A personal prologue at the National Archives

By David Langbart

The motto of the National Archives is “What is Past Is Prologue.”

Recently, while assisting a researcher at Archives II, I ran into my Dad, even though he died several years ago.  A bit of background will help you understand.  My father’s first Government service, like most in his generation, came in the military during World War II.  He served in the 99th Infantry Division and saw action on Elsenborn Ridge on the north shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge, crossed the Rhine River at Remagen (the 99th was the first complete division across the river), helped round up hundreds of thousands of the German prisoners-of-war in the Ruhr Pocket, and was part of the race down into Bavaria.  That’s him on the right in this picture (we do not know where the picture was taken or the identity of the other soldiers).

After the war, Dad went to law school on the G.I. Bill and then joined the Department of Justice in 1948, beginning his long career as a dedicated public servant.  He worked in the Department of Justice until 1961, then at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) until 1975, when he joined the Department of Labor.  He retired in 1980 as an Administrative Law Judge.  His official credential is one of the best pictures we have of him.

So, back to the researcher.  I was assisting her with some Department of State records, but her research crossed over into Department of Justice files.  She had a specific file citation and it was very easy to locate the pertinent files and screen them for use.  In doing so, I concentrated on the contents of the files, not its cover.  While returning the files to their proper location, however, I happened to glance at the list of users on the front of the folder, and a name jumped out at me . . . my own last name.

This could only mean that my father had handled the case file 60 years ago while working in the Department of Justice. (This was a few years before I entered the picture).  It should not have surprised me, since he worked for the Government and many Government records end up in the National Archives, but it caught me by surprise.  My own personal prologue.

17 thoughts on “A personal prologue at the National Archives

  1. I cannot see the picture you mention, but would like to see it. I do not know the unit my father served in, but this sounds very much like his description of his time in Germany in WWII. He served in both Europe and Asia in WWII.

  2. The serendipitous nature of our job is such a privilege to experience, especially when something like this happens. Thanks for sharing this, David!

  3. The same happened to me too when I was researching a WWII topic. I almost fell off the chair in front of the microfiche reader when it spun to stop at a letter signed by my grandfather right after the war and it had nothing to do with my topic.

  4. What a great expression of love.

    Also a magnificent way to explain to everyone the work done by National Archives staff. They keep the National Archives clean and secure; handle the administrative duties; find, save and preserve the documents; help interpret them to the researcher and those who finally use them for personal, or professional, governmental or business reasons.

    Edith James

  5. Such a satisfying experience for you, David! And by the way, my uncle, Ray Van Dame, was also in the 99th Div. Only age 22 and in his first day of combat, he was captured by a German unit in the thick fog of the Ardennes. He spent 3 weeks as a POW. When released in an exchange, he spent the rest of the war as a division-level clerk!)

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with Alan. That must have been quite a feeling to find that file. Serendipity is a vital part of what makes our profession so interesting! Just FYI, your dad’s wearing a M-41 field jacket. I hope you’ve still got it, although most of them fell apart. The MP and the captain are wearing M-43 field jackets, which were developed because of the short life span of the M-41. I was wondering what the MP has in his right hand…

  7. Been gone from the National Archives more than two decades, and from the stacks and records even longer, but stories like this still evoke strong emotions about the serendipitous nature of the work.

    Not quite as evocative as the smell of millions of sheets of decades old paper perhaps, but more personally powerful.

    Well done my friend.

  8. What a great story! I first visited the National Archives as a college student curious about my family history, and I ended up devoting the better part of my summer vacation to poring over immigration files. I now serve as the reference archivist for these records. About once a year or so, I’ll bump up against a familiar name when I’m pulling files or helping a researcher. It’s a small world that gives so much meaning to my work.

  9. Another great Archives story. Thanks for helping the researcher – one of our key responsibilities, and in so doing, a personal reward!

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