A Life's Work

David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  6/12/2001

Herb Adams freely admits he's a lunatic.

A mixture of madness and obsession, after all, is essential to carry out the kind of laborious life-long mission the 77-year-old so relentlessly set out on after returning to Boston from World War II.

"It's true, I'm as crazy as a hoot owl,'' he says. "They should've put me in a nuthouse a long time ago.''

Ever since accompanying his fiancée on May 18, 1946, to the wedding of a cousin who descended from one of the nation's oldest colonial families, the Tufts, Adams has had one all-consuming hobby. An amateur genealogist, who as a boy proved his parents were both related to the nation's second and sixth presidents, Adams resolved to find the link between his bride-to-be and the family who founded Tufts University.

Fifty-five years later, long after he and his wife divorced, the grizzled veteran is still plugging away at a pastime that has evolved into a mammoth project tracing the history of the Tufts back to the 5th century and linking nearly 50,000 descendants into two annotated, yet-to-be-published 1,250-page books. "This is going to be one of the largest most complete genealogies of any family in the world,'' he says.

Yet the stooped septuagenarian is running out of time. Slightly deaf, his eyesight fading, and an old limp from a war wound getting worse, Adams has spent nearly every day of the last two decades in the same seat at the Boston Public Library working at a furious pace to publish his work by Christmas 2002.

Craning over a pile of books and peering through a large magnifying glass, the short man in a hole-riddled sweater and well-shined shoes has become such a fixture in seat 267 of Bates Hall that librarians and security guards get nervous on the rare occasion he doesn't show up 9 a.m. sharp. Adams now even informs librarians, many of whom he drives crazy with requests to locate as many as 700 books a week, when he takes a day off to work at home.

"We're afraid Mr. Adams won't finish,'' says Patricia Feeley, one of several librarians who has known him for more than a decade but still address him formally. "He's such a perfectionist. He doesn't want to miss anyone before the book is published. The problem is he isn't getting any younger.''

To the skeptics, and there are a few in the Tufts family, the retired Massachusetts tax assessor says even though he now spends as much as 20 hours a day on the project, the serious legwork is already done.

Over the years, Adams has visited every cemetery and grave in New England east of the Connecticut River, read through tens of thousands of books, deeds, and official notices at nearly every library and town hall in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire, and he has perused just about every obituary, birth, and wedding announcement published in a New England newspaper since 1704.

In pursuit of all the descendants of Peter Tufts, the family's US patriarch who arrived in Charlestown around 1638, Adams has united thousands of Tufts relatives by organizing reunions and circulating a newsletter since 1975. In all, he maintains contact with some 4,000 descendants, some of whom were slaves, from all 50 states and countries including India, Cuba, and Great Britain.

"There are those who say I'm a liar, that I'm an idiot if I think they'll believe I have 48,000 names in the index of my book,'' says Adams, a mostly self-taught man who says he dropped out of MIT because he couldn't do logarithms. "But everything in my book is scrupulously researched. Everything has a citation for where it was found.''

To meet his timeline, Adams says he begins his work at 4 a.m., spends the day at the library, and then returns home and continues his work until midnight. Using a computer recently donated by a Tufts descendant, he spends his time reviewing records, writing letters in search of lost Tufts, and, among other tasks, completing the biographies of those he has found. Much of the work takes place in his paper-strewn apartment in Mattapan, which his wife complains "looks like the devil walked through in a mad rage.''

The mess has taken on such a proportion that the Adams' landlord is now trying to evict the couple because of the threat of a fire. "There's not much we can do,'' says Adams' wife of the past 32 years, Sylvia. "I gave up long ago telling him to get rid of the papers. He has boxes and boxes of stuff from god knows when. I don't believe we'll be able to find another place to store it all.''

The couple's precarious living situation is not the first problem to result, at least in part, from Adams' tunnel vision. For years, the two have lived on very little income (Adams says he hopes sales from the book will eventually make life easier), they have few friends, and Adams hasn't spoken to his oldest son in more than 20 years.

While Sylvia has learned to live with her husband's monomania, his first wife couldn't. Adams tells a story about one weekend jaunt with the Tufts descendant: "She blew her stack,'' he says. "Apparently, she wasn't interested in waiting outside a cemetery while I looked at gravestones.''

There have been problems with his work, too. In the early 1970s, Jay Franklin Tufts, a retired salesman and an amateur genealogist from Cleveland, Ohio, sued Adams for infringing on the copyright of his 1963 book, a "Tufts Family History.'' Tufts dropped the suit, according to Adams, after he realized his work was but "a silly rendition'' compared with Adams' "massive compilation.''

Three decades later, William Sanford Tufts, a cousin of the late Jay Franklin, says the only reason Tufts withdrew his lawsuit was because a genealogy can't by copyrighted. Ironically, Adams later accused William Sanford of the same offense. In a letter several years ago, Adams denounced William Sanford for posting early versions of his work on the Internet and called him "an evil plotter with an underhanded scheme to destroy confidence'' in his research.

The two, who once collaborated, haven't spoken in years and William Sanford now wonders if anything will ever come of the thousands of dollars Tufts family members have sent Adams. "He's been going to publish his work for the last 20 years,'' he says. "I don't think it's ever going to be published. It's like the old guy who fishes in the lake for the big fish and realizes his life's over if he actually catches it. What else is he going to do if he publishes the book?''

Adams shrugs off such doubts. "They'll see,'' he says, adding about 1,000 Tufts have already requested a copy of his book. "I have no plans on dying soon.''

The delay in completing his half-century effort that traces Tufts as far back as 20 generations has had more to do with technological glitches and financial constraints than legal and personal spats, he says.

It wasn't until the early 1990s, after decades of hunting and pecking on seven typewriters and a word processor, that Tufts relatives bought him a computer. Yet the new hardware was anything but an elixir; a decade later, Adams says he still has no idea how to use it. Occasional computer malfunctions have been the source of depression, he says, and have brought his book to a "screeching halt'' for months at a time.

"Herb's of a generation who's not into machines,'' says Terence Tufts, an engineer from Arlington Heights, Ill., and vice president of the Tufts' family association. "He doesn't have the education to do what he's doing, either. But he's a workaholic and a meticulous researcher. He isn't the type to quit. In fact, I think someone once told him he couldn't do it. After all these years, maybe he's just trying to prove them wrong.''

The financial pressures have been just as infuriating. In an effort to offer family members an early peek at his work, Adams once locked himself in a friend's office and spent 12 hours a day over several weeks doing nothing but making some 35,000 photocopies. But his free printing plan failed. Adams overloaded the machine and his friend asked him to stop.

Then there are the thousands of dollars he has spent over the years in postage. "I am not a phone person,'' he says. "It's not cheap communicating with all the Tufts. For a while, my greatest worry had been how I would pay for the postage to notify them when the book is published.''

In the scheme of things, of course, the technical and financial pressures mean little. The more serious concern for many in the Tufts family is Adams' health.

Less than a year ago, on Halloween, an ambulance ferried Adams to a local hospital after arteries in his bad leg clotted. It was the first time the old soldier had seen a doctor since he was shot in the war. Now, he says, "I'm taking pills for all kinds of things.''

While Adams jokes about his health, many longtime supporters are worried he won't see the fruits of his labor. "No one knows the Tufts family better than Herb,'' says Donald Tufts, a past president of the family association who lives in Savannah, Tenn., and would take over for Adams if something happens. "I'm confident he'll get it done. The only reason he won't finish is because he dies -- and that would be terrible, terrible for Herb and the family.''

Between trips one recent morning from the copy machine to the computer in Bates Hall, the old man with slicked gray hair and sharp blue eyes settles into his corner seat next to shelves of New England history books. When asked why he has stuck it out all these years, his raspy voice rises louder than his neighbors would like as he quotes one of his relatives, Helen Adams Keller: "We can do anything we want to do if we stick to it long enough.''

And no matter how much work he has left -- there is a lot, he says -- Adams is doing what he has always wanted to do. His first wife and the archivists at Tufts University may be oblivious to his work, but he couldn't care less. Lugging a ratty canvass bag stuffed with book request forms and a sheaf of random pages from his 4-inch-thick opus, the genealogist heads off to find a few more books.

He turns back, and whispers: "Whatever anyone says about Herb Adams, 'I did it my way.''

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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