A nurse’s detective skills solve a family mystery
Cape Cod Hospital nurse Tim Wolcott got into genealogy to learn about ancestors who fought in the Civil War. But, recently, his expertise in genealogy helped him pay honor to a more recent veteran.
In early February, Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen told the story of George Whelan, a homeless Korean War veteran who was buried without any family members present. A funeral home in Boston that has buried veterans since the 1950s made arrangements for Whelan to be laid to rest with full military honors at the Massachusetts Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Winchendon.
“My wife handed me the paper and said, ‘You’ve got to do something about this,’” said Wolcott. “I read it and I said to her, ‘That’s pretty sad.’
Armed with an extensive background in genealogy, Wolcott set to work to find any surviving relatives of Whelan’s.
Wolcott’s interest in genealogy goes back to when he took the family photo album to school for show-and-tell in the third grade. He later developed his genealogical skills and traced his family back to the Mayflower.
In 2012, he took a three-month course at Boston University that included learning how to conduct research using old documents and how to find missing heirs.
“That was a big help in terms of finding Mr. Whelan’s family,” he said. “It’s like a detective hunt.”
Cullen’s column mentioned that Whelan was from Dorchester and that the funeral home had used census information to find the name of the veteran’s parents and sister.
That was as much as anyone knew, but it was enough for Wolcott, a nurse in the robotics and urology departments at Cape Cod Hospital. He spent about two and half days doing research, using obituaries and other public records to identify other family members born in the early 1900s and after.
“I found some living people who were related to him, and then I found someone in his family who was on ancestry.com,” Wolcott said. “I sent her a message and asked if she’d seen the Boston Globe column.
“She hadn’t, so I explained how it was related to her family. She hadn’t had contact with that part of her family but she put out some feelers.”
Wolcott worked closely with the woman to make sure he had the right people.
“She didn’t want anyone hurt in the process. I told her that I didn’t want to hurt anyone either, and that nursing and genealogy are the same that way,” he said.
Eventually Wolcott spoke on the phone with June Gagnon, Whelan’s 87-year-old sister. She thought her brother had died many years before but she didn’t have any information about him.
Whelan served in the Army for three years and later suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, family members told Cullen in a follow-up column.
“He would work, save up money, then drink it all away,” Gerry Gagnon, Whelan’s nephew, told Cullen. “That cycle continued until his mother died, then he just disappeared. We couldn’t find him. I walked all over the city, looking for him. We feared he was in a pauper’s grave.”
The Gagnons and the rest of Whelan’s family gained some comfort from finally knowing what had happened to him, Wolcott said.
Over the years, Wolcott has been a member of several local genealogical societies, including the Cape Cod Genealogical Society. The president of the CCGS is Joan Frederici, who worked for 33 years at the blood bank at Cape Cod Hospital and retired in 2007.
“Several other people at the hospital have an interest in genealogy,” said Wolcott. “It’s nice to have that little bit of camaraderie with a co-worker.”
Wolcott graduated from Dennis-Yarmouth High School in 1971 and joined the Army when he was 18. His three years of service included basic training at Fort Dix, N.J.; advanced training as a medical corpsman at Fort Devens, Mass.; and assignment at Camp Mosier Uijongbu, South Korea, where he worked at the 43rd Surgical Hospital, the MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit known through the movie and TV series.
“Mr. Whelan’s experience in Korea was different from mine, but I felt a connection to him when I read his story,” Wolcott said.
Wolcott was honorably discharged in 1975. He then trained as an EMT and OR tech, and started working at Cape Cod Hospital in 1976 as a nurse’s aide. Working at night, he took day courses to get an RN degree at Cape Cod Community College.
Over the years he did some genealogical research in his spare time, sometimes for himself and sometimes for friends.
“A friend told me he was related to Ben Franklin. I said, yeah, right,” Wolcott said. “I did some research and found out that his relatives on Nantucket were related to Ben Franklin’s mother.” [Franklin’s grandfather was one of the first settlers of Nantucket.]
Wolcott also helped someone find her long-lost sister and the pair was reunited shortly before the sister died.
“But finding George Whelan’s family was the pinnacle of all I’ve learned over the years,” he said.
Wolcott has been invited by Whelan’s relatives to join them for a family memorial at his grave in the spring.