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Obituary collection a historical triumph

Matt Johnson / staff photo<p>Surrounded by the volumes that are the fruit of seven years of paging through old newspapers, Freeland resident Ralph Seefeld has become the countyauthority on who has lived and died on Whidbey and Camano islands. - Matt Johnson' title='Matt Johnson / staff photo

Surrounded by the volumes that are the fruit of seven years of paging through old newspapers, Freeland resident Ralph Seefeld has become the county's foremost

authority on who has lived and died on Whidbey and Camano islands.' border='0' />

Matt Johnson / staff photo

Surrounded by the volumes that are the fruit of seven years of paging through old newspapers, Freeland resident Ralph Seefeld has become the county's foremost

authority on who has lived and died on Whidbey and Camano islands.

— image credit: Matt Johnson

Ralph Seefeld knows more about who has died in Island County than anyone else. You might say he's the literal authority on where the bodies are buried.

After retiring to the island seven years ago, Seefeld started what may be one of the most tedious genealogical research projects ever attempted by a single person. Equipped with a laptop computer and a hand-held optical scanner, he began paging through a century's worth of newspapers to record every obituary published in the county.

During those same six years, he combed every cemetery on Whidbey and Camano islands with members of the Genealogical Society of South Whidbey, mapping out and cataloging every legible headstone.

This week, Seefeld finished the bulk of his work, scanning just a few more obituaries off one last last brittle, browning page of The South Whidbey Record. Now, in the computer work room of his Whidbey Shores home, he has 27 thick, black binders filled with half-sheet copies of all those obituaries, organized alphabetically. Every life and every death is now in its place, and together tell a story of a group of people who called two islands in Puget Sound home.

Seefeld, who had only done a family genealogy project prior to wading into Island County's family lines, said getting information from newspapers was both expedient and distracting.

"It's hard to keep my mind on the business at hand when going through newspapers," he said.

The project started when Seefeld joined the genealogical society. He found that there was no easily accessed record of obituaries in Island County, other than the scattered pages of newspapers. By putting all these short life stories together, he said, genealogical research could only be furthered.

"The whole idea is to help genealogists from anywhere to get information about their families," he said.

He primarily used The Record as source material, but also paged through volumes of the Whidbey News-Times, News-Times progenitor the Island County Times, the Coupeville Examiner and the Everett Herald. He spent hours each month at all these newspaper offices, and at the Island County Historical Society -- which owns copies of some newspapers destroyed in fires or otherwise lost.

The stories written into obituaries of Island County residents are entrancing, especially into Seefeld's compilation. Two obituaries that appear one after the other in the work, those of husband and wife Emil and Emily Gabelein, show how one of the island's most well-known families made its journey from Germany to Whidbey Island. Emil Gabelein died in 1918, 26 years before Emily.

Also from the pioneer days is a narrative embedded in the obituary of Flora Engle. A member of one of the Mercer expeditions that brought settlers to Washington, Flora -- whose maiden name was Pearson when she arrived on Whidbey Island in the middle of the 19th century -- was one of three daughters to move to the Puget Sound area with her family.

Most fascinating -- and tragic -- for Seefeld while he did his research were the murders and violent deaths. He has 36 references to death by murder in a computerized index of the obituary set.

One that stands out is the 1954 beating death of Mrs. Howard Cummings in Freeland. Identified only by her husband's name, as was the style of the day, Cummings' obituary is combined with a Page 1 news story in The South Whidbey Record. On the same sheet of paper in the book is a second story, written 18 months later, in which the arrest of Cummings' killer is detailed.

But there are also inspiring stories in the book. One lengthy obituary, for Brig. General John Gabbert of Langley, reads like the pages of a war novel.

All these stories will be available for both genealogical research and casual reading within a few months. The scans Seefeld made are being photocopied by the Island County Historical Society, which will have a set at its Coupeville museum available for public use. Seefeld and the genealogical society will retain its own copy.

Despite all the time Seefeld put into his project, his work is not done, even though he is finished reading back issues of The South Whidbey Record. He estimates that he has cataloged perhaps 60 percent of the people who lived and died in Island County since settlers first came to the area. Not every death was recorded in printed obituaries, he said, especially those prior to the first island newspaper in the 1890s.

To find at least some of the other 40 percent, he will be going through back issues of North Whidbey papers at the Oak Harbor Library and at the Whidbey News-Times office. He will also continue to add new entries from new newspapers to his copy of the obituary set.

For those who look forward to searching an electronic database for genealogical information, there's some bad news: Seefeld did not have the storage capacity to keep his original scans of newspaper pages. But, he said, the pages of the 27 volumes can be copied, though at more than 300 pages per volume, that will take some time.

At the moment, Seefeld's impressively large and thorough work sits on a shelf above his home computer. Looking at it and through it inspires anyone to ask one question in particular: Why?

Seefeld's response is to shrug is shoulders modestly. It was his project to start and it's his to finish -- at least to the point he, too, becomes part of his own record.

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