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DistantCousin.com: David Podmajersky

By Steve Johnson, January 5, 2000

David Podmajersky is the owner and webmaster of DistantCousin.com, one of the most popular genealogy "web portals" on the Internet today. David, a resident of Monmouth County, New Jersey, works as a corporate tax accountant for a large media conglomerate in New York City. He is a husband and a father of two young children. Being a dedicated a webmaster, David can be found working on the site while riding the train to his day job. I took a moment to interview him about his website, his passion for genealogy, and anything else that came to mind.

Steve: How did you develop an interest for genealogy?
David: When I was about 6, two kids who had just moved into my neighborhood informed me that I wasn't as good as they because they were German. I ran home to my mother crying and asking why I wasn't German and what the heck was German anyway. My mother (who's maiden named Kime) informed me that I was, in fact, about half German and it was nothing to be proud of!

In my teens, my father decided it was time to shorten the family name from Podmajersky to Podd. I wanted no part of it and pleaded with him to leave my surname alone. He allowed my brother and I to keep Podmajersky as our legal names but changed his and the rest of the family's name. I wanted to keep the original name intact because I had this crazy fantasy about finding some long lost relations in the "old country" wherever that was.

I had married and started a family, and we bought a computer and signed up with AOL. I really never saw much use for the Internet as anything but an entertainment thing. I frequented Psychic chat rooms, read what people were saying and then, posing as a psychic, proceeded to do "readings" for anyone who would listen. After a short while I became bored with this and retired to mystery novel reading.

Connection speeds were so slow during my first few years online that the idea of conducting research on the net seemed absurd. It wasn't until my workplace acquired a T1 connection that the possibilities of the net opened up to me. I checked through people search sites such as AOL and Yahoo! In an attempt to catalog every instance of the name Podmajersky. I wrote a form letter and mailed out a couple dozen letters to anyone I could find sharing my surname. The response was truly UNDERwhelming, but what little I learned got me interested in genealogy.

Steve: So, how long has DistantCousin been online?
David: The domain name has been around since September 1998, but the site has been around long before that.

Steve: And how did it get started?
David: My wife's aunt developed a brief web site on her AOL account, and she used it to bring her family together to share recipes and to post news about her mother's family's annual reunion. So I developed a website on AOL for posting any information I discovered about Podmajerskys in the U.S. While riding the train to work one day, I read about Geocities in the New York Times' "Circuits" section. I suspected that the site I had created on AOL was not really a web site since the URL didn't seem like a real URL and I couldn't find it through any of the search engines, so I signed up for Geocities and started up a site.

At that time, the only way to create a site on GeoCities was to use either the beginner or advanced editor. Since I didn't have any idea of what I was doing, I naturally stuck with the beginner device. After a while, I decided to get reckless and leap into the advanced editor. This editor required at least some knowledge of raw HTML of which I had none. By copying code and by an extended period of trial and error, I began learning a bit about writing my own code.

I was able to collect a list of helpful genealogy sites while conducting my own personal research. I started an extensive bookmarking process in order to keep track of them. I found that it was rather difficult to maintain a large number of bookmarks in any sort of organized fashion in my browser. At some point I lost many of my bookmarks when I upgraded my browser. Having seen a number of personal web sites with extensive link lists, I decided that the best way for me to keep organized was to create my own link index for purely personal use and that's how the site was born.

After I found my family line in Slovakia, I began really putting forth an effort to catalog all the great Internet sites and services I had used to locate my distant cousins. I also began researching some of my German and English family lines, some of my wife's Irish lines, and some of my nieces' Romanian lines. I became obsessed with ship passenger lists and set up a link list by year of sailing. I also became enamored of the local National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) District Office and began transcribing some census pages as part of the Census Transcription Project. I placed all the information I was digging up into my web site and determined that the site needed a "name." I came up with the ground-shaking name of "The Amateur Genealogy Homepage."

Steve: I think I remember seeing that name! So then how did it become "DistantCousin.com"?
David: Well, a few months later I was sitting on the commuter train bored out of my mind and musing about this little web site with the stupid name. It occurred to me that my search really wasn't so much about genealogy as it was about locating my distant cousins. I decided that I needed a real domain name and that was going to be DistantCousins.com. I obtained some web space on a server and proceeded to try to register my domain name for this site and after several months heard nothing. Unfortunately there was a blue grass band named Distant Cousins who simultaneously decided that it was time they got themselves a domain name! After mulling over my situation for a few days, I decided that DistantCousin.com worked about as well as the plural version and proceeded to register that name.

So finally DistantCousin.com was born but it was really still a crummy little site with lousy HTML coding. While the site contained some useful links to a few ethnic groups and a very good ships passenger list index, it was only receiving a few hundred visitors per day. Most of my visitors were interested in the ships lists so I decided to greatly expand these while continuing to add to the ethnic / country lists every time I received a site submission. Visits to the site began to grow rather rapidly, and at some point someone accused me of being prejudiced against one group or another since I didn't have any links for them. I decided to expand my ethnic / country links to include several groups to which I had little or no connection.

Steve: I understand you were included in the "Ancestors" television series on PBS. How did that come about?
David: I started researching a bit more in earnest, after puttering around on the Internet. I really didn't know then whether my surname was Czech or Slovak but I came across an e-mail discussion group called "Slovak-World" and decided to join in order to figure our where my name originated from. After monitoring messages for a while, I worked up the courage to post my query. Within a short while I received two messages back. One said, "I was your great grandparents next-door neighbor in Lansford, PA and your ancestors are definitely Slovak, probably from the area around Myjava." The other said, "I remember celebrating many holidays at the Podmajersky house in Lansford. I am pretty sure we are related but I don't know how."

In a very short while, the list helped me to write a letter in Slovak to someone named Podmajersky living very near to Myjava in a small town called Tura Luka. This fellow, while not sure whether he was or was not related to me, took my letter to a minister at a church a few Km from Myjava and this minister then wrote to me saying my family had attended his church for something like 300 years. Not only that, he traced the line to some folks who are living there still. If this is not enough, at precisely this time, my wife received an e-mail from a fellow named Peter Podmajersky from Myjava who was trying to find anyone named Podmajersky living in the U.S. When we compared notes, we found we shared common great, great grandfathers. My great grandfather had left Slovakia at the ripe old age of 17 while Peter's great grandfather was somewhere around 8 years old. We haven't met yet but we have traded e-mails and I have spoken with his sister, who emigrated to Canada, on several occasions.

Anyway, KBYU, a PBS television station, had once made a series about genealogy called Ancestors. The series had done well but they had placed the main focus on the hosts and woven stories of folks searching their family history throughout. They found that the stories were what their viewers were after. So they set out to find some stories by setting up a bulletin board for people to post their genealogy stories. Someone unbeknownst to me posted my story. KBYU chose someone else from Slovak World to center an episode around and that person was familiar with my story. So anyway, one day I received a phone call from someone at KBYU asking me to be interviewed. I said yes and now my 27 seconds of fame will be aired sometime in April or May. I didn't time it but my entire portion of the show did not require me to stop and take a breath. It was that quick!

Steve: So how did you get into the tax profession?
David: I am a third generation CPA. In fact I am the third generation in my family to have worked for Coopers & Lybrand (the firm is now known as PriceWaterhouseCoopers and when my grandfather worked there they were Lybrands of Philadelphia). Early on I rebelled because under no circumstance did I want to become an accountant. I attended Seton Hall University dropping out my freshman year due to personal problems and then returning a few years later as a night student. I completed my degree working full-time and attending classes full-time for the last two years. While in school, I found taxes to be a greater challenge than general accounting and, therefore, decided to pursue this career after school.

Steve: Aside from genealogy and the web, what are some of your hobbies, interests? What else do you do to pass the time?
David: After a 50 hour work week + 20 hours of commuting; 20+ hours of working on my site; spending time with my wife and children; and gardening on the weekends, there is one hour left over which I reserve for watching "The Sopranos" on HBO.

Steve: The Sopranos? Are you fan of gangster movies?
David: I am a fan of Gangster movies but I'm also a true "Jersey Guy." I drink my cawfy regulah. According to the dirty cop in the show, Tony Soprano's Psychiatrist lives about 3 miles from where I grew up.

Steve: There seems to be several other genealogy-based "web portals" out there, how is yours different?
David: DistantCousin.com is different in its simplicity and its complexity. Unlike some of the "list" sites out there, DistantCousin tries to focus in on specific subtopics and really develop them. For example, some sites have a "ships" page which has links to all sorts of sites dealing with ships. DistantCousin has several pages dealing only with ships passenger lists, that is the actual lists themselves. We are linked to thousands of these lists where some sites might have a thousand links to ship sites and the lists are mixed in with the general sites.

I try to make the interface as clean and simple as possible. I also try to keep the amount of graphics to a minimum. This allows folks to find what they are looking for faster and not sit at the computer for extended periods waiting for a page to download only to find that what they are looking for isn't there. Sometimes pages and sections get junked up over time but eventually I always get around to revamping them using the KISS principle. (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)

Steve: What kind of HTML editor do you use?
David: I hand code my pages using Microsoft Wordpad. I learned to write code via the old geocities "advanced editor" and while talking to an I.T. guy at the office learned that you could write pages offline. That was the magical moment for me as I learned that I could experiment with web pages without having them out for public view. Since then I have started to experiment with MSFrontPage and Dreamweaver but I foolishly seem to be stuck with my old faithful Wordpad

Steve: Lastly, what can your visitors look forward to in the new year?
David: My visitors can look forward to more of everything in the new year. I have more than twice as many links ready to go onto the site as are posted there already. My biggest problem is turning around all the site submissions I have received over the past few months. Once I find the time and take care of some space restriction problems, the site should more than double in size this year. That means more people will be able to find what they are looking for! Along the same lines, I am looking for improved searching capability as well as better server processing speed to handle the load.

To those who have had problems searching the site I say check us out in March or April and you will see dramatic improvement. To those who have had trouble accessing the site during peak times, I hope to solve that problem a lot sooner.

- Steve Johnson

Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column.

Pay a visit to David's website http://www.distantcousin.com

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