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15 July 2017

Genealogy Secrets of a Photo

by Cassie Arnold

My mother and maternal grandmother had chaotic childhoods. So not many artifacts from those years survive – either lost in frequent moves or discarded because of bad memories.

But my mother always held on to a portrait taken of her mother and herself as an infant. My mother takes pride in the fact that the photo ran in the Oakland Tribune announcing her birth. According to my mother her birth was newsworthy because her father was a football star at St. Mary’s College.

That story seemed suspect to me, but my mother had few good childhood memories, so I never challenged her on it.

Detective work begins
When my parents moved into a senior living community a year ago, I came into possession of the portrait – a color version and a black and white version that was used by the Tribune. It was in a file with some other glamour shots of my grandmother that were taken about the same time.

I thought it would be fun to find the complete news item in the Tribune. My mother said it was a photo and a caption. I went over to the Tribune archives at the Oakland Public Library one afternoon to find the original in context. My grandfather’s name was Aloysius, so he is easy to search.

Turns out the occasion for the story was the fact that my grandfather had successfully completed his parole and was now happily moving on with his young family. The arrest stemmed from a fight with one of his mother’s tenants who was trying to skip out on his rent. The article also noted that he was a former St. Mary’s football star. This was in June 1932.

My grandparents married because my grandmother was pregnant. She was attending Berkeley High School at the time and dropped out in the Spring of her senior year. She always said she dropped out when she was 16, but that was to accommodate the fact she always lied about her age. It seems my grandfather had already graduated.

I found reference in the Berkeley High yearbooks to my grandfather playing on the football team and leaving before the 1930 season, but he is not included in the Spring 1930 graduates.

This seemed like a strange timeline, so I thought it would be helpful to find out when they got married.

Since their marriage lasted just over five years, it wasn’t something anyone in the family celebrated or cared to remember. So I went to the Alameda County Clerk’s office to see what I could find. Since I didn’t have a date or even a year, I had to rely on my grandfather’s unusual name. Alameda County had no records, but the clerk recommended I try San Francisco (SF) because “a lot of people were going over there to get marriage licenses at that time.”

Clearing up the mystery
I few weeks later I went to the SF County Clerk’s office. No luck there either. My next thought was to try Contra Costa County since that’s where St. Mary’s College is, but a trek to Martinez was a major undertaking, and I put it aside.

One morning when I was cleaning up the office, I happened to turn over the color version of the portrait. It was inscribed! I’ve been looking at this picture for all of my life and never thought to turn it over.

It says, “To Daddy from your loving wife and daughter on our first anniversary May 4, 1932. Mother 19 yrs. Alice Jeanne 6 mos.”

So they were married on May 4, 1931. I don’t know where, but at least I know when.
About the Author

Cassie Arnold is an Alameda-based business and financial writer as well as a second-generation Oakland native. She is working on a history of Oakland/Berkeley from 1919 to 1941 from the perspective of her maternal ancestors.

Photos courtesy of Cassie Arnold

Copyright © 2017 by California Genealogical Society