As the oldest in my family, I grew up knowing three out of my four grandparents, but the fourth, my paternal grandfather, Arthur O'Grady, remained elusive.
Not even my father, his namesake, knew him, for he died when my father was 10 months old.
However, a new tool available to amateur genealogists and professional researchers alike allowed me to learn a lot more about him, and see one of his vital records, his 1931 death certificate, in a matter of minutes.
Two years ago, Cook County Clerk David Orr's office launched a new website called CookCountyGenealogy.com offering access to digitalized documents from its Bureau of Vital Records.
They include birth certificates from 1935 and earlier, marriage certificates from 1960 and earlier and death certificates from 1990 and earlier.
"I can say without hesitancy that we are one of the first governmental agencies - in the country - to put this information online," Orr says.
The site just won "Best Website" by Family Tree Magazine, the country's largest magazine for ancestry enthusiasts, one year after the office was recognized by Microsoft for "best use of innovation and technology in the public sector."
"We were frustrated as an office, because we want to give good service," Orr says in tracing the website's roots. "Putting this information online makes it available to people looking into their own genealogy."
It took more than five years of scanning documents once contained in ancient-looking binders in the vital records office. Placing orders for those records often took weeks, with county employees researching to find them.
The site now contains 8 million records, out of the 9 million estimated that are searchable. They are noncertified versions of birth, death and marriage records for the purpose of genealogical research, county officials say.
Records for Chicago and Cook County date back as far as 1872, when record keeping resumed after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Searching the index of records is free, but downloading and printing documents costs $15 per record. Already, county officials say, the website has sold about 63,000 records, totaling $950,000 and providing an unexpected revenue source for the county.
What's more, they add, more than 100,000 users from dozens of countries have created accounts, while the website has drawn more than 3.3 million hits.
"It's proved to be very, very useful," Orr says, "for everyone involved."
More documents are scanned every day, but officials say it was not mandatory in Illinois for records to be filed with the clerk's office until after 1916. Consequently, it is possible that a birth or death occurred and no records were officially filed.
Tony Kierna, genealogy coordinator with the Schaumburg Township District Library, has encouraged patrons to use the site, but he also tells them to visit it often.
"I tell them to revisit it every month or two months," Kierna says. "Since they are constantly updating it, you have to give them some time to scan more records in."
Of the remaining documents to be scanned, officials say, many are very old and hard to read, and still need to be investigated to identify the different fields on the form. Others need to be scanned in at some of their suburban sites.
However, with 8 million files in the system, it gives most people a good place to start.
In my case, while I couldn't find my grandfather's birth or marriage certificates, I did locate the death certificate after learning how to work the system.
For starters, you have to search several variations of the name. In my case, because of the apostrophe in O'Grady, that proved problematic. Names with apostrophes have been scanned in differently throughout the system.
Some have been scanned in without an apostrophe, some with a space instead of an apostrophe and some accurately. Mine proved to be an interesting version: It came up under "O@Grady." So did many other Irish surnames.
When I finally located his name and death certificate in the index, I immediately had a file number and a date of death. When I plunked down the $15, I printed off in minutes the document recorded the day he died.
It was chilling. Written in perfect cursive handwriting, I learned more than the date and time of death, which is common with these types of historic documents, county officials say.
"They can be very useful tools," Orr says. "You often can learn more information about the mother and father, as well as the hospital and any other physical issues at the time of birth or death."
In my case, I learned he died of bronchial pneumonia brought on by the flu. I also learned he was an electrician and had worked 25 years in the field, most recently for Medina Electric.
It named his parents, Thomas O'Grady, born in Ireland, and his mother, Catherine Rafferty, born in Kenosha, Wis., as well as his wife, my grandmother, Mathilda O'Grady.
A notation on the side indicated he had served in the Navy, something most of the family did not know. It also gave his age at the time of his passing - 44 years and 20 days.
In other words, he had died only a few years after he married and before being able to see his only child grow up. That child, my father, already has lived nearly twice as long as his father.
His seven grandchildren and 25 great grandchildren all gathered in July for his 80th birthday. Now, with advances in technology, all of those descendants can access records and learn more about the ancestor they never met.