The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

March 28, 2010

Better to let sleeping ancestors lie



How many genealogists does it take to change a light bulb?

Four. One to change the bulb … and three to talk about how great the old one was.

An old joke, and an outdated one. Genealogy — once largely the province of the Daughters of the American Revolution, God bless their patriotic hearts — is hot these days.

Bookstore shelves are lined with guides to help you create a family tree. Internet-based companies now offer access to millions of historical documents. Two new TV shows, NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” and PBS’ “Faces of America: With Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” show celebrities such as Meryl Streep , Eva Longoria and Yo-Yo Ma getting misty as they learn about their long-lost ancestors.

I don’t think I’d want some stranger digging out my family roots. He might unearth some of the more, ah-hem, “interesting” branches of the tree. A few examples:

Pierre la Cullen, 1740-1789. Pierre, a self-trained engineer, flees County Cork to establish a guillotine factory near Paris. Business is slow until the French Revolution hits. Within weeks, he runs out of stock, can’t order replacement parts, and falls behind on his shipments. An angry mob attacks his home, binds his hands, and leads him to the device that once made him famous. His last words are, “Say, isn’t that a Model 101-B you’ve got there?”

Patty Cullen, 1780-1860. Patty opens a potato chip factory in downtown Killarney. Business is brisk until the crop failures of the 1840s. Unable to purchase potatoes, and struggling to remain afloat financially, he tweaks the recipe for “French fries” developed by his late father, Pierre. Sadly, French fried turnips never quite catch on.

Robert E. “Stonewall” Cullen, 1835-1920. This first-generation Irish-American settles in Savannah, Ga., and becomes the president of a wildly popular fireworks business. He loses his fortune investing in Confederate bonds and in all the Roman candles, bottle rockets, lady fingers and cherry bombs needed for President Jefferson Davis’ second inaugural.

Jim Cullen, 1860-1887. Following what his father always called the “War of Northern Aggression,” young Jim turns to the West to seek his fortune. He falls in love with the Plains, and becomes a professional buffalo hunter. His career ends abruptly after he consumes too much firewater, misplaces his horse and attempts to ride a bull buffalo, bareback, with spurs, during mating season, into Laramie.

First Mate Charlie Cullen, 1885-1947. When America enters World War I in 1917, Charlie immediately enlists in the U.S. Navy, hoping to show the Kaiser who’s who and what’s what. After six months of exemplary service, he is discharged after he refers to his ship’s portholes as “those little round window-thingys.”

Franklin D. Cullen, 1910-1933. Like millions of Americans, Franklin is hit hard by the Great Depression. His brief time on a Works Progress Administration road crew becomes the basis for a popular joke. One day, while Cullen is at work, leaning on his shovel, a rattlesnake coils itself around his leg. Cullen looks at it and says, wistfully, “If I had another shovel, I’d kill you.”

John Glenn Cullen, 1930-1991. An Air Force pilot, Cullen is one of the first men to apply for astronaut training. His test scores are outstanding, but he is removed from consideration when asked about his desire to explore space. His response: “I’ve never been that high before.”

Who do you think you are? Sometimes, it’s better not to know.

Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma and Eva Longoria are really, really, really brave. Really.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at