Published 12:00 am Monday, June 17, 2013

KANNAPOLIS — Lots of people don’t think too much about their ancestry — who their relatives were, where they came from, or to whom they might be distantly related.

Larry Hayer, genealogist and historian with the Kannapolis History Associates and the Cabarrus Genealogy Society, remembers when he didn’t think much about family history, either.

All that changed when he was about 15 years old, Hayer said.

One day, as he and his father were working on the family farm, in the course of conversation his father said, “Nobody knows where Grandpa came from.”

“At that point,” Hayer said, “I hadn’t thought about his grandfather or where he came from. It was way off my radar.”

Years passed before the subject came up again, and Hayer began to be interested in tracing his family tree.

Today, at age 75, Hayer spends about 12 hours a week in the Hinson History Room, operated by Kannapolis History Associates on the campus of A.L. Brown High School.

When people come in with questions about their relatives, he works to help them find answers.

“I have fun doing it,” Hayer said. “It’s a puzzle.”

“When someone comes in and wants to know something about their ancestors, and 45 minutes later they leave with a sheaf of paper in their hands that goes back into the 1500s, that makes me feel good,” Hayer said.

In 1943, Hayer’s parents moved the family to Kannapolis, taking jobs at Cannon Mills.

They went on to have three more children, all girls.

Hayer grew up working on the family farm, located near Odell School just outside Kannapolis.

That work made for long days, “and I thought bad thoughts about the guy that put headlights on a tractor!” Hayer joked.

Then, in 1948, when Hayer was 10, an accident changed the course of his life.

Hayer was hit by a car and lost his right leg above the knee.

On Christmas Eve, 1948, Hayer got his first prosthetic leg. “It was handmade, carved out of wood … and cost $125,” he said.

Today, he wears a space-age prosthetic that costs thousands of dollars, and enables him to move much more freely. Hayer speaks of it as an “inconvenience.”

But while he was still a boy, “my relatives would say to me, ‘You’ve got to get an education because you can’t work,’” Hayer said.

“It was a given that I would go to college,” Hayer said. “For most of my peers, that wasn’t in their future.”

He enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he began studying international relations. “I wanted to be a diplomat,” Hayer said.

That plan had to change when it became clear that his disability would bar him from foreign service, which at the time required a physical examination.

Hayer said he changed his major to industrial relations, and graduated in 1959 after only three years of study.

After working for some time for the state of North Carolina, Hayer said, he decided to take the civil service exam and wound up working for the Social Security Administration.

“I was not a scholar,” Hayer said, but during his years in school, he had also developed a love for history and the social sciences.

In 1961, Hayer married the former Gay Clayton, a native of Kannapolis. For the next three decades, he would work for the federal government in Lexington, Ky. — a career that Hayer said exposed him to a world of records and facts.

Working for the Social Security Administration helped him learn how to navigate vital records.

“If someone applied for benefits, then you had to prove kinship,” Hayer said.

In September of 1989, following his retirement, the Hayers moved back to Kannapolis.

During the next two years, while he worked for and later owned a computer business in Concord, Hayer became acquainted with staff at the Cabarrus County Public Library in Concord.

He had already begun to do some genealogical research, back in the 1980’s. It was during that period, Hayer said, that he traced his great-grandfather, Andy Hayr, born in 1851.

With time, the research he did grew more and more extensive. To date, Hayer said, he’s traced his family tree back to the 16th century, and his wife’s Clayton ancestors as far back as the 17th century.

The events that turned Hayer’s family-history hobby into a regular volunteer effort was the formation of the Cabarrus Genealogy Society and the Kannapolis History Associates.

With artifacts and memorabilia from both the Cannon Memorial YMCA in Kannapolis and records from the Cannon Mills Co. in need of preservation, the county created a history room at the Kannapolis branch library.

Hayer was hired to fill a part-time position staffing the Hinson History Room at the library — a position he held until budget cuts so the history room in Kannapolis could be open more than just on Saturdays.

Changes came when budget cuts resulted in the elimination of Hayer’s position. In 2010, the library decided to remove the history room and replace it with meeting space.

Hayer helped Norris Dearmon of the Kannapolis History Associates man a history room at Rotary Hall on West Avenue for over a year, after which the facility moved to A.L. Brown High.

Health problems have caused him to cut back his schedule in recent years, but he still finds time to assist locals with their inquiries.

Those range from simple questions about family trees to more difficult, and unusual, searches.

A few years ago, Hayer said, a group of military officers were gathering information for a reunion of those in their officer training class.

The group had tracked down all but one man, Hayer said — an officer who had died during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

Hayer’s research helped them locate where the officer was buried, as well as his hometown.

“And from that,” Hayer said, “some other folks went to his hometown and found his mother, who was still living.”

As a result, Hayer said, the fallen officer’s sister was able to attend the reunion.

Another, more recent project sits in the Hinson History Room at A.L. Brown High.

In a red ring binder, Hayer has collected “The Kannapolis History Associates Kinfolk File.”

It traces relationships between members and other Kannapolis residents, and in some cases between members and famous people.

One member is a seventh cousin of NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. — not surprising, perhaps, since the Earnhardt family hails from Kannapolis.

Another member, Joyce Ann Early Bost, learned that she is both the seventh cousin of President Barack Obama and the third cousin, four times removed, of President Harry Truman.

And a question about a shared name revealed that Ed Robinette, of Kannapolis, is the sixth cousin, twice removed of Vice President Joe Biden — whose full name is Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.

Finding those relationships, and more, takes lots of searching.

“When I first met Larry, we were organizing the Genealogy Society for Cabarrus County,” said Norris Dearmon, local historian.

The two have worked together since, both in that group and with the Kannapolis History Associates.

“Back in the early years, when we first started, it was not as easy as it is now,” Dearmon said.

He said that Hayer’s experience with technology, and his knowledge of vital records searches, “makes him one of the best.”

“I’ve been to courthouses, graveyards and funeral homes to search for records,” Hayer said. “And then came the Internet.”

While many more records than ever before are now available electronically, the Internet isn’t perfect.

“People put stuff on the Internet whether it’s true or not, whether they believe it to be true or not,” Hayer said.

“You have to go back and look at the record and see what a statement is based on, and track it down to its origins as much as possible,” Hayer said.

Plus, Hayer said, a lot of records remain undigitized.

Searching for ancestors also takes common sense.

“People with the same name at the same time are not necessarily the same person,” Hayer said.

A classmate of his, Hayer said, found two women in her family tree with the same first, middle and last names, in different generations.

“They assumed this was a mistake, but it was two different people,” Hayer said.

Others, “for whatever reason,” don’t want to share the genealogical knowledge they, or their families, have collected, Hayer said.

Most of the questions he gets, Hayer said, center on whether there’s a relationship between one family and another.

But sometimes, he said, secrets are uncovered.

Hayer recalled how he learned, as a young man, that his grandmother’s mother had been the subject of hateful gossip.

When she was 13, his great-grandmother was a victim of what now would be regarded as statutory rape, Hayer said. She had a child.

Later, he said, she went on to marry Hayer’s great-grandfather and raised a family.

But Hayer said that when he talked to his grandmother about family history, she began to cry and to tell Hayer the slurs that had been used against her mother because, regardless of the circumstances, “she had had a child out of wedlock.”

“That kind of thing bothers me,” Hayer said.

Although he said he doesn’t go searching for hidden secrets, it’s better to have the truth. “Open it up, let everyone know, it’s not a problem,” Hayer said.

His wife, Gay Hayer, said that Larry has done much to help people find their roots.

“There are people who have no idea where their families are from,” she said.

Dearmon said Hayer is quick to assist not only with research, but with other projects such as designing printed programs for events.

Hayer also edits the quarterly journal of the Cabarrus Genealogy Society.

Dearmon also said he’s impressed with Hayer’s breadth of knowledge.

“He’s a very heavy reader of books. He has almost a photographic memory, and that helps him remember all of these things,” Dearmon said.

For his part, Hayer is modest about his accomplishments. He said he’s glad to be able to help, now that he’s retired and has the time to do so.

“It’s a matter of diligence,” Hayer said. “And I get a good feeling from doing this. That’s why I keep doing it.”

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.