by Lynne Raughley
For almost 20 years, Martha Epperson had been in search of a family legacy, the evidence for a story she’d been hearing her entire life. She’d canvassed the Internet, written letters to corporations and individuals, and followed up on more than one promising lead that in the end fizzled out.
Finally, she asked a librarian.
A family's moment of fame
The artifact was a television ad produced in the 1960s by the oil company Texaco, one of a series highlighting service stations around the country, which featured Epperson’s grandfather Jerry Conner, owner of stations in Columbia, Missouri. The ad had included a glimpse at Conner’s family: his wife, his two grown daughters and their families, and his youngest daughter Candy—Epperson’s mother, back when she was in junior high.
Her mother spoke of the ad with both pride and embarrassment—a moment of fame, marred by the fact that she’d been shown holding a baton. “It was a total fabrication that she was a cheerleader and baton twirler,” she says. “My mother was so annoyed about that!”
But for Epperson the story was incomplete; no one had seen the ad since its regular airings on Huntley-Brinkley Report, NBC’s flagship Sunday evening news program, in the early 1960s.
Asking a librarian
Epperson’s search, until recently a sporadic effort shared by her brother and cousins, took on new urgency after a gathering of the extended family last August. “We decided to redouble our efforts one more time, to see if the ad was out there somewhere.”
That’s when Epperson, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education, approached Karen Downing, education librarian at U-M Library. Downing had supported Epperson’s research group in its examination of the professional development of public-school English teachers in Chile, Turkey, and Qatar. “Karen helped search for related published research, and to identify the publications that we should consider for our findings.” Epperson, recalling Downing’s resourcefulness as well as her kind patience, tentatively asked for help with a personal information need.
Like most librarians, Downing couldn’t resist a good discovery challenge. She pursued a few dead ends before she herself asked a librarian (her colleague Alexa Pearce). With Pearce’s help, she was able to point Epperson to an archive of television and advertising created by Duke University Libraries, and available to all via the Internet Archive.
A story comes to life
Epperson found the ad, as it happened, the day before her mother’s birthday; but she saved it until Christmas, offering it as the day’s final gift to her mother. The family, gathered at Epperson’s brother’s house, watched together this moment of captured family history, baton and all, the story now complete.
Now Epperson’s mother keeps a link to the video on her phone, so she can watch and share it whenever she pleases.