Press release from Warren Wilson College:
Asheville, N.C.—April 12, 2016—Two months before starting a yearlong sabbatical, Warren Wilson College Professor of History & Political Science Philip Otterness, Ph.D., is exploring family trees. While the research is important to his scholarship at the College, his recent focus on celebrity lineage is in the limelight.
Otterness was tapped by TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” to help actor Katey Sagal, known for her roles in “Married with Children” and “Sons of Anarchy,” learn about her family’s Amish roots. The episode premieres Sunday, April 17, at 9 p.m. eastern on TLC.
“I think the show presents some of the best history programming on television right now,” said Otterness. “It starts with celebrities, but it focuses on their ancestors—mostly unassuming, relatively unknown people trying to do the best they could in the period in which they lived. In this way, the show presents some wonderful social history of people and events that are often overlooked in our national historical narrative.”
In late 2015, Otterness began researching Sagal’s family. By early January 2016, he was alongside the Golden Globe-winner to film the episode.
“For me, it is more about the history than the genealogy,” Otterness said. “I believe much of what makes genealogy meaningful for people is when their ancestors are put into their historical context. For celebrities on the show, the fun is in finding out about the world that those ancestors lived in.”
Otterness’ history with the show started with his book, “Becoming German,” from Cornell University Press.
“I was first contacted by the researchers at “Who Do You Think You Are?” in 2010 when they were working on an episode about country music star Tim McGraw. I provided them with materials concerning his emigrant ancestor Jost Hite, who arrived in New York in 1710. Hite had been part of the mass German migration that was the subject of my book,” said Otterness, who would unveil the story to McGraw in a 2011 episode.
Later that same year, the show asked for assistance interpreting documents connected to another country music legend, Reba McEntire. Otterness researched her 18th- and early 19th-century North Carolina ancestors. He shared his findings with McEntire during the show, which was filmed at the North Carolina State Archives and aired in 2012.
While the 2016 season is Otterness’ first on-camera appearance in four years, he has provided research assistance for several episodes.
“It is a great feeling whenever somebody outside the classroom values your scholarship. So I’m always flattered when they call.”
Following the 2015-16 academic year, Otterness, who chairs the Department of History & Political Science, will spend a year investigating the founding of the coastal North Carolina town of New Bern in 1710. He is one of two Warren Wilson College professors to earn an Appalachian College Association Faculty Fellowship, which allows him to expand the standard semester College sabbatical to a full year.
For more information about “Who Do You Think You Are?” visit http://www.tlc.com/tv-shows/who-do-you-think-you-are.