We all have one – the favorite relative. And after all this time as a genealogist, I would love to talk to a sociologist or psychiatrist about our inclination towards a certain person. Does it tell us something about ourselves? Do we see ourselves in one ancestor and not another? For me, I often obsessively research those ancestors I have deemed great, resilient people. I often wonder how my ancestors survived – how could someone raise 15 children in the eighteenth century? How could someone forgive their mother after abandoning them in Ireland to move to New York City? How do parents go on after losing a child?
“Generosity, honesty, fair dealings and clean thinking [were] ingrained into his very soul.”
My favorite (historic) relative is my great-uncle, Dale Brown. I never knew him. I never heard my (paternal) grandmother talk about him. All I know about him is from family papers and the public record. That said: What I have been able to uncover about my Uncle Dale’s incredibly short and tragic life has continued to fascinate me. Here is what I have been able to gather:
Dale Wharton Brown was born 21 September 1911 near Edgewood, Illinois to Chester Burr Brown and Clara Belle Wharton. He was talented young man, according to his obituary, one who excelled in singing, declamation (he was to give a public reading the week he was buried), and track (he would have earned his varsity letter after one more race). He was also dedicated to the Methodist Episcopal Church; his Uncle Frank, a Methodist minister who wrote his obituary, affectionately wrote that Dale had “Generosity, honesty, fair dealings and clean thinking [were] ingrained into his very soul. He pressed forward toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
From letters that Dale wrote to his parents, and letters written to Chester and Clara Brown after the death of their son, anyone can tell that Dale was kind, wholesome, and agreeable. He had many friends, and worked hard to be a good son and good Christian. In the final year of his life, he attended Southern Illinois Normal School (a teachers’ college) in Carbondale, Illinois. Overall, he was the kind of kid that any parent/family would be proud of – and they were: My father was given the middle name Dale, after his deceased uncle, and my brother also carries the same middle name. Dale was obviously important to my grandmother; however, she never spoke about losing her brother.
How do parents go on after losing a child?
The stories that I do have are from my father and aunt, who tell me that Dale died after diving into a lake/pond/stream (no one knows the body of water) and broke his neck. In fact, when I was younger I was often told of the dangers of diving in shallow water – and was reminded that Dale died that very way. And when I found his death record, “21 year old male, death caused by accidentally breaking his neck while diving in the water,” all I could think about was my great-grandparents and my grandmother. My grammy was eighteen years old when her older (and only) brother died; my great-grandparents lost their first child when he was only 21 years old. That must have been so devastating. How do parents go on after losing a child?
I never saw a picture of my great-uncle Dale as a grown man, only pictures of him as a young child. In these young photos, he reminded me of my brother Cameron (which could also explain why I had such an inclination towards Dale). I had such an overwhelming desire to know what he looked like as an adult that I called the Southern Illinois University archives to find a photo of Dale, maybe on the track team, as well as the local newspaper. Nothing. No photos. That was until my aunt came over with the “last box” of family memorabilia. Inside was a framed photo of my Uncle Dale.
I remember the photo from my grandmother’s nightstand, I just never knew who the man in the photo was. I guess that is how parents and siblings move on after the loss of a child/brother – they keep them close and their memory alive. Maybe that is why he is my favorite – maybe it is my attempt to keep his memory alive just a little while longer…
Adorable, wasn’t he?
Do you have a favorite ancestor/relative?