Irving Stone's biographical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, of the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti was translated into a movie with the somewhat strange casting of Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and with Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II. The most memorable part of the movie is the portrayal of Michelangelo, almost blind and exhausted from overwork, patiently climbing the scaffolding every day to work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Although the rest of the movie was not so memorable, I have always remembered the dramatic effort Michelangelo is shown to have made to paint.
As I go about my research and teaching in genealogy, I look around me and I see people similarly devoted to their work. At the Mesa FamilySearch Library we have volunteers and patrons, who despite advanced age and disability, persist in researching their family lines, often at great personal discomfort. They truly have a passion for genealogy. Obviously, they are not motivated by any kind of monetary gain. Passionate golfers, actors, sports enthusiasts and those involved in other type of activities can look to role models who become famous and make huge amounts of money from their fields of endeavor. Genealogists have no such role models and in fact, almost none of these dedicated researchers could even name a "genealogy superstar" if there is such a thing.
When I see a Dial-a-Ride bus pull up at the FamilySearch Library and see an elderly person assisted with her walker so she can come to do research, I think of the sacrifice many genealogists make simply to pursue their work. They have both meaning in their lives and the motivation to keep active and participate in a worthwhile activity. I contrast this with vast number of older people in the United States whose highest aspiration is to live in an "active adult community." In addition, not only do many older genealogical researchers face huge personal physical challenges, they pursue genealogy almost always without any active support from their families. In fact some face active opposition.
Most of us cannot analyze the exact reasons for our involvement in genealogy; whether they are attributed to religious, cultural or social reasons. If you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you can base your interest on your religious beliefs, but that does not explain the total lack of interest and sometimes active opposition of your similarly situated friends and family members. Although I am an active member of the Church, I am long used to the antipathy of family members and the total lack of interest in those around me as I attend Church meetings. On the other hand, I find similar passion and interest in genealogy from many who have no religious beliefs in common with me.
Because participation in genealogy can be defined with such vague and unmeasurable terms, it is impossible to obtain any kind of accurate measure of the number of people actively involved. Watching a TV show about genealogy does not make someone a genealogist. Expanding the field to include the so-called pursuit of family history, also fails to quantify the number of passionate participants. For example, there are around 800 active contributors to the FamilySearch Research Wiki out of the thousands upon thousands of visitors to the site. Most of those contributors have made only one edit during the past thirty days. So even within the area of those who could be said to be actively involved in genealogy, there are only a very small core of people who are passionate about their involvement.
Somewhere between those who are interested enough in family history or genealogy to watch a TV show and those who spend their lives doing research, there is a core group of people that truly sacrifice time, money and even their health, to pursue family research. It is those who are my true role models. It is the old researcher, bent with age, slowly walking into the Library with her walker to do yet another day of research on her family. These are my true heroes.