Sharing the story
Several months ago, an interesting promotion for Ancestry.com crossed my screen, so I decided to sign up and see what more I could learn about my family’s history. My first cousin Robert had been anointed the “family scribe” and for years had been gathering stories and official documents tracing our family’s history in America. However, I wanted to delve even further into our family’s business heritage, so I consulted my 91-year-old father.
I knew my father’s father came to the U.S. at the turn of the century to join his uncle in Chicago in the grain business. The family had been in the hops business, which included grain trading, in Fuerth, Germany. A few years later, my grandfather, Paul Uhlmann, moved to Kansas City, where he and his son Pat established their own grain business. My grandfather, uncle and, later, my father, expanded the business to include flour milling and food products. All three related colorful stories of growing the business, keeping up with cousins around the globe and life in Kansas City.
Family gatherings provided a perfect forum for these narratives, and they had quite an impact on me. One such story involved my grandfather’s personally signing affadavits for almost 400 refugees to come to America to escape the Holocaust. Our family received thank-you letters for decades, and my grandfather was recognized with the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award.
Over the years, I have passed on several of these family stories to our sons Bill, who joined our family business after completing his J.D./MBA, and Tom, a physician. There are many reasons to hand these stories down. According to Kathryn Levy Feldman, a freelance contributor to Family Business who has also written family business history books, “The tie that binds stories together is the process itself of assembling archives and gathering people to tell the family as well as the company history.”
Feldman wrote a cover story for Family Business Magazine (Spring 2006) that profiled the Rubenstein family of New Orleans, who quickly got their clothing store back in operation after Hurricane Katrina. The family was proud that they were able to track down their employees and offer them their jobs back.
Quite often, such family stories involve life lessons. Future generations of a family in business can receive valuable insights into what drives family executives, what shaped family dynamics, what outside forces intervened and what lessons can be learned from their experiences.
Not all narratives are written down and published as books; many are oral anecdotes and stories that probably become more colorful with each passing generation! Make sure someone in your family is charged with chronicling your family history.
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