By ELLEN CIURCZAK
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) _ Genealogy _ the study of family histories _ started out as a hobby for Hattiesburg resident Helen Clunie. It soon grew into a passion and has become a way that Clunie makes a difference by preserving the records of area families for generations to come.
Clunie, 87, became involved in genealogy in 1993. She started out by recording cemeteries _ going to each gravestone and writing down the information on it.
Clunie remembers hanging out in the churchyard cemetery as a child in Pearl River County, the sounds of the choir wafting outside to her.
“While the people were singing, I was out in the cemetery, tramping around and pulling grass,” she said.
Later, she and her husband would take night walks in the cemetery.
“We would walk around and look at graves,” she said. “It was like visiting old friends.”
The retired third-grade teacher eventually was honored with four Preservation Awards by the National, State and Local Daughters of the American Revolution for her research and preservation of a forgotten female slave cemetery in Pearl River County.
She also helped restore the old Stewart Cemetery, located between Bogalusa, Louisiana, and Columbia, Mississippi, after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The graves of seven Civil War veterans were discovered in that cemetery and given new tombstones.
Clunie also was researching her own family history. She really started digging when she got her first computer in 1997-98.
“When I got my computer, I had three names _ my grandmother’s name and her two children by another marriage,” she said.
Clunie discovered long-lost siblings on her mother’s side, which eventually led to a tearful reunion. She also found out she is one-quarter Cherokee on her mother’s side and one-eighth Choctaw on her father’s side. She is now a member of the Four Winds Tribe in DeRidder, Louisiana.
“I love research,” she said. “I love family history and local history. I just wanted more and more.
“You get hot and cold on it. You won’t get anything and then, all of a sudden, you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
Clunie’s passion for genealogy took on the aspect of public service when, in July 2010, her friend and fellow genealogist, Hilda Hoffmann, died at the age of 92. Clunie suddenly found herself with a big responsibility.
Hoffmann left behind more than 100 boxes of research about families in Pearl River County. Those boxes held work Hoffmann had begun in her teens and continued for 74 years.
“Her cousin in San Antonio called and said, `I have just inherited Hilda’s collection, what am I going to do with it?”’ Clunie said.
It was Hoffmann’s desire that the collection be housed in Pearl River County, close to the families she researched, and be open to the public.
“There was so much information in it,” Clunie said.
The collection included cemetery research and just about anything pertaining to the families and history of Pearl River County.
Clunie began searching for a home for the collection, but she wasn’t having much luck.
“I was trying to find a place in Pearl River County to take all the stuff and make it accessible for research,” she said. “Nobody could give me any place to put it.”
Out of desperation, she finally stored all the boxes in a metal building she owned in Picayune. The building had no air conditioning, but undeterred, Clunie started going through the materials.
In October of 2010, Clunie found a climate-controlled building in Hancock County. A nonprofit organization was formed and named the Hilda Hoffmann Memorial Archive Inc. Clunie is a founding board member and remains on the board.
In 2011, Clunie was able to fulfill Hoffmann’s final wish, when she spent $54,000 of her own money for a building in Picayune.
“This little house right across from City Hall Annex was for sale, and I bought it and gave it to the historical archives,” she said. “The building is called the Helen Alexander Clunie Heritage Library.”
The library has about 150 members who pay $25 a year for the privilege. The proceeds are used mainly for utilities and other basic needs to keep it running.
It’s staffed by volunteers Monday through Friday. It’s open to anyone who wants to use the materials to research their family history or who wants to add their own materials to it.
“(Visitors) come in and bring their material _ whatever they have on their families and whatever they want to find out more about,” Clunie said.
Volunteer Marilyn Weston said the archives are a vital part of Pearl River County’s history.
“If you were born around this part of the county, we probably have one of your families here,” she said.
Weston called the building a “mini-museum,” filled with 137 boxes of material.
“(Hoffmann) just had boxes and file cabinets of research she had done over the years,” she said.
Weston said Clunie is still a vital contributor to the library.
“She’s done so much for the archives,” she said. “She is so willing to do anything at any time. She has more energy than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com