Monday, May 11, 2009
sponsored by Graue Inc.

Personality of the Week

Indexing the past to inform the present: Bill Donath

Send a link to a friend

[May 11, 2009]  Bill Donath doesn't know how much time he has spent in libraries researching the history of Logan County. Laughing, he shook his head and said, "I can't even guess how many hours."

However, all those hours Donath has spent poring over old Lincoln newspapers at the Lincoln Public Library and other documents at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library have become timesavers for individuals and families trying to find out about their local ancestors.

When Donath was asked what brought him to Logan County, he said, "A stork." It was this same stork that delivered a brother, Tony, and a sister, Linda, to parents Raymond and Mildred Donath. The Lincoln native went to LCHS and then went on to graduate from Lincoln College in 1966. He finished his education at Illinois State University in 1970 in math education and obtained his master's degree in 1983.

Donath had stints as a teacher in Elkhart and Broadwell before relocating for 23 years to the Livingston County area. It was there, at Woodland Community Unit 5, that Donath taught for 10 years before becoming principal and then superintendent of the 7-12 school. During that time Bill and his wife, Shirley, raised two daughters, Lisa and Cindy Cale, who married brothers, and thus the same last name.

Bill says that when he came back to Lincoln, he accidentally became an archivist. Involved with the Logan County Genealogical & Historical Society, of which he is now president, Donath wanted to make the job of finding out information about local ancestors easier for researchers.

"I have been to many genealogical societies and came away disappointed," Bill said.

Many societies just have compilations of records, and sorting through book after book to find someone or something seemed too haphazard to this most organized man.

Starting at the Lincoln Public Library, Donath began with the earliest microfilms of old Lincoln Evening Heralds, dating back to 1859. Thoroughly reading each one, he wrote down the names of everyone in the news, the date of the paper, the page, the column on the page and briefly what the information was about. Bill said that each year of newspapers produces approximately 5,000 entries in his index system.

In order to show how much easier it is for families to research with his system, Donath brought out the three large volumes he has compiled already. A person can look up a name, alphabetically listed, and be directed in a moment to historical information without spending hours going through old records. Showing how quick his system works, Bill looked up a name he wanted to show. It was an entry for Abe Lincoln that showed Abe getting his name in the paper for delinquent property taxes on a downtown lot. Bill said not to worry, as Abe did pay the bill.

The job will still take many more years, as Donath is now up to August of 1872, with roll after roll of microfilm still to be examined.

The period during the Civil War took a long time to index, but it also revealed to Bill many fascinating facts about our population during the war. For one thing, he discovered Logan County was one of the few counties that never had to issue a draft for troops during the war.

Making an educated estimate, Donath said that perhaps 65 percent of the registered male voters were in the war at some time or other. "I came across one story that said there were only 14 able-bodied men left in the entire town of Elkhart," Bill said.

This very busy period in our county's history revealed a great deal more information. Logan County soldiers mustered into 80 different regiments. He also found that the list of 322 soldiers named on the county's Civil War monument as having died in battle was incomplete. Currently, Donath has 116 more names, originally omitted from the monument, which was badly damaged in a December 2008 windstorm.

Donath is a member of the committee to restore the statue, and his knowledge has been invaluable to the group, not only in making sure that all who served and died will be remembered, but also in finding out how the statue originally looked. A new list including the additional names will be placed on the second floor of the county building.

[to top of second column]

Auto Sales

To garner even more meaning for the monument, Donath went to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library to go through Civil War records. He has compiled over 2,300 names of county residents who served in the war. Those names will be included in an honor roll of all the county's Civil War veterans.

Bill has become more that just a compiler of indexes of names. From all his research he's now a historian on the period.

Paul Gleason, a noted local historian and the chairman of the Civil War monument restoration committee, appreciates Donath's efforts and knowledge. "Bill has done extreme research day by day," Gleason said. "To come up with all the information he has and to have it recorded is simply an amazing feat." Gleason also made mention that Donath has compiled everything he could find on the monument and will release this volume for sale at the genealogical society meeting on May 18.

One of Donath's recent findings bears timely significance. It is a picture of the old soldier Civil War monument. In this picture the statue isn't as worn as it became in later years. Donath was able to deduce to within a few years when the picture was taken. The statue was moved to its present location in 1903. The U.S. Post Office building wasn't in the picture. "The building was built in 1906, so the picture had to be between 1903, when the statue was moved, and 1906," Bill said.

It is obvious when talking to Donath about local involvement in the Civil War that his excellent memory has turned him into a true historian of the early days of Logan County, and he readily shares his knowledge.

Ron Keller, curator of the Abraham Lincoln Heritage Museum at Lincoln College, praised Donath's work ethic and help. "Bill is always willing to provide us with information or materials," Keller said. "We ask and he finds. He is incredibly helpful, resourceful and knowledgeable."

With six years into the monumental task of reading every single paper since 1859, Donath admits he will never finish the task himself. "I'm hoping other people will pick up (indexing records), perhaps take a certain decade or a town such as Atlanta or Mount Pulaski."

Still with a never-ending job in front of him, Donath does the detailed, meticulous job with a smile and a great deal of satisfaction, knowing that his work helps family researchers easily find out information about their early ancestors.

It is this dedication to our community's recorded heritage that causes us to include Bill Donath in the records. Thanks to the power of the Internet, Bill Donath from this day forward will forever be recorded on the Web as the May 11, 2009, LDN Personality of the Week.


Related articles from the LDN archives

Personality of the Week archives

< Top Stories index

Back to top


News | Sports | Business | Rural Review | Teaching and Learning | Home and Family | Tourism | Obituaries

Community | Perspectives | Law and Courts | Leisure Time | Spiritual Life | Health and Fitness | Teen Scene
Calendar | Letters to the Editor