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Ancestry let me know the other day that I had some documents to review and add to my tree. A few of them were census records.

I like the level of detail that appeared in these records — age, birthplace, language, naturalization, etc. I also liked how they included information on level of education.

Of my four grandparents, only one — my grandma Zimny — graduated from high school.


Mary Ruth Fitzpatrick, aka Grandma Zimny.

Grandpa Zimny completed 9th grade, Grandma Hager completed 8th grade, and Grandpa Hager finished 7th grade. I’m sure all of them left school to work on their family farms. They were poor. Their farm families needed extra hands, whether in the fields or in the house. Further education just wasn’t a possibility.

I often tell students in my memoir workshops that they can surmise a story out of dry data. Here’s an example of the story I take away from the census records.

Since Grandma Zimny graduated from high school, I was curious whether her siblings did as well. In doing my research, I discovered that her sister, Alice, graduated, but that’s it. Out of the five other siblings, the furthest anyone made it was 9th grade, which was Aunt Lucy. Those were the three girls — the four boys didn’t attend past 8th grade.


The Fitzpatricks. Grandma is on the left, Lucy on the right, and Alice next to her.

Maybe it was easier, or more accepted, for girls to continue their education, especially girls from rural farm families. The boys left school to labor on the farm. While some girls left school to take care of the house and younger siblings, perhaps that was more common in larger families (that was the case for my Grandma Hager).

But what about Lucy? Why didn’t she continue through high school?

This is where a little knowledge of history comes in handy. Let’s look at a key date during the time they are growing up — 1929. The year of the stock market crash and resulting Depression.

Grandma Zimny was 19 years old in 1929 — already done with high school (though she has a class ring from 1931, so not quite sure what’s going on there). Alice was 18. But Lucy was 15 in 1929 — exactly the time she would have been completing that first year of high school.

So perhaps economic pressures came into play. Maybe Lucy had to leave school to work and help out her family. There were still four boys at home. While Grandma and Alice “made it out” before 1929, Lucy did not.

There are some relatives alive yet who could tell me if my theory is correct, like Lucy’s children. But at least it’s the start of a story, a hypothesis, and I can go from there.