Love Letters, Chapter 4

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An introduction to Dr. John Van Duyn

I’m hunkered down at my parents’ house this weekend, waiting out a big Minnesota snowstorm. I’d driven in yesterday, with plans to make 25 pounds of Swedish meatballs today with my mom. The meatball extravaganza will start later this morning; then it’s anyone’s guess whether I’ll be able to make the two hour drive home again. Guess we’ll cross that snowdrift when we come to it.

A word to all the Minnesota Christmas tree farmers and retailers out there… we feel your pain! For those of you who don’t know me, my family has been growing and selling Christmas trees my entire life. In Minnesota, this is the third weekend in a row we’ve had a Friday-Saturday snow storm, and when you only have those three weekends each year to make a living… well, you see the dilemma. Make a tree farmer happy and go buy a real tree on Monday.

Now… a brief recap of my Love Letters story.

Last month, I purchased a lot of two love letters on ebay, postmarked 1949 from White Plains, New York. They were written by a woman named Ruth Ives, and addressed to a Dr. John Van Duyn who was living/practicing in Duluth, Minnesota. Being an avid genealogist myself, my hope was to find Ruth Ives, or her family, and return the letters. I’m still working on that.

In the meantime, I wanted to know more about Dr. John Van Duyn, and whether his family was still living in Duluth. I had previously done a quick search for John Van Duyn on, using 1920 as an approximate birth date, and Minnesota as a birth location. I found some Van Duyns living in South Dakota, Indiana, and Ohio, but nothing looked promising. I restricted my search to U.S. census data only, and noticed there were no Van Duyns living in Duluth on the 1910, 1920, or 1930 census. That told me he’d probably been born somewhere else and moved to Duluth sometime after 1930.


You may be wondering why I didn’t bother checking the 1940 census, since these letters were postmarked in 1949. To protect the privacy of living U.S. residents, there is a 72 year privacy mandate on all U.S. census data, so it’s not yet possible to check the 1940 U.S. Census for John Van Duyn. Of course, if you’re a genealogist, the date April 2, 2012 is especially significant to you. That’s when the 1940 census is officially released to the public. (Hoo ahh.) I’m assuming will be experiencing some serious server crashes on that day.


However, now that I knew more about Ruth Ives, I was able to narrow down my search for John Van Duyn a bit more. First, I knew she’d been born in 1917, so instead of using a birth date of 1920, I tried 1915, plus or minus 5 years.

I scrolled past several records for Van Duyns living in South Dakota, Indiana, and Ohio, and then I recognized something… an odd word I’d seen somewhere before… “Onondaga.” It was the name of a county in Syracuse, New York. I clicked on the record, and it took me to a page from the 1920 U.S. Census, showing the Edward and Lucy Van Duyn family, with children Mary, age 16, John, age 14, and Constance, age 9. They also had a 51 year old servant living with them, and a 37 year old boarder named Alice David. Sounded like the Van Duyns were pretty well-off in 1920.

I went back to my original search results, and noticed something else that jumped out at me… a John Van Duyn from Syracuse, New York listed on the U.S. School Yearbooks Index. I clicked on the record, and there was that word again… Onondagan… I knew I’d seen it somewhere before. That’s the name of Syracuse University’s yearbook, the one where I’d found a photo of Ruth Ives from 1947.

This record took me to a page from the 1932 Onondagan Yearbook, showing the current members of Nu Sigma Nu, a medical fraternity. Though he wasn’t included in the photo, John Van Duyn was listed, along with his father, Edward Van Duyn, as “Members in Faculty” of Syracuse University. So, there you have it. Our Dr. John Van Duyn was a member of the faculty at Syracuse University… the same school where Ruth Ives (the author of the love letters) was also a faculty member.

I went back to my search results once more and found a 20 year old John Van Duyn listed in the 1929 volume of the Bric A Brac Yearbook from Princeton University. I knew it was the right John Van Duyn since his address matched that of the 1920 U.S. Census – 607 James Street, Syracuse, New York.

I still hadn’t found a photo yet, but I was building a timeline. John Van Duyn was born sometime around 1909. In 1929, he was attending Princeton University for his undergraduate work, and by 1932, he was a member of the medical faculty at Syracuse University.

I scrolled down a bit farther in my list of search results and found two more records for John Van Duyn. The first one was on the New York Passenger Lists. On June 13, 1922, John Van Duyn, age 16, arrived in New York City from Cherbourg, France. His birth date was listed as July 24, 1905, address 607 James Street in Syracuse. Interestingly, he was traveling with another John Van Duyn, presumably his grandfather, who shared the same birthday as young John Van Duyn, July 24, 1843. He was 78 years old, living at the same address as young John, and born in Kingston, New Jersey.

The next record was a listing of Georgia Deaths from 1919-1998. John Van Duyn, age 80 years, died on January 10, 1986 in Muscogee County.

So, I now knew that both the author and the recipient of my love letters had passed away. In order to return the letters, I’d need to re-focus my search on living family members.

Well… it’s time to make the meatballs. I’d like to wish everyone who reads my blog a very Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season. I’ll try to blog again soon, though I’m hopelessly behind on “all things Christmas” this year. I’ll try to squeeze in a few lines in the next few days… in between shopping, baking, shipping… etc.

Next time… much more about Dr. Van Duyn (and I don’t just mean John!), and my progress on trying to track down Ruth Ives’ family.

Read Chapter 5

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the update Joy! What great accomplishments on your “lover’s” search. I wonder why such an accredited doctor from out east ended up in Duluth MN of all places. Unless the Congdons wanted him there. Good luck with those great meatballs and Merry Christmas to you! BTW We chose our tree from Rum River last Sunday. It’s gorgeous!! Nothing like the fragrance of Balsam at Christmastime!

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