Janet Reakes started out researching the pedigrees of horses as a livelihood; then she turned to dogs, and ultimately, people.
Among Australia's most prominent genealogists, Sister Reakes has fun explaining her varied background as she introduces herself to people."I used to work for the Australian Jockey Club tracing horse pedigrees; then I went to the dogs, chasing greyhound racing pedigrees," she said. "Then I joined the Church."
"Until I joined the Church, I had never even thought about genealogy," said Sister Reakes, author of 15 books on family history research. She now serves as librarian in her local family history center. "Of course, having had an interest in [tracing the pedigrees ofT dogs and horses gave me experience enough to help in the family history center."
A member of the Hervey Branch of the Bundaberg District in Queensland, Sister Reakes has gained extensive notoriety since shifting her focus from animal to human ancestry. Her celebrity status has been helped along by the fact that genealogy is the most popular hobby in Australia today, stemming from interest prompted during the nation's bicentennial in 1988.
"I go all around Australia and New Zealand teaching genealogy and holding consultations," she said in a recent interview while in Salt Lake City where she led a tour group of 20 family history enthusiasts comprised of four Church members and 16 non-members.
She writes columns for two newspapers, the Queensland Sunday Mail and the New South Wales Telegraph-Mirror. She also writes a question-and-answer column for Australia's most famous women's magazine, Women's Weekly.
Sister Reakes is also something of a television personality, appearing regularly on the national network programs, "Brisbane Today" and "Queensland Today." She became famous through seven years of appearances on Ray Martin's talk show, "The Midday Show," which she describes as Australia's counterpart to America's "Tonight Show."
On the program, she would often project the humorous side of family history, such as quoting an amusing gravestone epitaph. That helped further her name and face recognition.
"Strangers would come up to me in the weirdest places and begin a conversation saying, `Aren't you the lady who. . . .' "
Sister Reakes always mentions her Church membership when discussing family history.
"That has one of two results," she said. "They either continue on without asking about it, or they ask why Mormons do all this. That gives me an opportunity to explain the mission of the Church. I have never had anybody attack the Church."
In her branch - which has about 120 members - Sister Reakes is not only the family history center librarian but also serves as branch and district public affairs director, Sunday School teacher and activities committee chairman.
"We have a wonderful branch; 100 percent of the active members are doing their family history," she said, and joked, "They're not allowed to move into our branch unless they're willing to do it."
What is the motivation behind such widespread participation?
"We have the most wonderfully supportive branch president and district president," she said. "I spend time teaching the members one on one. We sit there with their family histories and work out what they have to do next. I give them a list of details. At any time, they can go to the family history center and show the list to the librarian, and they're going to get success. If they get success and find things, they'll come back."
Like many young women during the 1970s, Sister Reakes was introduced to the Church through her interest in the Osmonds singing group. As she began to investigate the Church, she heard nothing but negative opinion about it. Still, she felt the negative information was not right, and she contacted the missionaries. Within a week she was baptized.
That was in 1972. She later served a mission in Australia. Her mission president promised her that if she obeyed the mission rules and wrote letters to her parents rather than telephoning them, they would join the Church. Within six months after her release, they did.
Later she obtained a college degree in genealogy and became accredited with the Genealogical Society of Utah, the business and research acquisition arm of the Church Family History Department.
She said the family history center she oversees is phenomenally successful and more active than the average stake-center-based facility. Some of its staff are not members of the Church.
This is the second tour group Sister Reakes has led to Salt Lake City. At least one member of the group has agreed to begin receiving the missionary lessons. Another group member, although not a Church member, has found she is related through ancestry to one of the Mormon pioneers and "is quite proud of it," Sister Reakes said.