Finding Relatives Aboard a Hawaiian Cruise

Singer Zach Winningham, who turned out to be Judy's distant cousin
Singer Zach Winningham, who turned out to be Judy's distant cousin

Like many passengers, reading the Princess Patter to find out who’s performing the following evening is part of my nightly ritual during a cruise vacation. But this time, when I grabbed the next day’s paper from my stateroom mailbox, I was in for a big surprise.  I was instantly intrigued when I saw that a “Zach Winningham” would be singing the next night in the Princess Theater.

This was exciting news to me, even though I’d never met Zach Winningham or even heard of him before. Winningham is my maiden name, and I’ve spent the past 40 years tracking down other Winninghams, in a quest that any genealogist would find familiar.  

My husband, Donald, who doesn’t share my enthusiasm, has good-naturedly spent many weekends with me visiting small-town city halls and cemeteries. He couldn’t believe that I’d found a new lead to pursue during a cruise to Hawaii aboard Golden Princess. The trip was supposed to be a break from our everyday lives. But when I’m on the hunt for a new branch of the family tree, I get a little obsessed.

As we were finishing dinner the next evening, I told Donald we didn’t have time for dessert. We rushed over to the theater to find good seats for Zach’s performance. The cruise director introduced Zach as coming from Belleville, IN. This was good news, I whispered to Donald. We live 50 miles northeast of Indianapolis. My family had moved to Indiana from Tennessee to work in the auto industry in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Perhaps Zach’s family had done the same.

He strode on the stage, a handsome young man who I thought vaguely resembled my mother’s side of the family. (I am descended from the Winninghams on both sides.) Zach had a lovely voice. When he sang “Desperado” on the piano as a tribute to his mother, who died from cancer when he was very young, he had the whole audience in his hands.

He explained how he grew to love these songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s while riding around in a pickup with his dad out in the country. That sounded like the Tennessee value system I was raised with – we just had to be related.

After the show, I joined the line of people buying Zach’s CDs. He was donating 25% of the profits to cancer research, another positive family trait!  When I finally got close, I blurted out, “I think we could be cousins!”

I’m sure he was surprised by my list of questions. “Where did you go to college?” “Ball State in Muncie,” he replied – which was where both my husband and I also attended. “You mentioned you were born in Indiana, what about your grandfather?” I pushed.

Zach told me he was sorry, but the trail was cold. His grandfather was from Byrdstown, TN. “You mean the Byrdstown, next to Jamestown, where I was born?” I asked. “We are related and I think I can prove it.”

Two nights later, we returned to catch Zach’s second show. After the performance, Zach found me loitering outside the stage door. He graciously talked some more with me, filling me in about annual trips to Tennessee with his grandfather. He explained how he’d lost those ties to the southern part of the family after his grandfather died. We exchanged email and Facebook information. Zach was still doubtful, but I was positive I’d trace him back to me.

And I was right! At home, I was able to trace Zach back to Adam Winningham, born in 1781. I hale from Adam’s brother Richard Winningham, born in 1796. We’d joked about who would get to claim closer ties to the actress, Mare Winningham, and Zach won that round. I was a school teacher, and he’s a performer, so it was just as well that he be more closely related to Mare.

I put together a package of photocopied documents and ancestor photographs, the kind of things that would make all these dates and names real to him. When Zach thanked me, he said he couldn’t believe that he met someone on a Princess cruise ship that would tell him things he never knew about himself.

“It’s so crazy,” he wrote. “Out of all the many Winninghams, I run into the one who knows about our ancestry.”

Genealogy is my passion, so it was my pleasure to introduce him to part of his past. As for me, by meeting Zach, I met a little part of the Winningham family future. What an unlikely place to find a cousin –in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – with nothing but a sighting of the Winningham name in the Princess Patter and a hunch to go by.

Judy lives in Parker City, Indiana with her husband, Don, where they spent 39 years each as educators. They have two sons and daughters-in-law who all also have careers in education. In their retirement, they love to spoil their four grandchildren, be active in their church, cruise, conduct genealogy research, and stay fit with yoga, biking, walking, running and tennis.