It was an intriguing bit of crowd-sourcing: Police in Portland, Oregon, said they had “exhausted all resources” in attempts to find relatives or friends of a dead WWII veteran, and was asking the public for help. In response, an enterprise reporter at The Oregonian dove into public records — many available at the local library — and found what police said they couldn’t.

In three hours.

The story started when a container of a veteran’s cremains were found outside a National Guard armory last month. The container of ashes offered the barest of information: A name, Floyd L. Hill, and the dates Oct. 18, 1919, to Oct. 17, 2000.

Apparently unable to find much more, Portland police issued a “flash alert” to the press and public, asking for help finding any of Hill’s survivors. Oregonian editor Therese Bottomly was intrigued and, according to a Facebook post, sent a two-word note to watchdog reporter Molly Young: “Wanna try?”

Before long, Young was on the phone with some of Hill’s relatives, and filed a story about Hill for the news site.

We wanted to know how she did that. There were few clues to start, but Young said she enjoys such challenges. In this case, she said, most of the tools needed to meet those challenges are easily available — if you know where to look.

“Most of the reporting was done with free resources at the library. Look into your local library system,” she said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come across this story?

 This story started when the police requested help from the public to find relatives of Floyd Hill. They sent a note over flash alert, which is a public notification system most police and fire organizations use in Oregon and Southwest Washington. (The police) knew he went by “Frank” in the 1980s. But they didn’t have any leads other than that. They said someone had come across a box containing his remains the day before.

Did it seem like an intimidating task?

I really enjoy researching. When we get these unique stories sometimes Therese (Bottonly) will come to me with a question … I frequently help find information about people who are hard to track down. They’re just skills I’ve honed in my time here, in large part because we had a staff researcher, Lynn Palombo, for most of my tenure here; she left in January 2018. We worked together for several years and I developed my own tricks but learned from her over time. On my own, I became really interested in research by social media. It was just something I started on after realizing the potential, particularly in breaking news situation. It’s so crucial to be able to make calls, or make connections. I wanted to train myself how to do it so when there’s a breaking news event I could track information down quickly.

How did you find the information you uncovered about Floyd Hill?

The first thing I did was search for Floyd in our court system. I didn’t find anything.

I went to The Oregonian archives and searched every variation of his name; I didn’t find anything that way.

I did an archive search of newspapers nationwide. That (service) is free through our library system. I rely on a lot of free tools through the Multnomah County library system. It’s an incredibly rich research tool, really terrific. Unfortunately it didn’t turn anything.

The next step was to use genealogy records. The library system has access to HeritageQuest, a product of ancestory.com. I figured for sure he’d be in the 1940 census, and he was. He was a solider in Los Angeles then, who had listed his home in a rural part of the Midwest.

Then I went to the 1930 census. I looked specifically for Hills in his home county. I found him there as a (young) boy. He’d actually changed the name he went by. That made it more difficult. But I looked at all Hills in his home county and started to exclude people it couldn’t be. His family had a Leslie, so that was his given first name, not Floyd.

Then I reversed. I tried to find his siblings. They all would have been in their 90s, or more than 100. I looked for their obituaries but didn’t have any luck, until I found (an obituary) for his older brother’s wife. Through that, I was able to reach his relatives.

How did you find out where Hill had been employed?

Through HeritageQuest. They have several products including the Social Security death index, which I used to confirm that his siblings had passed. But they have a database of digitized directories through large cities. It came up with a result that was clearly him, living in Portland in the 1950s.

Is there anything you learned from reporting this story that will be useful to remember later, for either you or other journalists?

Go into the reporting process with an open mind. The story I wrote and reported and learned about isn’t the story we often hear. A lot of these stories are about reunions … finding and connecting with long-lost relatives. That wasn’t the case this time.

What response have you gotten from the public?

I’ve gotten a lot of tips. Otherwise I’ve seen the sentiment that this is a veteran, and with his service he deserves to be buried with dignity. But there’s still no answer as to how his ashes came to be there.

 

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