Right now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, reunions may be virtual events, but chances are they’ll still be dominated by talk about relatives who are no longer there – the dazzling mom who took off her shoes and danced in a fountain, the uncle who ran away with the circus.
But as generations pass, many of those stories will be lost.
“After three generations, you’re gone,” is the stark, but truthful, reminder issued by Judith A. McDowell, who helps families rescue and preserve those fading memories of the personalities and treks into the past.
Judith, who lives in Plumstead Township, is a natural storyteller. As a career fundraiser for nonprofit organizations, mostly performing arts, Judith has devoted three decades to bringing organizational stories to life.
Now, as president of Piper Legacy Press, she’s recording family lore, collecting old photographs and documents, including love letters and those sent home by servicemen. She then conducts further research, turning all the information into handsome books to be passed on to future generations.
In a way, she digs around the family tree, puts together her findings and makes the tree grow leaves and blossoms. With her extensive research capabilities, she often discovers things the people may not have known about their ancestors.
Judith has worked as a fundraiser for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Most recently she served as executive director of the Bucks County Choral Society.
She never has strayed far from the arts, though, which is no surprise since she majored in art education at Millersville University. Now she has combined her experience in the visual arts with her writing and research capabilities to create custom-crafted, professionally bound hardcover books.
Her Piper Legacy Press also publishes memoirs, individual biographies, and corporate histories. She likes to say she “takes the mystery out of history.”
Judith honed her skills by joining the Association of Personal Historians. She even served on the board of the organization, which no longer exists, but said it was a wonderful experience. “I learned a lot. I attended some of their conferences and met people from all over the world, she said.”
The genealogy website databases so popular today offer little more than facts – names and dates of birth and death and perhaps ethnic backgrounds and immigration details.
Judith basically fills in the blanks, unearthing and relating some of the events that hold those dates together. Combining her discoveries with detailed information and photographs from family members allows her to construct a real story, a written record future generations will treasure.
Her work requires several interviews with the person or persons whose story she’s writing. She begins with the question, “What do you want future generations to know about your family?” She then assembles family photographs to illustrate the book and does extensive research to flesh out the information already collected. Judith compiles the facts, writes and edits the story. She relies on her arts background to design the layout and package it in an attractive way.
She also does wedding portfolios, using photos to tell the couple’s story. And then there are wedding favors, called Tiny Stories, featuring 15 tiny story photo panels telling how the bride and groom met and became engaged. “these make great favors for wedding guests. So often the guests only know the bride or the groom, and these share the couple’s story. I even design them to match their wedding colors, if they wish,” she explained.
Pricing for all personal history products “depends on the complexity of the project,” Judith said. She may be contacted at piperlegacypress.com.
It’s the season for family reunions and for the inevitable pulling out and dusting off of the kinds of family stories that begin with “Remember when …?”