DECATUR — David Kent Coy likes to study history — his own history.
His love of family research comes from — where else? — his family. The 65-year-old Decatur man began keeping genealogical records 50 years ago.
“I started writing it down when I was 15,” he said. “Before that I was just interested.”
He uses his experience in service to several research societies, including the Decatur Genealogical Society and Illinois State Genealogical Society. The state organization recently honored Coy the Volkel Medal of Honor. The award recognizes the accomplishments of those in the field of genealogy and records preservation.
Along with decades of researching family histories, Coy is the author of several articles and books, including “Recollections of Abraham Lincoln in Coles County, Illinois” and “The Charleston Riot, 28 March 1864” in the ISGS Quarterly.
“His generosity with his time and talents to so many related organizations over 50 years is truly remarkable,” said Susan Pope, the state director. “He has been quite a gift to the genealogical and historical communities.”
Coy has studied ancestry since childhood. When he was born, Coy had 12 living ancestors, including a great-great-grandmother.
“Most of them lived until I was about 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “I can remember them.”
Two of his great-grandmothers lived in in Hindsboro, while Coy and his family lived in Decatur. As a boy he would listen to the elderly women tell family stories during his visits.
“They both remembered some of their great-grandparents, so right away, my genealogy went back even further," Coy said.
Because he had so many grandparents, he felt he needed to write down the history to sort out the details, including names, lineage and locations.
“Especially since they are all called Grandma,” Coy said.
He kept up with his love of family history through his years at MacArthur High School and into college at Eastern Illinois University. It was during his time in Charleston that he became serious about the hobby and began a genealogical society at the college. After he graduated in 1975 he joined the Illinois State Genealogical Society board. Over the years, Coy has served on several boards and societies as well as serving as president at the state level.
Coy continues to work on his own family history: “Almost every day, for about an hour,” he said.
He has experienced the excitement of discovery as well as the frustration of a line that doesn't quite find its point of origin as he sorts the strands of history.
“Some things don’t always match up,” Coy said. “But almost anytime there’s a family legend, there’s some truth to it.”
Coy said that is where the fun lies, though, in verifying the stories, or finding that they don't quite live up to the tale. When Coy began his research 50 years ago, his information was found through handwritten letters or one-on-one interviews.
“But now you can just go online and find, not everything, but almost everything,” he said.
Coy has mixed feelings about the new digital research techniques. He said he enjoyed meeting and interviewing the older people and hearing first-hand accounts. Many would have photos and important documents stored away.
“But it is so easy to find things on the computer,” he said.
Surprises are part of the fun, too. During his research, Coy learned he was a direct descendant of Benjamin Stites, the founder of Cincinnati, Ohio.
He admits he gets excited in the little findings, such as learning a middle name.
“Just finding a complete story to somebody’s life is exciting,” Coy said. “And about the time I think I’ve found it all, I look somewhere else and there’s another tidbit.”
Coy has suggestions for those interested in studying their own family tree. First, interview anyone still living "because you don’t know how long they will be around,” he said.
Those aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins may know others you don’t and can open more paths to follow, more branches to explore, more stories to learn.
For online research, Coy uses the free website, Familysearch.org. The popular Ancestry.com is a favorite of his, but he understands others are not as committed to the hobby as he is to pay for it. He also conducts research through online newspaper archives.
“I love obituaries,” he said. “But it all just depends on what and who you are researching.”
His work in genealogy is rooted in Charleston, Bloomington, New York and back to Decatur. He helps and encourages others to research their own families.
“But the whole point in genealogy is sharing it,” Coy said. “If I did all this and kept it at home, what good is that?”