A Local Life: Edna Somers

A Lifetime Dedicated To All the Lifetimes That Came Before

Edna Somers, shown with some of the branches below her on her family tree: granddaughters Christie Somers, left, and Brianna Gates.
Edna Somers, shown with some of the branches below her on her family tree: granddaughters Christie Somers, left, and Brianna Gates. (Family Photos)
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006

Before Alex Haley televised his discovery of his African roots and long before computers revolutionized the search for distant ancestors, Edna Somers had spent years poring over genealogy records and finding branches to her family tree that date back centuries.

With the thoroughness of an anthropologist unearthing long-buried treasures, Somers painstakingly sifted through old records to find links to her past and the lineages of others who sought her help. She also taught numerous genealogy classes through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which houses one of the largest collections of genealogical records in the world.

Somers, who died May 24 at 86 of complications from an infection, used her vast knowledge of tracing family pedigrees to help organize two of the first Mormon branch libraries in the Washington area.

"She lived and breathed genealogy. It was simply that," said Ken Coleman, a physician and member of the church's McLean ward. "She promoted it, and she taught it."

In the late 1980s, Coleman was chairman of a library committee that was creating from scratch a branch of the Mormons' Family History Library in Oakton. He tapped Somers, who had helped set up a branch library in Annandale and was known for her rigorous determination. "If it needed to be done, she didn't stop until it was done," he said of Somers, who helped secure microfiche machines and card readers for the library.

Although genealogy became one of the most popular hobbies in the United States after author Haley's "Roots," it has long been a tenet and a sacred duty of the Mormon religion. Through the assistance of genealogical research, families can be united in eternity, the church believes.

Somers, a Mormon from childhood, took seriously her obligation to document deceased relatives and to secure their place in eternity through sacred temple rites. She found ancestral lines that dated to the 1700s and further. And she just enjoyed the hunt.

"She liked the mystery of it," said her daughter Janine Gates of McLean.

Somers and her husband would go on genealogy trips to Maine, New Hampshire, South Carolina and North Carolina. They strolled through cemeteries and studied headstones. She scrutinized reams of documents in courthouses and churches, including census, birth and death records, baptism and christening logs, microfiche and historical documents. She frequently visited the National Archives.

"She did research the old-time way, going places . . . leafing through books," Gates said. Never a convert to computers, she wrote everything longhand. "We are left with thousands of pages of family records -- books and books and books and pages of family records."

In a way, Edna McGavin Somers was born a genealogist when she came into the world in Marysville, Idaho. Her interest was piqued early when she learned her that her paternal grandfather took part in the War of 1812. She grew up in California, graduated from Chico State Teacher's College and became an elementary teacher in San Francisco.

While traveling on a street car in San Francisco, she took notice of a young man with nice teeth who smiled at her. She married Ira Somers in 1945, and together they raised four children and worked in the Mormon church.

After moving to the Washington area in 1957, she did substitute teaching in Fairfax County. But her favorite teaching position, her daughter said, was instructing high school students in church Scripture classes at 6:30 a.m., before they went to school.

Somers, who had two sons and two daughters, also got involved with Scouting. She went on camping trips and served as a merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts.

She loved nature and had a special fondness for animals, family members said. Years ago while driving on the Dulles Access Road, she saw a turtle on its back in the middle of the road. She found the first turnaround for emergency vehicles and went back to rescue the reptile. "She later said that if she had been stopped by a police officer, she would simply explain that for the turtle it was an emergency -- a matter of life and death," Gates said.

David Somers recalled that his mother was always helping, be it animals or people. When the Mormon temple in Kensington was getting ready to hold its open house, Somers offered her family's basement to help with the distribution of tickets. Ten telephone lines were installed in her home, and more than 650,000 tickets were distributed, with Somers overseeing.

A small woman with a big thirst for knowledge, Somers found excitement in learning about relatives through genealogy, said David Somers, of Utah. "You never give up. You keep looking. Hopefully, you'll find the record that fits the puzzle," he said she taught him. Some of her finds included a builder of the Old North Church in Boston, a member of a Salem witch hunt trial and a legendary king of Celtic Britain who is the subject of a famous nursery rhyme -- the "merry old soul" Old King Cole.

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