Judy Olsen, an author and genealogy researcher, used to call dead people whose records were missing "her people."
She refused to let them rest in obscurity. Once she was given a name, she would scour cemeteries, pore over yellowed records, and search the Web into the wee hours until she found a scintilla of information about that person's life. "Where are you?" she would mumble to herself.
In 2005, I interviewed Olsen in a weed-choked Pemberton cemetery. I watched in awe as she pointed out weathered headstones that seemed ready to topple but would not yield to time. Olsen would smile at the inscriptions and recount snippets of the lives of the people buried there long ago. Her tales were witty and also well-researched. You could feel her kinship with these folks.
Olsen died last week at age 69. She succumbed to cancer. But her stories of the people she refused to forget will live on.
She wrote and self-published several books about genealogy and local history, including the 350-page Pemberton: An Historic Look at a Village on the Rancocas. A collector's item, the book now goes for about $100.
When I met Olsen, she described how she would grab a flashlight and enter a dank church vault to search for clues about a dead person whose history was misplaced. But that wasn't all. She would pore over eye-numbing documents in government halls and libraries and do whatever it took to find facts that could complete a family tree or finish an ancestral chapter.
She also gave lectures at libraries to help amateur family history sleuths.
How did her obsession begin? When she was nine, she began taking daily strolls through the 1752 Baptist Cemetery in Pemberton with her father who said he needed the exercise. Six generations of her family were buried there and she would take voluminous notes as he told tales about the family members whose bones rested there. Soon, she learned about the lives of the rest of the cemetery population.
Olsen, a former Burlington County College library director, died June 2. I regret not calling again to see if she had uncovered any contradictions to established histories or if she found out any interesting new trivia. I regret not calling again just to say hello. Her enthusiasm and cheerfulness were so infectious.
She will be missed. But I'm sure she won't be forgotten. Her devotion to making sure others' stories stay alive will surely keep her safe from fading into obscurity.