TYLER ELLYSON UNK Communications
KEARNEY – Actor Bradley Whitford’s journey to find his ancestors began in sunny California and ended in a snowy Nebraska cemetery.
Along the way, he met several experts who helped him uncover his family history, including a faculty member from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Nathan Tye, assistant professor of history at UNK, appeared with Whitford in the latest episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” an NBC show that follows celebrities as they research information about their ancestors.
The episode, which airs Sunday at 6 p.m., focuses on Whitford’s great-great-grandfather, Frederick Neu, and the events that brought him from Prussia to Nebraska City in the 1800s.
Whitford learns that Neu immigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1846 and the family settled in Indiana. In August 1862, Neu and two younger brothers, Valentine and John, volunteered to serve in the Indiana 83rd Infantry Regiment, which fought for the Union Army in the Civil War.
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At Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, Whitford describes an “eerily serene” moment as he stood atop a hill overlooking the battlefield.
“It’s amazing to think that these three brothers were here. And if they had died that day, nothing that followed them would have happened,” said Whitford, whose acting credits include “The West Wing,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Brooklyn Nine -Nine”, “Get Out”. “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”, “Billy Madison” and “Philadelphia”.
After the war, Neu moved to southeastern Nebraska. This is where Whitford and Tye met for filming.
With majors in Nebraska, Western American, and Midwestern history, the UNK faculty member filled in the blanks beginning in 1870.
“For him, it was a huge risk to invest what little capital he had to bring his family here,” Tye said on the show.
Sitting at a table inside GAR Memorial Hall and the Civil War Veterans Museum in Nebraska City, Tye tells Whitford that his great-great-grandfather was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for Union veterans. The local chapter met in this building – the chairs did not change – and Neu’s funeral was held there in October 1910.
“I think it was a particularly powerful moment for him to be in this place,” said Tye, who also featured some black-and-white photos of Neu and his family, which included his wife Charlotte and his nine children.
Neu was “one of the wealthiest and best-known farmers” in the area, according to his obituary in the Nebraska City News. Whitford called his life a “classic immigrant success story”.
“It’s interesting because it’s the American dream, but it’s not easy,” he says in the episode.
In his final scene, Tye tells the famous actor, “You have to go meet Fred,” before directing him to the nearby Wyuka cemetery where Neu is buried.
For Tye, who watched the Sunday premiere with his parents Tom and Mikki, the network television appearance was an enjoyable experience.
“I received very positive responses from my colleagues, students, people from the community and some genealogists asking for help,” he said with a smile.
The assistant professor also hopes the show and its 15 minutes of fame will help shine a light on local and national history and the importance of preserving those stories.
“It becomes a game because obviously Bradley Whitford is more well known than Jane or John Doe looking for their relative, but others can find those stories,” Tye said. “These stories are everywhere. They’re here in Buffalo County. They are in any county in the state, in any community in the state.
“I hope this highlights the value of what I teach, what my students do and where I take them,” he added. “And that’s kinda cool.”
As Whitford says on the show, “It makes you realize the story is here. He does not die.