters in their native England.

“I was eventually able to get all of their names and birth dates,” she said. “I visited England and was able to round up second, third and even fourth cousins. I also saw the house, built in 1865, where my grandfather was born.”

Doan still enjoys researching and assisting others in breaking through any brick walls they’ve encouraged while researching their family stories.

“Some questions you can spend 30 or 40 years on and not find an answer,” she added. “People change their names or the spelling. There are some people who didn’t want to be found.”

Often, it can be difficult to discern between individuals because ages and names don’t align. Doan said much of the confusion comes from the way in which early census records were         collected.

“The census was taken in the spring when the roads were muddy and travel was difficult. Census takers also were paid by the number of families they visited,” she said. “They would ask whoever answered the door the names and ages of the people living there. If someone wasn’t home or they couldn’t reach a house, the census taker would ask the next family down the road for information. There was a lot of guessing.”

Doan’s favorite sources for tidbits about ancestors’ lives are old newspapers and court records.

“It is always fun to find out one of your ancestors was a bit of a crook,” she said. “They may have been arrested for selling liquor on Sunday and you will find some added details about their lives. It’s nice to find a little scandal associated with one of your ancestors because they get in the court records.”

Doan’s fall genealogy class started in August and she will offer another in January.

“I encourage anyone who is interested in genealogy to attend the class,” she said. “It can help them find answers to their questions. There is a lot of material from the area to assist them.”

For more information, call Doan at 618-392-7090.

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