EXCLUSIVE: Donny Osmond on RootsTech London and his love of family history
WDYTYA? Magazine editor Sarah Williams talks to Donny Osmond, the singer and former teen idol who is coming to London to share his passion for family history
Here I am, sitting at my kitchen table staring at my phone waiting for Donny Osmond to call me.
Yes, the Donny Osmond – the 1970s teen idol, singer and entertainer is coming to London in October to talk about his love of family history at the genealogy show RootsTech.
I have childhood memories of watching him with his sister Marie in The Osmonds on a Sunday afternoon, and now he’s about to ring me.
Half an hour later and I’ve been completely enchanted. Donny is polite, attentive and fascinated by family history. He asks me about my great grandparents, and I can hear him tapping away on FamilySearch trying to see if we have a connection.
His interest in family history came from his mother. “My mom was way ahead of her time as far as technology was concerned. I remember in the mid-1970s looking over her shoulder, and she would have books of information about ancestors. She would put all of this information onto a computer and keep it on floppy discs, and it intrigued me.”
The interest he showed meant that in the 1980s his mother decided to hand all of her files over to him. “She made me responsible for the Osmond family archive, and I thought that was cool because I didn’t realise the complexity of what I had accepted. As computer technology got better and better, I used all these different genealogy programs and realised how many redundancies and inconsistencies there were in my mom’s data. So I took it upon myself, as I was touring with my travelling computer (there weren’t really laptops at the time), to consolidate all this information and remove the redundancies.”
I’m astonished to find that while other pop stars in the 1980s were busy taking drugs and wrecking hotel rooms, Donny Osmond was quietly plugging away at his family history, removing extraneous ancestors and tidying up his family tree. I ask him if his family history research has ever influenced his music.
“Well, I did a show for the BBC back in 2005 [Coming Home, BBC Wales] and I went to Merthyr Tydfil to investigate the life of my maternal ancestor Dr Thomas Martin. I went and sang with a Welsh choir, and it was almost a spiritual experience. I don’t know if my singing abilities come from Wales, but it was like going back home singing with my relatives. It was really cool.”
That kind of connection clearly means a lot to Donny. “My father comes from Oxfordshire, and in the late 1980s I flew over to the UK with my wife and children. I was recording an album, and we stayed in a place called Berkhamsted. I had a day off so I said, ‘Let’s go to Oxfordshire and see if we can find some records of my ancestors.’ It was late in the day when we finally found a chapel. They were just about ready to close, but I think the guy there recognised me. I told him we were interested in finding out if there were any Osmonds in their records. He said, ‘We keep our registers over here.’ You won’t believe this, but I walked over, pulled out a register, opened it and right there was my great great grandfather George Osmond. It was unbelievable.”
More like this
More recently he describes staying in a hotel in Cardiff Bay and realising that this was probably where his great great grandmother Elizabeth Williams left Wales to start a new life in Idaho. He jokes about a photo he has of her, “You know the Osmonds are known for their smiles, but we did not get them from her. She had a hard life.”
Sharing the love
His website makes it clear that he dotes on his children and grandchildren, so I ask how he shares his love of family history with the next generation.
“It’s all about stories. A name is just a statistic, but if you talk about personalities then that brings our ancestors to life. What our forebears did in their lives is extremely important. If you can look at a picture and find out what they did, they come to life.
“Recently I was talking about my mom to my youngest, who is 21, and he barely knew her. To me it’s my mom, you know, but to my son it’s a distant memory of someone he didn’t know. You take it for granted that all of these memories in your mind pass on to the next generation, but they don’t. So at the dinner table I’ll talk about what my mom was like, what my dad was like and I’m making sure those stories are documented.
“In fact, even with my grandkids I draw little pictures like a pedigree chart and I say, ‘This is you, and this is your mom and dad. And this is me and grandma, and these are (here I show them the pictures) your great grandma and grandpa, my parents, and it really lights up their eyes.”
But Donny’s enthusiasm for family history isn’t just a fondness for stories. Like every genealogist, he clearly loves the thrill of the chase.
“It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Every time you add a piece, who you are becomes clearer and clearer. It’s almost a spiritual experience to find out where you come from, and discover the people responsible for you even being here.”
And what is Donny looking forward to most in London? “I just want people to know my enthusiasm for family history, and what it can mean. We are all connected in one way or another.”
Donny has uploaded much of his research to the shared tree on FamilySearch, so it’s possible to have a look at his ancestors. You may even find a family connection!
You will need to register for a free account on the website, then select ‘Family Tree’ from the menu bar on the homepage.
From there choose ‘Find’ and enter his father’s details to search his paternal line, or his mother’s details to search his maternal line. His father is George Virl Osmond, born 13 October 1917 in Wyoming, while his mother is Olive May Davis, born 4 May 1925 in Idaho.