Making history personal

NEIGHBORS

Using genealogical software he created, ex-criminologist helps others unearth their roots

December 18, 2008|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Bob Velke spent several years searching for live people during the day and dead people at night.

Eventually, he quit his job as a researcher for a private investigator tracking down white-collar criminals, but he never stopped digging up information on the deceased.

The former criminologist now runs a genealogical software company from offices on Red Branch Road in Columbia. For more than 15 years, Velke has helped others unearth their roots, though, ironcially, it has left him little time to work on his own.

"Every family's got a genealogist," the Columbia resident said. "As older generations die off, people become nervous about lost family information and begin scrounging around for it."

Velke spoke to 60 of the nearly 200 members of the Howard County Genealogical Society last week about his program, the Master Genealogist, which is in its seventh version. He said he wrote the original in 1989 to further his quest to trace his maternal ancestry, a hunt spurred by research his mother and grandmother had done.

When friends frequently begged him to share his program, he realized he might have a product worth marketing. He recalled sitting cross-legged on the floor on a break at a genealogical conference in Oregon in the late 1980s, demonstrating the program from a laptop resting on his torn denim pants. Members of the small gathering liked what they saw and urged him to take his software public so they could purchase it, he said.

That pivotal moment stuck with Velke as he put his program on CD-ROM three years after writing it, so he named his company Wholly Genes - a play on the term holey jeans.

As his company got off the ground, he continued to teach criminology until 1999 at the University of Maryland, College Park, from which he had graduated in 1989. Now, even as his software helps others to dredge up information on the long-ago departed, he said there is no natural end point to his personal search.

He is the fictional archaeologist still looking for the lost ark, or the imaginary code-breaker who has not discovered the Holy Grail - and that's OK by him.

"Finding your ancestors isn't supposed to be a finite process," said Velke, 47, who is a foster parent to two boys with his wife, Cathy. "Part of the attraction lies in the hunt, and the hunt can go on forever. You're never done."

Velke said he has traced his maternal ancestors back 16 generations, or about 320 years. He explained that it is not all that difficult to work that far back for many people because they would be researching records in the United States.

"It's common for people to say they will draw a line in the sand when they locate the first immigrant" and their search leads them to other countries, Velke said.

John Foltz, vice president of the county genealogical society, agreed.

"Researching your family tree is a good way to make history personal," he said, noting that he has gotten back to 1748 in his father's lineage, but is now hampered by records in German churches.

"Genealogy is a lot of fun, but it can be a real time sink, too," he said.

Nearly half of all Americans list it as a hobby, said Velke, who is a member of the board of directors of the National Genealogical Society.

"Some say it's among the top four pastimes - after sex, sports and finance," he said.

But researching online is both a blessing and a curse. "It's the best tool to inspire and motivate people, if they can rein [their enthusiasm] back in," Velke said. "But they shouldn't accept everything they see online as gospel - it's easy to fall prey to."

Software that has emerged in recent years can enable family tree researchers to take the quest to another level.

"Software is cheap and powerful and has come a long way in the last 15 years," he said.

His programs range in price from $34 to $70.

Ken and Elaine Zimmerman are professional part-time genealogists who say they are often hired to conduct cumbersome research for lawyers.

The Columbia couple, who have known Velke since the early years of Wholly Genes, are also fans of his software.

"Bob's program allows you to collect 'unknowns,' which are relatives you can't quite connect to your family, and then tie them together later," said Ken Zimmerman, a retired Social Security Administration employee.

And you can import and export data from other genealogical programs, he added.

"If you like research and reading, you'd be interested in genealogy," said Elaine Zimmerman, a registered nurse. "Once you get one tidbit, you get curious and you want to keep finding out more."

Velke's one concession to his hobby has been stopping at courthouses and cemeteries when he travels.

And he acknowledged that he probably will actively renew his search when he retires.

"I haven't drawn a line in the sand, and I don't intend to," he said.

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