Life Story Wisdom from Steve Roberts

Last week, I had the pleasure of hearing Steve Roberts speak. For those that don’t know, Steve Roberts is somewhat of a local celebrity here in Bethesda, Maryland. The New York Times best-selling author, well-known TV commentator and radio host, husband to journalist Cokie Roberts, son-in-law to the late Lindy Boggs - the list goes on and on.

It may have been for all of those superficial "celebrity" reasons that I was originally excited to hear him speak at our national Association of Personal Historians conference. But once he shared his often-used adage, "Your grandmother never says 'No comment'" - I was hooked.

In the course of Roberts' sharing his stories about capturing his own family history, I gained some key wisdom and takeways that I'd like to share as a way to motivate and inspire you.

  • Stories have been around since the beginning of time. They have played an essential role in humans understanding our reason for existence. And even though the methods of storytelling have changed over the years (from fireside chats to Twitter), the essence of storytelling hasn’t changed. It’s still the way we learn, remember and teach – always through stories. Remember that as you're talking to your eldest family members.
  • It's those early stories that can so often get lost, especially among immigrant families who don’t want to remember the pain of their earlier years or getting to the place they are today. In the course of his writing "My Fathers' Houses," Roberts learned this first-hand, seeing how many in the immigrant community where he grew up just wanted to move forward, and often, forget those early stories. He realized he had to reach across that divide and grab those stories from his own family, or fear them being lost.
  • Research is often what can get you from point A to point B, especially when you're stuck and missing details. Roberts did his own research  and found a wealth of information in the Old Man’s Registry ( During World War II, every man between the ages of 20 through 80 years old had to register with the military, and this was called the Old Man's Registry. The registration cards are all saved and accessible in the National Archives. The cards themselves contain basic information that can serve as great data points for "connecting the dots." Roberts was able to find the service record of his grandfather and discovered where he was from.
  • Sometimes getting information is as simple as asking the right questions. In the process of doing his family history, he asked his Mom a simple question that he'd never asked before  - "Do you have any documents that might help me?”  His Mom ended up pulling out 100 letters his parents had written to each other when they were dating in high school. The amazing thing – they only lived one block apart! But she shared how they had no privacy back then, during the Depression, and the two sweethearts were both quite shy. They could say things in letters that they could never say in person. It was “a treasure trove” of information for Roberts, who was able to share the 17-year-old Dorothy Roberts with her 80-year-old friends at her memorial service this past summer, by reading from those letters.
  • If a relative is resistant, tell them it's not all about them! One of my favorite things that Roberts shared was the fact that so many organizations are hungry for stories and artifacts from the past, especially from that first-person perspective. The next time your relative is resistant and doesn’t think his or her stories matter – or don’t think their grandchildren will care – share with them the fact that they are living history and so many organizations do want to know their story. Whether it’s the history of their small town for a local chamber of commerce or stories from WWII or the Depression that could be donated to any number of museums, the stories of your family are worth sharing.

As Roberts concluded, you just never know what you’re going to find – so always ask!  Because every single family is worth writing about, and the gift of history is worth giving.