Friday, September 12, 2008

I need advice - the best way to contact a living relative

My research on my Project M, being conducted for my friend Ed who lives here in Chula Vista and is slowly dying at age 81. He wanted to know more about his father's life - Ed last saw his father in 1943 in Georgia.

In the six weeks I've worked on this project off and on, I've found the father's SSDI record (and sent off for the SS5) - he died in 1969 in southern Georgia. I gathered online information and have constructed a decent family tree of Ed's paternal and maternal ancestry. The other night, I found the obituary for Ed's half-sister in a local Georgia newspaper that listed the names of her parents, her husband, her children and her siblings (but not Ed). From that, I could tell that she and Ed were half-siblings. Today, I found several more articles - obituaries and a wedding announcement - that gave me more information on family members. After using, the Public Records search on Ancestry, the search, etc., I think I have addresses and telephone numbers for the three living half-siblings and one of the half-nephews of Ed's. I have not found any email addresses - yet!

Now the problem is how to contact them. Should I:

1) Telephone one or more of them?

2) Write a nice letter to them?

3) Should I do it, or should Ed?

I'm thinking that I should make the first contact, and try to set up a phone call to them with Ed as a second contact. I could explain why I'm contacting them without it being an emotional event. The problem is that they might not welcome the contact and shy away from talking to Ed if I mess up the first contact.

Ed only wants information about his father's life. I know he would love to hear stories about his father's military service, his occupations and jobs, his hobbies and interests, his religious beliefs, his health history, etc. I know that he would like to know where his father is buried. I know that he would really like to have photographs of his father.

So - I want your advice. Have you done this before? What worked? What didn't work? Were you successful? What kinds of responses might I encounter? How can I maximize the chance of a positive response?


Kathryn Doyle said...


I've done both - letters and phone calls. Since you are not positive you have the correct numbers, why not just pick up the phone? For the most part I have had positive experiences. I always ask if there is someone in the family who is interested in the family history. Your idea of making the first contact is a good one. That will allow them to get comfortable with the idea and give them time to gather the information or make contact with those best able to give Ed the information he wants.

If none of your numbers pan out you then can send out the letters. I usually send out the same letter to each of the siblings. I give my email address and usually I hear back from the one who is the keeper of the family information.

You never know how these things turn out but I won't be surprised if you end up sharing more with them than you will get back.

Good luck to you and to Ed!

JMK said...

Hi Randy,

I would call them first. Letting people hear your voice will also allow them to judge by its tone how genuine you are. Like email, letters can be appear flat and people can often read things the wrong way.

I would say upfront that there is nothing sinister in your request, no one is out to make a fast buck or gain some kind of advantage. I would also explain that the person you are helping is advanced in age and that time is not on their side.

I find that once you make it clear that you are only interested in making family connections, most people respond positively.

Do keep us posted on what happened.

Thomas MacEntee said...

Hey Randy

In this day and age of scams and Internet weirdness, I usually send a letter. I provide as much info as possible so they know this is legit. And I also provide a series of web addresses so that if they or a family member are computer savvy, they can verify the information.

I think that if I were to receive a phone call like this out of the blue, being very much the skeptic, I'd hang up. I also just don't like to give certain info over the phone.

Tim Agazio said...


I agree with Thomas. A phone call puts people on the spot and doesn't allow them time to digest the information. With a letter, the people have time to think about things and then they make the decision on whether or not to take it further.


Nikki - Notes of Life said...

Personally, I would send a letter (or letters, if to multiple people). It doesn't put people on the spot and it gives time for you to work out exactly what you want to say.

Jasia said...

I think sending a letter is the better route. It allows the receiver to read it when it's convenient for them rather than interrupting them with a phone call when they are in the middle of who knows what.

I would also include a photo of Ed with the letter just to make it more personal. People connect with faces even better than they do with words.

Harold Henderson said...

Randy -- It occurs to me (and probably already to you too) that all the commenters are right. What about sending a short simple letter first, including a picture of Ed and your email and phone number and any relevant URLs, and saying that you will follow up with a phone call in a week or so unless they say, no way? That might help take the curse off the call -- at least they would know who they were hanging up on! -- Harold

Miriam Robbins said...

I've always done phone calls, Randy. Letters have a way of being thought over too much and then not answered. I've never had a negative experience, although I have had contact with people who did not follow up later with sending more information.

I've also been the recipient of phone calls, and that has worked out as well.

Unknown said...

I'd be more responsive to a family member than a non-related genealogist. Ed should write to them himself. He can put more feeling into a letter than you'd be able to.

I agree with the suggestion of Ed including a photo of himself - and a photo of his father, if he has one.

He can tell them that he's going to follow up his letter with a phone call in a few days and also include his own phone number.

He should include family information that will prove his connection, if there is one.

DearMYRTLE said...

It's obvious you care for Ed, and realize time is of the essence if he is to connect with his half siblings.

HOWEVER, it is not your call.

This was a research assignment about finding Ed's father, which you did admirably. A well-written research report would include your findings and a recommendation to contact the half-siblings for more information.

Ed is responsible for his interpersonal relationships.

Genealogists are not therapists, and I believe contacting the family members is not appropriate.. It is especially inappropriate to do so without Ed's knowledge.

Give Ed the tools (the report) and let him fly.

Thomas MacEntee said...

While I think Myrt is correct, especially when the boundaries may not be clearly defined between friend and client, I think in this situation where Ed is in a quick decline, you need to ask Ed what he wants to do and how to do it.

In the past, with my own research, I sent a letter to a cousin and then gave him my cell phone number. We did talk but haven't talked in that year a half since - there interest level wasn't there on his part.

But that was my own research and not research I performed for a client or a friend.

If I can throw out an "if I were you" Randy: you are much like me in that you know the power of karma and performing acts of genealogical kindness. Contacting these people on behalf of Fred might be the right thing to do but you really need his input and to think through how the end results might turn out.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Hi Randy

A phone call is really "iffy". It can be a shock, certainly it will be a surprise, and the person answering doesn't have time to think about what you (or Ed) is telling them.

For that reason, I believe a letter is best. I think it should come from Ed. You could help him write it - something brief, a photo of himself, a bit of a bio about himself and why he is contacting them.

Provide an email address, snail address and phone number.

Ed could also add that he plans on phoning person A on such and such a day between the hours of x and y. That gives person A the opportunity to not answer if they are not interested OR to pick up the phone and talk. But at least they have had time to think about what they want to do with the new contact from Ed.

Having been on the receiving end of many out-of-the-blue phone calls, I personally would have preferred to have notice that the call was coming. It takes me awhile to figure out what family the phone person is referring to, what they want, etc,


Andrea B. (Red Loper) said...

I always write letters. This day and age people get flustered on the phone (identity theft, etc..). I also send a chart of how we're related. Include your email and phone #.


Terry Thornton said...

RANDY, I keep trying to put myself on the other end of an out-of-the-blue telephone call from a stranger in California. For me, a letter of introduction/explanation with a specific time for a telephone call followup or for them to telephone immediately if they so desire would be best.

If Ed is more of a client than a friend, then I'd give Myrt's excellent advice serious consideration.

Good luck --- and please keep us posted on the outcome of this situation.

Terry Thornton
Fulton, Mississippi

Sasha Mitchell said...

Hi Randy,

I have been a "search angel" for several people seeking lost family members, for adoptees and just estranged family members.

I think because time is short, a phone call might be just fine. Also, because you might be able to protect Ed and the person on the other end of the line from a bad reaction, I think you should call, not Ed. I might say something like, "Hi, my name is Randy, I'm calling on behalf of a close friend of mine, who has asked me to help him locate his family. His name is Ed ____, and he is 81 years old, in failing health... (however much you want to say). You probably know the likelihood that they are aware of Ed's presence. I have only had positive responses in the many times I have made this kind of call. - Sasha