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Sears Explores Ancestry of Berea's Founders

In a little office tucked away in a suite on the first floor of Draper, Dr. Richard Sears, who was voted last year as being apt to “push the envelope and challenge students to do their best," does a great many things. Besides preparing for classes, meeting with students and grading papers, Dr. Sears also writes, as many of his fellow professors do. What many students don’t know is that Dr. Sears has also published several books about Berea College and Madison County. Recently, Dr. Sears added two more books to his list: Ancestors of John G. Fee, Matilda H. Fee, and John G. Hanson and Ancestors of Anne (Smith) Weatherford. BCnow sat down with Dr. Sears and asked him about his new books, his history at Berea College and what he’s working on next.

Dr. Sears has been with Berea College since 1967.

BCnow: It says on your professor bio on the Berea College Web page that you’ve been at Berea College since 1967—that’s a long time! What brought you to Berea?
Sears: Well, Berea College offered me a job. That was my first motivation. I had other job offers though—and they paid more money. But Berea was attractive to me because it seemed so rural and I grew up on a farm; I didn’t want to go to a big city. I didn’t know anything about Berea College when I came here—nothing at all. I learned a great deal after I came. I didn’t come because it was Berea. It had no meaning to me.

BCnow: So what’s kept you here for so long?
Sears: Well it [Berea] has meaning for me now.

BCnow: In addition to teaching, you also write books. How many books, other than the two newest, have you written?
Sears: I tried to remember all of the titles and I came up with 18. Since I don’t have a very good memory, it’s probably 20.

BCnow: Is there anything different about the two new books that you’ve written, Ancestors of John G. Fee, Matilda H. Fee, and John G. Hanson and Ancestors of Anne (Smith) Weatherford than your previous works?
Sears: I’ve done genealogy before… a lot of it. They’re different because they’re in a projected set of books called Founders and Presidents of Berea College. They’re volume one and volume eight of the set; there are six other books beside those. As to what’s special about what’s in them, the Fee book brings all of his genealogical lines up to date and corrects a number of errors in traditional views about his families.

Anne Smith Weatherford’s book is enormous, and she has some of the most interesting ancestors of anyone I’ve ever worked on. It was terribly interesting to me to read about all of these people. It’s not just a matter of their being this particular woman’s ancestors, they’re interesting families in American history, in colonial history especially—in South Carolina, Virginia, and the Massachusetts Bay colony.

Genealogy has always fascinated me. It seems to me that knowing about people’s families actually is a very important matter, not just for historical study but actually for knowing people—who they are, what kind of context they have, what kind of cultural background lies behind them, all sorts of things.

BCnow: How long were these two books in the making?
Sears: I first started working on them 20 years ago. I didn’t work on them for 20 years; I had begun the project 20 years ago and I had to lay it aside because I had too many other pressing duties as a teacher. I picked it all up again a couple of years ago on a sabbatical and started producing my eight new books.

BCnow: What made you want to write about the genealogies of the Fee and Weatherford families?
Sears: Their connections with Berea College were important to me. The Fee book is related to many of my other works, which are histories of various aspects of Berea, including Berea College. My histories are all really about Madison County and about Berea, the whole place and not just the school. Since Fee founded Berea and Berea College, I’ve always been interested in him and there’s a more or less complete biography of Fee in my work if you read three volumes of it in a row. He’s of great interest to me.

Anne Weatherford I know, of course. She is alive and well in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She is included because she was the wife of President Weatherford and a very important part of his administration and of college life here during the time when he was president.

BCnow: We hear a lot about John G. Fee and his mission here on campus. When doing the research for Ancestors of John G. Fee, Matilda H. Fee, and John G. Hanson, did you come up with anything new about Fee that surprised you and that maybe we haven’t heard before?
Sears: Well, I came upon new material about his ancestors. I wasn’t expecting to stumble across anything new about his life because I was already really ‘well up’ on that. I don’t know that there are any revelations that anybody would be terribly excited about. Really, no. It confirmed me in my belief that understanding Fee, like understanding many people, really depends upon a lot of information about family, about connections, about how people relate to one another, where they live, who they know—all of that.

BCnow: Switching over to the other book--who was Anne Smith Weatherford, and why was she so important to the college?
Sears: She was the wife of President Weatherford, the mother of all five of their children who were students here for a number of years. She was important to the life of the campus at the time because she was so friendly, she was so gracious, she was so attractive to students and faculty and staff and such a force in making Berea a kind of coherent community. She was really beautiful here. In my estimation, that makes her important.

BCnow: Are you currently working on any new projects or books? If so, would you care to share a bit?
Sears: Yes, six more of these! Fee is volume one, Anne Weatherford is volume eight, and there are volumes two through seven in between. All of them are done, at least in terms of the research. I’ve actually written the text, almost all of the text of all of them, but I’ve got to index them, and indexing really is the most tedious, awful process, and it requires a lot of patience. I have a lot of patience for tedium, otherwise I couldn’t do these. Writing a book and seeing it through to publication requires that you live a long time and that you be very patient. I can do that, but it’s time consuming. They’ll all be out within a few months.

You can purchase either of the books by contacting Dr. Richard Sears via email at or by CPO address 1984, c/o Berea College, Berea, KY 40404. Ancestors of John G. Fee, Matilda H. Fee, and John G. Hanson is priced at $30. Ancestors of Anne (Smith) Weatherford is priced at $40.

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