THE END

SANDRA DEVLIN 1946-2006

Genealogy was her obsession, and her own evolved. ‘She had two husbands, and a few others unofficially.’

CATHY GULLI March 6 2006
THE END

SANDRA DEVLIN 1946-2006

Genealogy was her obsession, and her own evolved. ‘She had two husbands, and a few others unofficially.’

CATHY GULLI March 6 2006

SANDRA DEVLIN 1946-2006

THE END

Genealogy was her obsession, and her own evolved. ‘She had two husbands, and a few others unofficially.’

Sandra Devlin (née Hosford) was born on the cold morning of Nov. 28, 1946, in Saint John, N.B. She was the first child of Harold and Ellen Mills Hosford, and the seventh generation of her Maritime family, many of whom were dirt farmers. Soon after Sandra outgrew a dangerous milk allergy during the first months of her life, her parents moved the family to Moncton. Six years later, Harold and Ellen, both accountants, also had a son, Michael.

As a child, Sandra was slight, with blond pigtails and a relentless curiosity. She insisted on learning about Jack Frost, the mystery man who iced the windows of their old home in Moncton. When her father explained matter-of-factly that Jack was an imaginary being, she recited her newfound wisdom interminably. Sandra loved literature, but didn’t care about history except for when her grandmother Hilda Mills was around. They’d go up to the unfinished part of the house and rifle through dusty trunks stuffed with old clothes and family pictures. Years after Hilda’s death, Sandra would write in her last newspaper column that her grandmother’s sense of family connectedness had filtered through to her “through some unexplainable process of genetic osmosis.”

In 1966, Sandra landed her first job as a reporter for the Daily Gleaner in Fredericton. Over the next 25 years, she wrote and edited for other newspapers in Nova Scotia and, for a brief time, southern Ontario. She went on to teach journalism at Holland College in Charlottetown, P.E.I., and won many awards, some for science writing and another for an exclusive interview with novelist Arthur Hailey.

Sandra found herself out of the newsroom and pregnant in 1970. She’d married Donald Secord five years earlier in Moncton after they met in Bible school. (They had a daughter, Shonda Joy, and then in 1972, a son named Matthew Kenneth.) With no writing job, Sandra took to filling in the family tree of a baby book. But she stumbled on details such as the middle name of her grandmother, and itched to know the weather on the dates when her ancestors were bom and died. “Then they start to come alive to you,” Sandra explained during a 2004 CBC interview. Her own genealogy became her passion. “She was visiting graveyards all over New Brunswick,” says her brother Mike. She unearthed information going back to the 1500s (and compiled it all in binders for Shonda and Matthew for Christmas in 1997).

Around that time, Sandra decided to become a full-time genealogy writer. In the years since she and Hilda dressed up in their relatives’ garments, Sandra had lost many loved ones. Sandra’s grandparents, high school friends and a favourite aunt passed away when

she was still growing up. By 1984, she and Don had separated, and they divorced a few years later. Genealogy partly became a way of “making sure that people did remain alive,” believes Shonda.

In her small home office with one window, Sandra worked at a wooden desk swathed in loose-leaf papers, history books and census records. Framed family photos hung on the walls. Sandra quickly became an expert, and her self-syndicated column “Missing Links” was published in more than 17 newspapers in Atlantic Canada. (She also wrote a weekly opinion column, “In Other Words,” for Charlottetown’s Guardian.) Readers swarmed her with requests for help in

tracing their own roots, and she was constantly speaking to groups around the world. “She introduced a lot of issues to the general public that were not widely known,” says Sharon Sergeant of Waltham, Mass., who became Sandra’s “sister of the heart” after they discussed migration patterns between the Maritimes and New England.

Sandra’s own genealogy continued to evolve. “She had two husbands and a few others unofficially,” muses Shonda. She married Rodney Devlin, a gentleman retired from the air force, only several months after they met in 1995. Sandra mapped his ancestry and uncovered a 1943 murder in Stanstead, Que., which became the basis for a true-crime novel she’d never finish. She became a grandmother. In 2003, Rodney passed away from brain cancer, and a year later, Sandra’s father died of complications from a sudden heart attack. Over the last year, she loved her “sweetie,” Michael Harpell, whom she first met at a teen dance. “She could do the old jive, and she never took a lesson,” Michael says.

All her life, Sandra kept journals. So when she was diagnosed with terminal lung and spine cancer in September 2005, she continued to fill Hilroy scribblers with personal reflections, medical information and funeral preparations. But she gave up her columns. The pain made writing difficult, and Sandra refused to sugar-coat the fact that she was dying. “She felt that would be a betrayal of her journalistic principles,” wrote her Guardian editor Gary MacDougall to grieving readers, “the most basic of which is to tell the truth.”

On the cold, snowy night of Feb. 1,2006, Sandra Hosford Devlin, 59, died of cancer at Moncton Hospital, surrounded by loved ones.

Around the time of Rod’s death, Sandra had felt an irresistible urge to visit Elmwood Cemetery in Moncton, where Hilda and other ancestors are buried. There she found the caretaker, who had just freed up two plots in the old section of the graveyard—beside her relatives. She purchased the plots, and buried Rod there. Sandra will join him and her forebears under a maple tree. BY CATHY GULLI

CATHY GULLI