Patrick Lofft started to wonder in college about the origins of his seemingly unique last name. He had to spell it for everyone; no one had heard of it.
"My father had said we're Irish, and I had to find out why we had this name," Lofft, 79, recently recalled.
His quest for his origins almost 60 years ago led to him becoming a genealogy researcher all his life and a lecturer. Since moving to Pleasanton in 2000 from the East Coast, Lofft has been an active member of the Livermore-Amador Genealogical Society and editor of its newsletter, "The Livermore Roots Tracer."
And his name? Lofft learned that his great-grandfather who did indeed come from Ireland was illiterate. His surname was "Lough," which means lake, but in entering the United States, it was recorded as "Lofft."
Patrick Lofft traced another set of paternal great-grandparents, Mary and John O'Neill, to County Wicklow, Ireland. They came to America in 1858, acquired acreage in Pennsylvania, and had three daughters.
John enlisted in the 49th Regiment of the New York State Volunteers in 1864 and was killed four months later, at the age of 34, in the battle at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia.
Lofft gleans from a letter Mary wrote to John that she was already suffering depression, and during his research he unearthed records from the Dixmont Insane Asylum near Pittsburgh that stated she was admitted in 1871. She died in 1883.
"It is so interesting to know where your people come from and the stories behind them," Lofft said.
"My mother's line is in Germany. That was real easy," he added.
His maternal great-grandfather, Adam S. Witzel, who was born in Dieburg, Hesse, Germany, married Theresia Neubeck on March 31, 1851, and came to America two months later, where they had eight sons and five daughters.
At the age of 77, as Witzel was losing his eyesight, he took a trolley to Niagara Falls in 1902 and walked into the river. Some men made a chain to stop him before he went over the falls and one managed to grab his coat, according to a newspaper report.
"His fingers caught the cloth but he could not hold on and the man in a twinkling had disappeared in a smother of foam and spray," reads the story.
"He was somewhat depressed," Lofft said. "The story was that he enjoyed reading and he wasn't able to do it anymore -- they didn't have cataract removal surgery."
In celebration of National Family History Month, the Livermore-Amador Genealogical Society is holding five public outreach events in October at the Pleasanton and Livermore libraries to help others locate their ancestors. People should bring whatever information they have about their grandparents' names and where they lived in the years 1940, 1930 and 1920. It is also recommended they bring a flash drive or a laptop to save any pertinent documents they find.
"We sit down with people and help them research," Lofft said.
To get started tracing one's roots, he explained, several internet sites are good, and libraries have databases, including ancestry.com in Pleasanton paid for by Friends of the Library. One of the first things he advises is to collect all of the family's surnames and go to the nearest Mormon church.
He highly recommends going to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Oakland.
"Its Family History Center is just fabulous," Lofft said. "There are lots of volunteer docents there to help."
He also noted that one of its precepts is no proselytizing and it does not accept donations.
"But you really have to get back to the hometown library to find things, not everything has been scanned," Lofft said. "You need to look through newspapers and vital records. The best stuff is back at the home village."
The Livermore-Amador Genealogical Society, founded in 1977, usually offers its outreach events twice a year, in April and October.
The society has about 150 members, Lofft said, and each monthly meeting draws about 30 or 40.
"Last time we heard a fellow talk about his Hungarian roots," he said.
The group's members believe in working together to improve everyone's understanding of their ancestors and their connections to historical events.
"My wife's ancestors trace back to the Colonial Era," Lofft said. "But back to Europe is very difficult to trace, unless they came on one of the famous boats -- such as the Mayflower."
Trace your roots
What: Searching for Family History
Who: Livermore-Amador Genealogical Society
Pleasanton Library, 400 Old Bernal Ave.: 1-5 p.m. this Sunday; and from 6-9 p.m. Oct. 11 and 18
Livermore Library, 1188 S. Livermore St.: 2-5 p.m. Oct. 10 and 17
More information: www.L-AGS.org