Uncovering Family Stories in Oakland

Suzanne Johnston is a genealogist and library assistant at the Carnegie Library in Oakland. Johnston has always been fascinated with stories.

Suzanne Johnston is a genealogist and library assistant at the Carnegie Library in Oakland. Johnston has always been fascinated with stories.

words: McCall Behringer

photos: Lauren Zawatski

When Suzanne Johnston was growing up, she loved listening to her grandparents tell stories about people she had never met.

Spending time with her grandparents on the weekends gave her the opportunity to ask questions about her family and their past, like “Why does so and so have that name?”

To find out, she began writing letters to family members to hear more stories. Johnston was born in Pittsburgh, but when she was young her family moved to Nebraska. She attended college there and eventually returned to the Pittsburgh metro area in 1962 to get her Master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

It was then that Johnston first discovered the Carnegie Library as a place filled with new stories. After graduating she went on to work at Mercy Hospital as a speech pathologist.

Today, at 75, she is retired from that career and has embarked on a new one that reflects her childhood curiosity: running a genealogy business. Much of her work takes place at the Carnegie Library in Oakland.

Johnston is a fountain of knowledge and a collection of stories, though not always her own. As she leans in close to answer a patron’s question in the library, she puts her hand on her chin as if to sift through her personal experiences. She answers the questions, but then starts with, “You might also want to try…”

As a genealogist, Johnston can uncover secrets about a family’s past or help a person understand where they come from.

“There are two types of genealogists,” she says. “There are name collectors and those who are interested in the stories behind a family.”

Johnston is the latter.

“I love to hear stories but I’m not very good at writing them down,” she says.

Johnston is a quiet, but warm woman, and as she walks around the genealogy floor of the library she smiles at everyone. She is always quick to help people, according to co-worker Nancy Romig.

“She’s so knowledgeable, she can help anyone,” Romig says. “She’s a good go-to person. She can tell people where to look next.”

Not every story she uncovers is met with gratitude. Johnston recollected a story she unearthed for a client about a family member who had a baby a few months into a marriage and had to publicly apologize in church.

“The client said, ‘I don’t want to research this anymore because that kind of thing never happens in my family,’” Johnston recalls, rolling her eyes. “People don’t always accept it.”

Oakland has seen a substantial amount of change since Johnston attended graduate school nearly 50 years ago.

“It used to be place where people lived; there were old people, young people, middle-aged people,” she says. “And now, today, it’s either really old people or Pitt or CMU students.”

Instead of resisting the change, Johnston has embraced it; she moved back to Oakland from the Pittsburgh suburbs shortly after her husband Donald – aka “Ducky” – passed away.

Marylin Holt, Johnston’s best friend and boss, says she is best described as a nice person and is good-natured to her neighbors.

“Her neighbors seem to be grad students and they cluster around her,” Holt says. “She is always the most knowledgeable and always the most willing to help anyone in the room.”

Over the years, Johnston has uncovered countless stories about families’ pasts, but there are still many left for her to learn.

“I just really love to do this,” she says.