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ASU dean: Connecting to our ancestors can help us better understand ourselves.
ASU dean hosts two to five genealogy workshops a month for community.
Tracing one's family tree has changed much over the years.
March 21, 2016

Duane Roen's hobby morphs into community service with genealogy workshops

Duane Roen likes to brag about his big family — by last count it teetered around 32,000, and change.

He can’t possibly commit all of their names to memory, but he has all of them recorded in a database, and some of them are mentioned in more than 16,000 journal entries and seen in stacks of family albums filled with photos, documents and letters, the result of a hobby that started as a teen.

Most people at the university know Roen as the vice provostRoen is also the dean of College of Letters and Sciences, dean of University College and a professor of English. of Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus and overall good guy. But many might not know he’s an expert family historian who hosts two to five evening and weekend workshops a month on the subject of geneaology.

His free workshops include personal anecdotes, tips on family history research, weaving cultural history into family history, creating timelines, using family-tree software and presenting different genres for publishing a family history.

Dean Duane Roen College of Letters and Sciences

Duane Roen shakes hands with a
family-history workshop particpant
at the Peoria North LDS Stake
Center on March 12.

Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Despite the 80 to 100 hours a week Roen puts in at ASU, he said getting others interested in family history is a hobby and passion that has transformed into community service. That commitment shows up in many ways, including Roen’s founding of ASU’s Project for Writing and Recording Family History.

“It’s natural for us to yearn for more personal connections to those who came before us, in stories about their lives and first-person accounts of their daily struggles, hopes and dreams,” Roen said.

“Who we are as individuals depends on all sorts of factors, including who our ancestors were. We have their DNA in us, and we also have their traditions. It’s important for people to know where they came from.”

Roen has been hooked on family history since the age of 15, when he discovered a Norwegian family bible in his grandparents’ attic. In a way, that love of family connection explains why he loves such foods as lefse, rommegrot and krumkake. Or why he has a grain bag with the initials “M.R.” pinned to his wall that he touches every time he walks up and down the stairs in his Tempe home.

“M.R. was my grandfather, and he was a farmer from Wisconsin,” said Roen, who is from River Falls, Wisconsin. “The bag was his and he used it to thresh wheat and oats. Every time I touch it, I feel a connection to him.”

He and his wife, Maureen, who also works at ASU, have been recording their family history since 1978 by writing daily journal entries on their children and other family members, which he keeps neatly stacked on his living room bookshelf. Roen said it has become a part of his daily practice and takes only about 15 minutes per entry.

Roen and his wife are no longer on the fringe element when it comes to collecting information on their ancestors. New tools, technologies and the explosion of Internet sites have opened the door for a new era of family history and discovery, introducing millions of enthusiasts to their pasts. And that’s good, said Roen, who remembers the days when hunting down a relative was time-consuming and had a gumshoe feel.

“Back then there was no Internet or World Wide Web, and finding your ancestors required going to a courthouse, a family-history center or ordering the rolls from Salt Lake City,” said Roen, who traces his Norwegian bloodline back to the late 1600s.

“It could take a couple of weeks to receive, and you’d then have to rent them for weeks at a time. Once you received the rolls, you’d sit at this microfilm machine and hand-crank it to move forwards or backwards. You’d have to go page by page because there was no index and you went by memory or instincts to find a name. It took hours of time and a lot of patience. Today it’s pretty easy, and I’ve made some great finds in the last few years.”

One of those finds was the discovery that Roen was a distant cousin of Nell Cropsey, who disappeared from her home the night of Nov. 20, 1901. Thirty-seven days later her body was found floating in the Pasquotank River near the Cropsey family home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. A male suitor was convicted — and later pardoned — of her murder, and many questions about her death remain unanswered. It’s these types of historical nuggets that propel family-history gatherers.

Gary Anderson, who attended a March 12 workshop hosted by Roen at the Tempe Public Library, said he wants to take his family history in a different direction.

“We are farmers from western Pennsylvania, and I want to start a family newsletter called ‘The Manure Spreader,’ ” the 75-year-old Anderson said with a laugh. He’s a former ASU professor. “I don’t know if anyone outside of our family is interested or not, but that’s the sort of flavor I’m going after.”

Stephen Lawton, 73, who is also a retired ASU professor, said he inherited his father’s research, which consists of two bookcases and seven boxes of file folders. He said he found a Quaker ancestor and is thinking about starting a blog or self-publishing a book as a resource to link family members. 

“One of the things I liked best about Duane’s presentation is that our stories are important and it’s up to us to tell them,” Lawton said. “It opens up American history, and it’s interesting to think that somehow you’re a part of it.”

Find details on upcoming workshops here.

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ASU professor: "East Europeans still fear the ghosts of the vanished Jews."
Personal narratives of trauma help us understand how to live more harmoniously.
March 22, 2016

ASU panels shed light on what we can learn from remembering the victims and survivors of WWII

It may be hard to believe, but already the better half of a century has passed since World War II broke out. Despite the distance time has graced us from its atrocities, their effects are still felt by the generations of individuals descended from its victims — individuals like ASU professor Martin MatustikMartin Matustik is the Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Religion at ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences., who discovered only at the age of 40 that he was the child of a Holocaust survivor.

The subsequent journey that discovery took him on opened Matustik’s eyes to a world of trauma and suffering he never realized was so close to him. And perhaps the worst part was knowing that the very kind of discrimination and xenophobia that caused it all is still happening today in places like Europe, currently dealing with one of the world’s largest refugee crises ever.

“East Europeans still fear the ghosts of the vanished Jews, and they raise fences to keep Syrian refugees out, even though very few want to settle in Eastern Europe,” bemoaned Matustik.

Fortunately, he has had the opportunity to share his story and bring attention to the issue with the publication of his book, “Out of Silence: Repair Across Generations,” which he discussed last Wednesday at a book panel organized by the Center for Jewish Studies, in collaboration with the Melikian Center: Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.

At the panel, Matustik recounted the story of how he discovered his mother’s secret past, which included family members he never knew existed, and set him on the path of discovering his true identity.

Assistant professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies Anna Cichopek-Gajraj also spoke at the panel about her similarly themed book, “Beyond Violence: Jewish Survivors in Poland and Slovakia, 1944-48.”

A native of Poland, Cichopek-Gajraj was “shook to the core” when in 2000 she read Jan T. Gross’ “Neighbors,” which showed how “Polish neighbors” were complicit in wartime genocide.

“It prompted serious introspection into what it meant to belong to a national community, or what do crimes of my grandparents’ generation say about me,” said Cichopek-Gajraj, who still struggles with the issue.

For associate professor of German studies Daniel GilfillanDaniel Gilfillan is an associate professor of German studies and information literacy in the School of International Letters and Cultures, as well as faculty affiliate in film and media studies, Jewish studies and English., the period of history surrounding World War II “is one that showcases the potential of taking a certain conversation to its ultimate extremes.” Furthermore, he continued, “I think there are some parallels to what we might be seeing politically in the United States today and elsewhere.”

Along with Matustik, Gilfillan will be delivering an Institute for Humanities Research faculty seminar titled “Remembering WWII: Victims and Survivors,” at 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 23, in the Social Sciences building, room 109, on the Tempe campus.

Gilfillan’s research focuses on 20th-century literature, film and media studies in the German-speaking sphere. His portion of the seminar will look at the propaganda films “The Ghetto” (1942) and “The Führer Gives a City to the Jews” (1944), examining what the films’ use of close-up reveals about the faces of the victims featured.

man sitting at desk
Associate professor of German studies Daniel Gilfillan speaks about his research in his office March 17. Along with humanities professor Martin Matustik, Gilfillan will deliver the "Remembering WWII: Victims and Survivors" faculty seminar from 10 to 11:30 a.m. March 23. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


“There’s something about that immediate capture of the close-up on film, and what that face tells us about the narrative that is about to be extinguished,” Gilfillan said. And it is those personal narratives (which both Matustik and Cichopek-Gajraj detail in their respective books), he explained, that end up transitioning into larger, representational models of a collective experience of a traumatic event — whether it’s the Holocaust or something more recent, like 9/11.

Having those representational models is important. They make sure we don’t forget by reminding us of the humanity of the victims, and they ask us to question how these incidents of large-scale atrocities and human suffering fit into the human condition. According to Gilfillan, understanding that is imperative to living in today’s international world, something he hopes students take to heart:

“In moving out into the world, you can have a particular skill set that’s based on economics of business or engineering or journalism, but that skill set is only going to take you so far. You need to also have those moments of emotional connection, intellectual connection and understanding of what it means to live in an international world, versus a world that wants to create walls and borders, and values [those things] over progress.”

To learn more about Matustik’s story and his book, visit his website at