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Ancestral search brings town reward

Due to Rich Pettit's search, a small town in Scotland now has one of that nation's largest community Web sites.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Rich Pettit's Internet search pointed him toward his ancestors. It also changed his life and perhaps the future of a small town in Scotland.

It is a tale about where millennium-era communications technology can lead.

Last month, Pettit, a Feather Sound resident, was honored as Maybole, Scotland's 2001 citizen of the year. As a result of what Pettit began several years ago, Maybole now has one of Scotland's largest community Web sites -- and a computer training program for adults and disadvantaged youths.

"My original purpose was just to find other people researching their family histories in Maybole. It's extraordinary how one thing has led to another," said Pettit, 48, who is a vice president of United Bank in St. Petersburg.

Pettit started his ancestor search about 1995, following the usual paper trails and employing computer programs. Scottish records were particularly helpful, Pettit said. He was able to document members of his family as being from Maybole.

In August 1999, Pettit put up a Web site -- www.maybole.org.

Soon, Maybole's Community Council chairman, David Kiltie, contacted Pettit. He asked whether the great-grandson of a Maybole resident was prepared to see the Web site expand.

That it did.

The site now has more than 750 pages with thousands of images. It documents the town's history and the lives of past and current residents. It delves into both history and current news. New items are added by Maybole residents or people from around the world who send information. Pettit said Kiltie has been a major contributor to the project.

Internet surfers from such far-flung locales as the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Brazil have visited the site.

Pettit said a man in New Zealand had left Maybole 35 years ago. He had not kept in touch with the family he left behind. But he came across the Web site and contacted his sister. The two have reestablished their relationship.

Wrote Ian Heath, of Redding, Calif:

"Oh, what a lovely site to come across at past 2 a.m. My grandmother lived in Maybole, but her family . . . lived in Maybole since coming from Ireland probably about 1830."

But all that's barely half the result.

Maybole has headquarters for a training agency called May-Tag. It has always struggled to get funding for adult education classes and youths trying to learn skills. The Website helped persuade the Ayrshire County government to help finance the program.

It granted the U.S. equivalent of $40,000 to $50,000 for computers and other equipment, Pettit said.

The community council also bought airplane tickets for Pettit and his 14-year-old son Nick to visit, which they did from April 15-21, flying from Orlando to Glasgow via Icelandair.

Midway through the week, the Pettits were invited to Maybole Castle to what was billed as a chance to show the Web site to some council members. But officials pulled a fast one: the meeting's purpose was to give Rich Pettit the town's Citizen of the Year award. About 40 attended the ceremony.

"I didn't know until a couple of minutes before the announcement," Pettit said. "I was probably the last one in town to know. I gave an on-the-spot impromptu speech to the best of my ability and my surprised state of mind."

The award recognized Pettit's contribution and commitment to the site, which he continues to maintain as Web master. The town also presented gifts to each Pettit family member, including Pettit's wife Elaine and other son Mark, both of whom had remained in St. Petersburg.

Maybole had honored someone almost every year since 1976, but the award had been discontinued last year. It was resurrected specifically for Pettit, who became the first American so honored.

He also had further success in researching his family tree, discovering several relatives buried in the New Maybole Cemetery, which opened in 1852 and is still in use.

Pettit also met a third cousin. Tom Leith drove from his farm, 40 miles away, to say hello.

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