It’s Like Being Called on a Mission
June 1987

“It’s Like Being Called on a Mission,” Ensign, June 1987, 17

“It’s Like Being Called on a Mission”

Behind the brown wooden door marked “Data Entry Center,” genealogical volunteers do some of the most compelling work of the Church.

It is an ordinary brown wooden door, exactly like thousands of others in meetinghouses throughout the Church. But what goes on behind the door is anything but ordinary. To those who know, the work done is some of the most exciting, urgent, and compelling in the Church. The sign on the door reads “Data Entry Center, Beaumont and Orange Stakes.”

Each week dozens of volunteer typists spend hundreds of hours at this stake center tucked away in the lush, humid bayou country of southeastern Texas. There, they enter names from family group sheets and pedigree charts into the Church’s main computer system to become part of the lineage-linked Ancestral File available to genealogists worldwide.

Dedicated volunteers in other locations are involved in another type of data entry: entering names gathered from extraction to be sent to the temples for ordinance work. One of the data entry sites specializing in this task is located in the Lakewood Colorado Stake.

Ten stakes are involved in the Lakewood program. One of the first in the Church, it began with a pilot program six years ago. The program in Beaumont, Texas, involves only two stakes. It is the newest—and the smallest—program in the Church’s genealogical system. But these two centers, along with thirty-one other data entry centers scattered throughout the Church, have one important thing in common: devoted people who come together to do the Lord’s work and who go away feeling the Spirit.

Data entry demands long and often tedious hours, yet the workers’ voices quicken as they talk about their callings.

“I love it,” explains Leslie Pack, one of Beaumont’s newest workers. A bishop’s wife and mother of three, Sister Pack works her shift for two weeks while another worker, Diana Cameron, tends the Pack children. The next two weeks the duties are reversed, and Sister Cameron works while Leslie is at home tending the Cameron children.

Shortly after returning home from a mission, Elmer and Madalyn Corrigan were called to work in the data entry program. At the time, Brother Corrigan didn’t know how to type. “They told me all I had to do was practice and pray,” he said. “So every time I sat down to practice I would pray. In my first four-hour shift I typed only twenty-seven entries. But by the end of four months I was typing 182 at each shift, and I am getting faster all the time.”

The Corrigans make the seventy-mile trip to the stake center several times a week. “It’s wonderful—just like being called on a mission,” says Sister Corrigan.

The work isn’t easy. The Beaumont stake alone is more than seventy miles across, and many members, like the Corrigans, have to travel great distances. In addition, many of the workers have small children or work full time, making it necessary for them to come in after work, on their days off, or when someone can watch their children.

“The people in this area accept challenges. The more difficult it is, the harder they work,” says A. Mack Wagley, first counselor in the Beaumont stake presidency.

“They are doing an excellent job,” adds Jay R. Thornton, group manager of extraction production support in Salt Lake City. “They have consistently exceeded their weekly goal of 5,000 entries, with an average of 6,020 entries weekly. During the first seven months of 1986, they turned in 186,000 names.”

One of the main ingredients in the success of the tiny two-stake program is the program’s coordinator, Charlotte Pittman. A wife, mother, and grandmother, Sister Pittman only recently retired from teaching school full time. Still, she found twenty hours a week to work in the center. “I can be dead tired,” she claims, “but when I come here I have all of the energy in the world because I know it’s the Lord’s work.”

Sister Pittman is quick to credit others for the program’s success, including the coordinators in Salt Lake City. “They have the patience of Job, answering all of our questions,” she says. Local priesthood leaders have also been enthusiastic about the work. “We couldn’t ask for more support than we have here,” she says.

The high priests group leader in each of the sixteen units in the Beaumont and Orange stakes have been set apart as genealogy coordinators for their ward or branch. “That has worked very well,” says President Wagley. “The key to success is getting priesthood leaders involved and excited.”

The work at the center is done during three four-hour shifts daily—except on Mondays and Saturdays, when there are only two shifts. Workers try to make sure that none of the six terminals is vacant during a shift; when one is vacant, it doesn’t stay that way for long.

The information entered on the computers comes from family group sheets and pedigree charts submitted to the Genealogical Department at Church headquarters by members worldwide. The records are first microfilmed in Salt Lake City, then sent to the data entry centers.

Each batch sent to a center is entered by two typists independently, to make sure errors are caught. Completed batches are randomly rechecked to ensure greater accuracy. Then they are sent to Salt Lake City, where they are again reviewed before becoming part of the Ancestral File, which will be available to patrons of the Church’s Genealogical Library sometime in late 1987. The Ancestral File will make it possible to almost instantly find where a person fits in with his or her family lines and whether or not temple work has been done for the person.

“Being involved in this work has led many of the workers to rededicate themselves to doing their own genealogy,” says Sister Pittman. “They can see how the program is going to work, and they want their names to be a part of it.”

“There is a good feeling associated with this work,” says Mike Speed, the high councilor who has responsibility for the genealogy program. “When you walk into the room, there is a feeling of families being sealed together—a feeling you don’t often find outside the temple. When you think of all the work still to do in redeeming all those who have died, it is mind-boggling. But it will get done.”

Bobi Morgan, a mother of nine who has always felt strongly about not working outside her home, is eager to come to the center for this work. “You get so involved in people’s lives,” she says. “In addition to the living friends I have, I feel I also have a great many friends on the other side.”

“You really do get involved with people’s lives,” confirms Sister Pittman. “Like the time I was typing the records of a woman who had joined the Church and was emigrating to America. As she was walking down the gangplank at Ellis Island she slipped, fell into the water, and drowned. Although she made it that far with her husband and five children, that was it. When I read about her experiences, we all just cried.”

People of all ages work together at the center—from older workers who are barely able to see and move their hands well enough to type to teenagers who are called on temporary summer or Saturday assignments. Often, the young people, who seem especially to enjoy working with computers, find fascination with and love for the work equal to that of their more mature counterparts.

Being involved with the program also helps create a greater zeal for doing temple work. The Beaumont and Orange stakes have a good record of temple attendance—often the highest in their temple district, even though the Dallas Temple is several hours away. This love for temple work is a common denominator that the Saints in Beaumont and Orange share with their fellow Saints in Lakewood, Colorado.

“We were told by President Kimball that we would have a temple when we had really shown that we wanted one,” says Carl Runyan, high council adviser over the Lakewood program. “We feel that our work with extraction and data entry has been instrumental in our getting a temple here.”

The Denver Temple was dedicated in October 1986, and its presence has increased interest in all kinds of genealogy work in the area. “There is a special feeling in knowing that the names we type are going directly to our own temple,” says Brother Runyan.

Ten of the Church’s 33 data entry centers are working on extraction records. The extraction program involves more than 865 stakes worldwide in copying names, birthdates, and other vital information from microfilmed records. These microfilms, of which the Church now has more than 1.5 million, are the result of extensive efforts to photograph christening records, marriage records, death records, census records, land titles, and other religious and government records wherever they are available. Extractors copy information from these films, check it for accuracy, and send it to one of ten data entry sites. The information is then entered into the Church’s computer system and sent to the temples for ordinance work. (See Ensign, Jan. 1987, p. 12.)

Names from all extraction work done east of the Rocky Mountains are fed into the Lakewood center. In the past, all data entry was done by professional typists in Salt Lake City. As the need for names grew, the program expanded, and in 1981 two pilot programs were begun—one in Lakewood, the other in Bountiful, Utah. They were successful, and in December of the following year, Lakewood received five of the six terminals now there. The program was official.

George Damstedt, president of the Lakewood stake, called high councilor Carl Runyan to take charge of the program there. It proved to be an inspired decision. “Brother Runyan has supported the program very aggressively,” says President Damstedt.

During its first year, the Lakewood data entry center exceeded by twelve thousand its goal of completing a half million names. It has surpassed its goals every year since, furnishing a backlog of names for five temple districts. But the numbers and statistics tell only a fraction of the Lakewood story—a story best told by the workers themselves.

Elizabeth Runyan, Brother Runyan’s wife, knows the feeling of urgency involved in doing genealogical work. “I was promised when I was set apart for this calling that after I died I would be greeted with open arms by thousands on the other side,” she explains. “It makes me feel this is one thing I can accomplish that is worthwhile and that others are counting on me to help them.”

Inexplicable things happen often at the center, but no one asks for an explanation. Somehow it is understood that such experiences are a part of doing the Lord’s work.

One typist was practically blind when he was called, but now he can see well enough to perform his work. On many occasions, workers have found information needed to further the work on their own family lines.

Betty Mortenson stayed overtime one evening because she felt a strong urgency to complete a group of marriage entries. As she typed a particular entry, she was struck by a strong feeling of empathy and identification with the couple. Looking up, Sister Mortenson saw a couple standing with their arms outstretched toward her, rejoicing at another step taken toward having their union sealed for eternity.

“I was restless when I first began doing this,” says Evelyn Jensen. “I really didn’t appreciate the significance of the work until one day when the machine told me I’d spelled a name wrong. It couldn’t have; the computer program is not set up that way. But it did.”

“Spiritual experiences are a part of this work,” explains Brother Runyan. “From the minute you begin, you know that you are doing more than just typing. Once you start, it is hard to tear yourself away.”

“The key to success in this work is commitment,” says President Damstedt. “It is easy to get excited about the spiritual experiences, but it is the day-to-day commitment that gets the job done—those who keep coming back even though they have other things to do.”

Perhaps such people have caught some of the vision the prophets have had of the latter-day work of redeeming the dead. At the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in April 1893, President Wilford Woodruff said, “There is a mighty work before this people. The eyes of the dead are upon us. … The spirits on the other side rejoice far more than we do because they know more, they understand more of what lies before the great work of God in this last dispensation of the fulness of times.”

It is a great work—not only in purpose, but also in scope—the breadth of which staggers the imagination. But it is one that will be completed because of the faithful labors of thousands of Church members like those in Texas and Colorado, who are dedicated to the work of the Lord and who, in the process of doing the work, are finding themselves blessed and their lives enriched.

  • Derin Head Rodriguez, a free-lance writer and editor, serves as a Relief Society teacher in the Draper Eighth Ward in Sandy, Utah.

Photography by Michael M. McConkie and Jed A. Clark

Top: President George Damstedt, of the Lakewood Colorado Stake, helped start a pilot data entry program in his stake in 1981. Center: Evelyn Jensen, a typist in the Lakewood program. Bottom: Carl Runyan, the high councilor in charge of the Lakewood program, and his wife, Elizabeth, a volunteer typist.

Above: (From left) Mack Wagley, first counselor in the Beaumont Texas Stake presidency; Charlotte Pittman, coordinator of the Beaumont and Orange stakes’ data entry program; and Mike Speed, high councilor in charge of the program. Right: Bobi Morgan, a typist at the center. Below: Elmer and Madalyn Corrigan, who began doing data entry work after they returned from a mission. Bottom: Volunteers at the Beaumont and Orange stakes’ data entry center.