Monday, July 26, 2010


If you read my May 30th blog about Roll Humphrey Stevens you’ll remember the story. Roll was a young fellow of 17 who graduated from a business school in Wichita and got his first job with a “train news company in St. Louis, Missouri.” Two weeks after he took employment, he was killed in a train crash west of Wichita. His father, a well-to-do man in Wichita business circles, didn’t know why he would have been in that location. In fact, at first there was some question as to whether or not Roll was one of the three who died in that crash. He was.

Genealogically speaking, Roll was my 1st cousin twice removed. (He and my grandma Jessie were first cousins. My mother was Roll’s 1st cousin once removed and I am twice-removed. That’s how the “removals” work in genealogy). Anyway, one of the questions I had about that train wreck article was what a “Train news company” was. I had lots of help with getting an answer.

First, a friend from my past, Kenny Rice, read about Roll and made contact with an old Navy Buddy who said, among other things, that trains had “news butch's.” Kenny did some Googling but without results. I had Googled too, but had no success either.

A genealogist named “Shirley” answered my query on a Rootsweb St. Louis list, sending me to a big Wikipedia article on the Van Noy Railway News and Hotel Company where I learned that early passenger trains had neither dining nor lounge cars so they employed young men to walk through the cars selling newpapers, books, food, etc. They were referred to as a “News Butch.”

I am sure that is exactly what Roll was doing on that train. While there is yet more to research, I was grateful for the help these two people gave me in giving a “life” to poor Roll.

Yesterday I talked to my cousin Shirlee in North Carolina, who also is related to Roll in the same way I am, and I told her what I had learned. She and I have worked together on our genealogy since 1984. When I mentioned “News Butch” she let out a whoop and said, “Oh my gosh, I completely forgot that Uncle Bob was a News Butch on a train for a while.”

Our Uncle Bob had left Kansas for California about 1928, intending to become a movie star. While he was in Los Angeles, he took many odd jobs to sustain himself. After the Second World War he and Shirlee’s father went to Arizona, bought a lot of trinkets from the Indians and sold them on trains coming back to California. My cousin had forgotten all about this; I had never heard that story before.

And finally, Shirlee remembered that when she was visiting her daughter Debra in Japan, she and Debbie took a train ride and there were vendors on the Japanese train selling “Bento” boxes – little boxes full of food for lunch. My cousin dug into her box of photos and found exactly what she was looking for: the picture above of Deb on a train, eating from a bento box.

Such an amazing trail of discovery, I think. Help from an old friend and an unknown friend, and a sudden remembrance of a family story by a cousin – all helping to flesh out not only the story of Roll’s life but also that of my own heritage.

In genealogy, sometimes we don’t think to ask. Sometimes we don’t know what to ask. Sometimes we just don’t dig far enough. And sometimes we strike it very lucky, indeed. Genealogy takes many twists and turns. Thanks to all my helpers on this hunt. I am grateful.

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