Brophy Professional Genealogy & Heir Tracing
Professional Genealogy & Heir Tracing from Massachusetts
Michael Brophy MBA ’96 is a grave digger in a suit. A professional genealogist, he would agree with William Faulkner’s dictum: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” At times, a genealogist must handle biohazard—facts that some clients may prefer to keep contained. “People pay me to find documents,” says Brophy. “If I find something disturbing, I will offer compassion and support, which is how I like to live my life.” When he unearthed newspaper accounts that revealed a client’s grandmother had been killed by a drunk driver, for instance, Brophy offered to investigate what happened to the driver, but the client chose not to pursue it.
The researcher has a similar tragedy in his own family’s past. In the 1930s, Brophy’s great-grandmother was struck and killed by a drunk driver in Boston. The driver, who was wanted in several other places for automobile violations, only served two years in prison. “You think, ‘How the hell did that happen that this guy kills someone and goes to jail for just two years?’” he says. “But those were the times; alcohol awareness and sentencing wasn’t what it is today.”
Brophy even located and interviewed a priest who recalled the event. He also sifted through the driver’s past and learned of his hardscrabble background growing up in a broken home. “I might like to find out when he died and whether he had children or grandchildren, someone I could ask if any of this family lore came down,” he adds. “But the exchange could be awkward.”
The website blacksheepancestors.com catalogs infamous ancestors, which “we all have: You can’t hide the truth,” says Brophy. He found courthouse papers that revealed his own fraternal great-grandparents had divorced in Ireland 90 years ago—scandalous then, and a family secret. “The Irish tend to be close-mouthed about that kind of stuff, so my father didn’t know about the divorce,” he explains. “Reading through the divorce papers, it was pretty clear the husband had screwed up. My dad and I agreed that had we been there at the time, we would have had a few things to say to my great-grandfather.”
“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”
Before genealogy, Brophy, 46, was in medical sales. “I felt that to gain a broad experience in business I needed a more general business education than the focused approach I pursued as an undergraduate [at University of Massachusetts Amherst],” he explains.
To obtain his MBA, Brophy selected Suffolk for “its great academic reputation” and urban campus “near to everything in downtown Boston.” At Suffolk, he found “interesting, ambitious and bright people” and, in his New Business Creation class, the opportunity to start a company “from the ground up.” Brophy left with “a tool set for starting my own business plan.” But it took a history lesson for him to deploy that vision.
In 2002, after a maternal aunt passed away and her son compiled a historical tribute, Brophy began studying his fraternal ancestors. “I’d always been fascinated by history,” he notes, “and what better history to study than that of your own family?” During spare moments from work, he attended lectures on genealogy research. The Internet offered scant archival resources at the time, so his hunt was old-school: First, he and his father looted the attic for memorabilia. He then dusted off microfilm and trolled census records at repositories. Brophy eventually found his ancestors’ school records, as well as passenger ship logs cataloging their journey from Ireland to New Brunswick, Canada. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in the early 1800s, the Irish were encouraged to go to Canada to clear and farm the land in order to send lumber back for shipbuilding. His ancestors were part of that migration.
Brophy also interviewed local relatives and corresponded with others in New Brunswick. Two years later, after securing U.S. citizenship naturalization papers for his great-grandfather that revealed the town where he resided in New Brunswick, it was time to cross the border. He Brophy and his family set out for Miramichi, “the Irish capital of Canada,” anchored on the east coast of New Brunswick. He found it exhilarating to walk streets named after his ancestors and tread land granted by the English Crown to his great-great-grandfather in 1825. A former family farm, the soil was barren due to a lean economy for farming, but that bittersweet news was countered by a visit to a cousin’s property on Prince Edward Island, where they pulled potatoes from ancestral ground.
Investigating his past deepened Brophy’s appreciation for the present. He illustrates this with a quote from an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, the NBC celebrity genealogy show for which he has done research. “Someone said, ‘We are absolutely standing on the shoulders of giants.’ You bet your ass we are.” His voice lowers an octave. “We think we got problems? People are worried about their 401k plans going down in the stock market crash? Imagine a few days in the lives of your grandparents and great-grandparents when they first assimilated here, or during the Irish potato famine when 1 million people starved to death. We don’t have any problems.”
Brophy found his identity in a metaphorical sense as well. Shortly after the trip, he shed medical sales and became a professional genealogist. He never looked back, although looking back became his job.