Karen Clark and Betty Wright will admit that their idea to create a family tree for a family reunion got a little out of hand.
They started with a 70-by-50-inch piece of paper stretched on a wooden frame. They painted a brown tree trunk and posted a photo of their ancestors, Francesco and Anna Vitale, who came to the United States from Italy in the late 1800s.
Karen and Betty, who are first cousins once removed, then perched bluebirds made of construction paper on tree branches, one for each of the Vitales’ 11 children and their spouses.
“If they got divorced, one of the bluebirds is flying away,” said Karen, 57, of New Baden, the Vitales’ great-granddaughter, who works as a medical assistant.
The next step was identifying descendants — more than 250 of them — and pasting leaves on branches with their names, a different color for each generation.
“Cutting out the leaves was the biggest project because I had the bright idea to make them maple leaves,” said Betty, 80, of Freeburg, the Vitales’ granddaughter, a retired nursing home manager. “If it would have been an elm leaf, it would have been a lot simpler.”
But Karen and Betty didn’t stop there.
They put ladybugs on leaves to trace the family bloodline. They made bird nests with eggs to represent babies on the way and stuck patriotic stars next to the name of a veteran.
Their masterpiece was displayed at the family reunion this month at New Baden Community Park, serving as both a conversation-starter and photo backdrop.
About 50 people showed up for the potluck meal and lawn-chair conversation. Many had never met or even knew the others existed before Karen and Betty tracked them down.
“I just thought (the family tree) was fabulous,” said Louise Wilson, of Fairview Heights, the Vitales’ granddaugher, a retired IRS employee. “I can’t believe they put in all that work. That took a lot of time. And I can’t believe I have so many blood relatives.”
The former Anna Carigliano was 5 when she immigrated from Sicily in 1884 with her family. Francesco Vitale came in 1892 at age 22. They met three years later and got married.
“They started in New York and had five children, and for some reason, they went to Canada, and one of their sons was born there,” Betty said. “And then they move to St. Louis and then to East St. Louis, where they had a grocery and a boot-legging business.”
Over the years, the 11 children and their families went their separate ways and lost track of each other.
Karen started dabbling in genealogy a couple of years ago, but things really started moving when her cousin Debbie Hayden had her DNA tested through AncestryDNA.
“I wanted to document our family history,” said Debbie, 58, of Shiloh, a retired postal manager. “My mother was getting older, and I was thinking about what will happen when I’m gone. I want my children to know about their ancestors.”
The DNA results connected Debbie with an unknown relative in New Jersey and opened other paths to information.
Then family members found an 1986 newspaper clipping on Belleville native Mark Vitale, an actor and singer who had performed with the St. Louis Symphony, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and The Muny. He’s Anna and Francesco’s great-grandson.
Karen reached out to Mark, 56, who now lives in Newburgh, New York, and planned the reunion to coincide with his metro-east trip to visit his sister. He learned a lot at the reunion.
“I didn’t know that my grandfather was one of 11 siblings,” Mark said. “He died when I was an infant. Maybe they told me some stuff about it, but I was too young to comprehend it.”
Reunion organizers decorated picnic tables with red, white and green tablecloths, colors of the Italian flag. They played recorded Italian music and tapped Mark to sing a couple of songs.
The oldest relative in attendance was Shirley Barbe, 84, of Fairview Heights. The youngest was Amaillijia Rose Schneider, Betty’s 1-year-old granddaughter.
“We didn’t even know we had any living relatives, except for my one cousin,” said Mark’s sister Lynn Pantano, 55, of Columbia, an AT&T manager. “It’s definitely nice to know you have family.”