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FamilySearch CEO tells of joy of connecting, belonging

When Steve Rockwood travels by air, he always carries tissues, not for himself, necessarily, but in anticipation of the need of his neighboring passenger.

Rockwood is the president and CEO of FamilySearch International, organizer of the largest genealogical conference in the world, which convened Wednesday at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City and lasts through Saturday.

Rockwood carries the tissues "for the poor person sitting next to me, because the minute they find out what I do — I swear I should carry a warning label on my chest that says, 'Warning: Sitting next to me is hazardous to your mascara and your arm sleeves, because you are going to smile, and I guarantee you're most likely going to cry.'"

Speaking at the first keynote session of RootsTech after a day of more than 200 breakout sessions scattered throughout the Salt Palace, Rockwood introduced the theme of this year's conference. People are engaging by the millions in family history, he said, "because they want to feel what it's like to connect and belong."

"RootsTech is here to help you do exactly that," he said. "We want you to connect with your family. We want you to connect to each other. Why? Because we've learned when we connect and belong to each other, we treat each other differently."

A simple cycle transpires when people start to connect, Rockwood said, including three steps: discover, gather, connect.

The cycle is "very, very fun but also profound," he said.

"We have all felt the emotions of discovery. We felt it when we got our first DNA results, when we discovered a family story, when we got a new hint in our family tree or when a family member who was lost is now found."

He said the discovery process always involves a smile, and at times, tears of joy — hence, his carrying tissues when he travels by plane.

"It requires kindness," he said. "It requires curiosity. More than anything it requires you and me leaving our ego at the door. It requires ears to hear, eyes to see and a heart to discern what simple question to ask or fun thing to do that can connect that person to their family or to their homeland."

Technology helps out, certainly. A unique feature of this year's RootsTech is found on FamilySearch's "Family Tree" app for mobile devices. A function called "Relatives at RootsTech" enables a conference attendee to immediately discover who among the thousands of other conference goers are his or her first, second, third or fourth cousins and beyond. Newfound relatives can then message one another on their mobile devices.

Going into the first day of the conference, more than 14,200 tickets had been sold, said RootsTech director Jen Allen. Attendees hail from each and every state in the union and more than 42 countries. More than 380 computers have been set up in labs and in the immense expo hall for use by attendees.

For more information — including registration and live streaming of selected sessions — go to the conference website,