Charting the unknown

Nancy Fodi, president of the Geneaology Club at Tradition, and her husband Joe

Nancy Fodi, president of the Geneaology Club at Tradition, and her husband Joe spend time out on the water when not researching family history. Joe’s next project is translating his mother’s stories that were recorded on cassette tape before she died.

Genealogists dig deep when researching the roots of family trees


Searching for ancestors initially might not seem too daunting, but uncovering historical family truths can sometimes be difficult and definitely not for the faint of heart. The key is to accept it, be grateful to be alive and enjoy the journey.

Nancy Fodi, a resident of Vitalia at Tradition and president of the Genealogy Club, had her family tree almost all wrapped up — until mentioning to her mother she was getting genetic testing to identify vulnerability to hereditary disorders.

“My mother’s reaction was very strange and started me thinking maybe I was adopted or something,” Fodi said. “The basic test showed nothing unusual, so I let it go until another woman contacted me who closely matched my DNA and encouraged me to investigate autosomal testing, which shows DNA inherited from both parents. Upon receiving the results, I called back to say they were wrong — but was assured they were correct.”

In shock, Fodi called her brother, one of seven siblings, to explain and ask if he had any knowledge that they were half brother and sister, but he was just as surprised to hear this news.

“It turns out my father, who was married to my mom seven years before I was born, is not my biological father and I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years,” Fodi said.

Processing the information took a while, but thinking about it, she concluded although her parents kept it from her, life had been good and she was thankful. It was a relief finding the truth, because she always felt different in some ways from the other siblings and thought it was crazy to feel that way. Learning the identity of Fodi’s natural father followed within about four months with the help of online tools and connecting with tech-savvy people on Ancestry.com.

“Out of all the people in the whole world, they lined up the chromosomes and found my family,” Fodi said. The siblings already knew all about her because their father had told them.

“The closest famous relatives identified from the DNA sample were Loretta Lynn and her sister Crystal Gayle,” Fodi said. “I’m from Ohio and most of my ancestors are from Kentucky and West Virginia. I have been interested in genealogy since about the age of 10, because of my grandmother and even joined the Mayflower Society.”

Flo Giltman, known as the family genealogist by her friends, encourages people to begin seeking out information now.

“Ask your parents and family members questions or you will lose out on important knowledge,” Giltman said. “Many members of the Genealogy Club are approaching the age where they want to preserve family history and pass it down to the younger generations before they die.”

Giltman, who is the club’s vice president, is also starting a genealogy resource group at Temple Beth El Israel in Port St. Lucie, open to anyone wanting to learn about Jewish heritage or find ancestors. She says growing up, her father William Froelinger would not talk about his past, because he said, “This is not a subject for young people to know about.” So, it was up to her to seek out information.

Her father emigrated alone from Europe during World War II because his family could not obtain exit visas. While he was working to bring his wife and two children to America, they were swept up by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz, where they were killed.

“Genealogy uncovers those kinds of stories, and another interesting piece to this is, not everybody wants to know those stories,” Giltman said. “I was immediately drawn to genealogy about five years ago. Someone told me to check out the archives of Yad Vashem. Upon finding pages of testimony of my relatives, I was determined to find out as much as possible about my family. I’m doing this for my children and grandchildren.”

The club began about a year ago when Fodi put a message on Nextdoor asking about interest in genealogy. The website is a private online social network for neighborhoods. Giltman saw the posting and immediately responded. Ten to 15 people showed interest and a membership roster and bylaws materialized — Fodi has done this before. The 35 members receive expertise and learn about new information venues from invited speakers.

During a recent meeting, a video on Ellis Island’s history was shown, prompting an informative discussion on other ports of entry, including Canada.

“When I learned my grandfather had come through Ellis Island, it made me want to learn about steerage, because people were coming in that way,” Giltman said. “I wanted to know what year they came, and what was going on that made them leave their families, why did they come by steerage all the way across the sea?”

“You know steerage is the bottom of the boat,” Fodi said, “No windows, nothing, you are like cattle. Every single person watching the video presentation said they knew of a family member who came through Ellis Island. Many of those records are available online, so we try to teach people sources that they can access at home and work on their genealogy.”

Fodi is a retired registered nurse and hospital administrator. Giltman is a retired clinical social worker and professional mental health advocate. They are both genealogy mentors offering resources, guidance and encouragement. Mentoring includes basic computer lessons so club members can make the most of online resources available.

The members have very different journeys — for example, one member is adopted. Ethnicities include African Americans, Russians, Germans, Italians and South Americans with a variety of religious backgrounds including Quakers, Catholics, Jews and Protestants.

Many are second- or third-generation Americans, meaning their heritages go back to a foreign country after about 100 years. Then they have to go to their ancestor’s country of origin to find the rest of their family records. Many records can be found on the Mormons website familysearch.org, which is an astounding mission that attempts to preserve every family’s history. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers access to its database of billions of records archived from countries around the world. The records are public and available to anyone.

Fodi and Giltman emphatically stress that these tools really do bring results. Fodi has helped her husband, Joe, a retired tooling inspector for Piper Aircraft in Vero Beach, complete his genealogy, which goes back to the early 1700s. This came about largely through DNA testing and FamilySearch. By posting a message on Ancestry, they recently found a relative who, “believed there were no other relatives in the whole world — when in fact there was this huge family she didn’t know about,” Fodi said. “Now my husband is in contact and they fill in pieces for each other. It’s like a huge puzzle. It’s fun and interesting.”

Giltman recently connected her husband, Larry, a retired pathologist, with his first cousin in Germany and they’ve just begun exchanging information and photos. Some photos are still unidentified and won’t be added to the family tree program until they are positive of the relationship. Fodi explains that if you find pictures of family on an old postcard, dates can be narrowed to around 1915 to 1920 when postcards first became popular.

Free resources are also available with a library card. “The library offers online access to Ancestry and HeritageQuest to help with researching your family tree,” said Linda Clobes of the Fort Pierce Branch Library during a recent club meeting. “We collaborate with volunteers from Treasure Coast Genealogical Society, who offer support to individuals in the library’s genealogy section three days a week. They guide people on how to access genealogical websites and use the genealogy reference books.”

“Fort Wayne, Ind., has the largest genealogical resources in the world,” Fodi said, “and from the library, you can send for all kinds of records, including military, Revolutionary War and slave records — and it has a huge library of online books. Say you want to access the name Fodi in genealogy books — it will bring up every book with that name. Type in your town or another wild card to narrow the search and it will bring up every reference to Fodi, so you can open that book and read the pertinent pages online.”

The website Newspapers is another free resource available through the library. Search for a news article, wedding or obituary by typing in what you know — date, name or town — and the program searches newspapers to find the records.

Both Giltman and Fodi enjoy helping people pursue their ancestral histories and say the cost is a bargain compared to most hobbies. FamilyTree software synchronizes information collected on Ancestry and composes it in a narrative, like a genealogy book, so the information can be distributed to other family members.

“Reuniting with family is the happiest moment,” Giltman said. “Family is sacred. I think this makes us gentler toward family. Understanding who they were. I started because my father had a large family in Europe, but because nobody wanted to burden the children with their past political tyranny, it was disjointed. Genealogy helped me clarify relationships in the family.”

“For me, the sad thing is some of the relatives I found were deceased before I could have known them,” Fodi said. “But my sister is coming to visit and I’ll meet her for the first time. Life is such that you can look at things from the negative or the positive point of view. Not everything you find is going to be hunky-dory. But accept that this is life and it can be exciting.”