I received word today that one of my genetic genealogy “friends” has passed over. Dr. William E. Howard III was just known to us as Bill.
Most people didn’t know Bill was a PhD and had a distinguished career in astronomy. Genetic genealogy was his “second career,” after retirement, and he was responsible for devising the RCC methodology for determining the time to a most common recent ancestor for a group of men who have taken Y STR tests.
If you’re interested in his methodology, you can read more about it here or in the genealogy-DNA rootsweb archives and ISOGG@yahoogroups.com where he posted under the e-mails of email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Bill created a YouTube video that explains this methodology which is both interesting and educational. What Bill’s methodology lacked, unfortunately, was an easy user interface.
CeCe Moore has also provided this link to Bill’s talk at the I4GG Conference in 2014, never before released except to paid subscribers, titled “Using Correlation Techniques on Y-Chromosome Haplotypes to Determine TMRCAs, Date STR Marker Strings, Surname Groups, Haplogroups and SNPs.”
This article really isn’t about Bill’s methodology, but how his thought processes and willingness to think about genetic genealogy in a different way and look at possibilities helped to revolutionize and actualize an infant field. We need an army of Bills, each contributing in their unique and individual ways.
Genetic genealogy attracts many great minds, often retired from distinguished careers with decades of invaluable experience. I think the fact that genetic genealogy is a new field, not yet defined and put into boxes of known quantities is part of what makes this field so attractive to these bright minds. There is still ample opportunity for truly meaningful and even revolutionary contributions.
Bill wasn’t afraid of scrutiny and he wasn’t afraid to fail. If you’re afraid to fail, in essence, you’ve already failed. And in the public social media world, scrutiny can be brutal.
Bill exemplified the role of a research genetic genealogist. He thought outside the box and then sought to prove or disprove his theories. He shared freely and depended on people submitting their data to be analyzed in order to refine his processes. He was willing to work with anyone at any level of experience. He was never condescending or treated anyone disrespectfully – his professional demeanor was impeccable. Far from being intimidating, Bill was very unassuming and tried to explain difficult concepts in ways that people could understand. He encouraged everyone.
Bill knew that he was ill and used his last few months to “tie up” many of his loose ends, submitting several papers to JOGG for publication. I hope that these papers can be published posthumously in order to preserve his methodologies for posterity and for others to build upon, or discard, as appropriate. That’s the way science works and Bill wanted to contribute to that process.
You left your exchanges with Bill feeling good about genetic genealogy and not diminished in any way, even if you didn’t understand or agree with his theories or findings. I feel enriched and honored to have counted him among my colleagues. It’s people like Bill that have helped this field emerge from the unknown to a dinner conversation topic at the table of strangers next to yours in a restaurant.
Bill reached for the stars – in terms of his scientific approach and methodologies as well as his enabling and encouraging can-do attitude. To me, the great generosity with which Bill approached genetic genealogy and his fellow travelers in this field, regardless of their level of expertise, is Bill’s legacy.
I hope that Bill can serve as an inspiration. We need mentors, guides and good examples – and Bill was that above anything. We are all students, everyday. Learning is lifelong, cradle to grave.
We are all diminished when the flame is extinguished, too soon. I hope that Bill’s quiet example and gracious approach to genetic genealogy, and people, serves to light other candles.
Rest in Peace, Bill.
Update 6-27-2016: For anyone interested, I know Bill Howard was active in genealogy groups along the beltway around Washington DC, into Virginia. I received word today that his memorial service has been planned, per the following message from his family.