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Tradition, Tradition!

As the son of a father whose family was devoutly Catholic and a mother who was a lifelong Episcopalian; married to a woman whose Italian heritage on both sides was centuries deep into Catholicism, it came as a surprise to me to find that not only did I have some Jewish relatives… I had, in my family tree, one of the leading rabbis of his day.

Gabriel Wolf Margolis was born in Lithuania and studied with Rabbi Joshua of Vilna, the uncle of the Ḥafez Ḥayyim. He was ordained in 1869 and quickly gained a reputation as being an uncompromising traditionalist. After the pogroms of 1903, he fiercely opposed the Jews who embraced the revolutionary movement but he failed in an attempt to have them declared as being no longer members of the Jewish community.

He accepted an offer to serve as chief rabbi of seven congregations in Boston but disputed with the Agudat Harabbonim (union of Orthodox Rabbis) over kashrut (the set of dietary laws for the Jewish people to follow, familiarly known as kosher). He welcomed a move to New York where he served as rabbi of Adath Israel, a lower East Side congregation, for over a quarter century. The membership of his congregation continually grew, ultimately reaching over 10,000 souls.

Moshe Sherman said, referring to Gabriel Wolf Margolis: “The major thrust of his efforts to transplant the European world of Jewish piety and observance to the United States proved to be difficult” – at least in his generation when Americanization was the primary interest of immigrants and especially of their children.

At the time of his death, he was recognized as the oldest active rabbi practicing in the United States.  Gabriel Wolf Margolis was the granduncle of the husband of my wife’s grandmother.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

The Fighting Italian

Boxing was a popular form of entertainment in the 1940s but, like most everything else, was interrupted by WWII. Many of the most popular fighters of that time enlisted and served overseas. Familiar names like Joe Louis, Beau Jack, and Bob Montgomery put their athletic careers on hold to answer the call to duty. Some, like Louis, were used in a promotional way to entice Americans to join the war against Germany. Others simply entered the ranks to fight alongside their fellow soldiers.

I had a relative among them. Chester “The Fighting Italian” Rico was an up and coming lightweight from New Jersey with 44 wins already under his belt since he turned pro in 1938. He traded his boxing trunks for an army uniform in 1944 but once being released from his service, he resumed his activities in the ring with a well-publicized bout against Patsy “The Bronx Cyclone” Spataro in Long Island’s Queensboro Arena. He battled, through the rain, to a victorious and unanimous eight round decision.

He continued boxing for another seven years, until retiring in 1952 with a professional record of 65 wins (14 knockouts), 25 losses, and 8 draws. During his career, he went toe-to-toe with some of the best in the business, including future lightweight champions Beau Jack, Bob Montgomery and Tippy Larkin.

Horace (Chester) Rico was the nephew of my wife’s granduncle.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotape, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

The Christian Critic

It recently struck me as I continue to delve into the past, uncovering the almost forgotten stories involving my ancestors, that I have my own stories that one day will be in danger of being lost to time. As I approach the 66th anniversary of my birth, I find myself reflecting on some of the experiences I’ve had over the years. I would have to say that the stories of mine that may be most at risk of fading from public memory would be the ones that occurred in the ten year period where I was known by a different name.

From 1998 to 2008, I ran a website called Movie Parables, and was known in the online community as Michael Elliott, The Christian Critic. (Elliott, for the record, is my middle name.) It all started with watching The Man In The Iron Mask starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and becoming aware of a number of biblical truths that were reflected in this secular movie. I found this to be interesting and decided to write my observations down. For fun, I did so within the framework of a movie review. I then challenged myself to see if I could do something similar for the next movie I watched… and the one after that. 

After I collected a few, I decided to share them online. That snowballed into a number of opportunities that came my way: acceptance into the Online Film Critics Society, syndication in a handful of papers around the US, being added to the PR press junket list where I’d be flown to LA to interview the actors and directors of upcoming films, a contract with Tyndale Publishing, and the release of two books. It was a fun and exciting time.

I still believe in the premise that led to the creation of those reviews:  While art does indeed imitate life… God was the one who created it, so any art form must borrow from God’s creation. Therefore, there must be evidence of His handiwork in every movie we watch – whether it is placed there intentionally or not. All it takes are the spiritual eyes to see it. As well as the will to look for it. And once we become practiced at spotting the invisible spiritual realities, we’ll start to see those truths all around us because they were always there. And still are.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

Czech This Out

Despite the many historical documents available to us, sometimes one has to rely on family stories to glean some details of an ancestor’s life. It just might not always be accurate.

I remember sitting with my grandfather, Josef Ondrasik, near the end of his life, listening to him tell the story of how he came to this country. Born in what was then called Czechoslovakia, he found a job as a young man working for a stable near his home. He worked hard and eventually was appointed the job of head stableboy.

This would have been in the early 1900s. Due to some global tensions, the emperor of Austria decided to “hide” his prized Lipizzaner stallions lest they be taken as spoils of war. Some of them ended up at my grandfather’s stable in the Czech countryside where he was given the responsibility of their care. 

Eventually, he asked for some time off to visit his family and while he was away, the stablehand who filled in for him was exercising a team of the stallions and accidentally drove them into a tree. One of them was so badly injured it had to be euthanized. When my grandfather returned to the stables, he was told in no uncertain terms that he would never be allowed to take another vacation. Not long after that, he left Czechoslovakia, boarded a ship and arrived in America to start a new life.

It’s a great story and one I vividly remember hearing from him. The only problem with this memory is that my grandfather never learned to speak English and I never learned to speak Czech. So I’m not sure how he was able to communicate his story to me. I remember it but I have yet to find any documented evidence that any of it actually took place. He’s gone now, along with anyone else who might have been able to corroborate the claims. But that story, true or not, will always live in my heart.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotape, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

Big Man On Campus

I have been reaching back through the centuries to draw out stories of old that are somehow related to my family tree. I find them fascinating. But the stories that resonate the most with me are the ones involving family members who are closest to me. And what son would I be if I didn’t brag on my dad just a little bit… especially on Fathers’ Day?

Edward John Ondrasik was quite the “Big Man on Campus” in his day. At Roanoke University, he was a star basketball player, nicknamed “The Big Scoop” for his skills under the basket. He was voted thrice to the All State team and earned a spot on the All Century Team. He was eventually inducted in Roanoke University’s Hall of Fame.

His illustrious playing career was interrupted by a little disturbance most people knew as WWII. He left school to enlist in the Army Air Corps where he joined the 448th Bomb Group of the Mighty Eighth Army Air Force. He originally wanted to be a pilot but on his test run got a little too close to some telegraph wires so he got relegated to the bombardier seat. He flew 24 missions over wartime Germany and thankfully made it back home safely. He later told his family that all 24 wartime missions over Germany had to be flown without the benefit of a parachute because at 6’3” he could not fit in his compartment with it on. 

Upon his return to the states, he completed his education at Roanoke University and even played for another season where he racked up awards, accolades, and the attention of one Red Auerbach who invited him to come play for him. At the time, Red was coaching the Washington Capitols. 

Unfortunately, once my dad graduated and was free to accept the offer, Red had no open positions so he returned to his family home in New Jersey and got picked up by the Paterson Crescents, a team in the American Basketball League. He only played a couple of seasons before he decided to shift his attention and talents elsewhere.

He became the Athletic Director for a Naval Base in Bainbridge MD, and then decided to embark on a career in public education. It was a career that carried him through to retirement age. And he left an indelible impression on scores of children who were fortunate enough to have had him as a coach or teacher.

I still remember walking down a city street as a child with my father at my side only to be continually interrupted by what appeared to me to be grown men shouting out, “Hey, Mr. O!” or “Hey Coach!” Even at my tender age, I could see the love and respect these men had for my father because he had provided them instruction and a role model to emulate when they, as much younger versions of themselves, were his students.

He left an unmistakable legacy… and enormous shoes to fill. I can’t imagine being the man he was. I can only hope to be a son of whom he would be proud.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

War Hero

We shouldn’t have to look deep into the past to find stories that have meaning or poignancy. Each of us are making tomorrow’s history today simply by living our lives and having the experiences we have. And that goes for our family members who are not that far removed from our present.

My grandfather, whom I called Hop (his name was Herman Oliff Parish), had plenty of stories to tell. A career military man, he served in the US Navy for most of his adult life. When WWII came along, he was given the command of Destroyer Division Fifty. One day, on April 14, 1945 to be precise, his fleet came under attack by Japanese forces near Okinawa. 

The official report reflects that “undaunted by overwhelming odds, Captain Parish skillfully directed ships and aircraft under his command in repelling suicide attacks by fifteen to twenty hostile planes, thereby playing a major part in destroying ten aircraft and denying the remainder access to his Task Group.” That report can be found in the accompanying documentation for the Navy Cross he was awarded for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service. That Navy Cross has been passed down to me and I have it along with the Legion of Merit medal and Bronze Star he also received.

My grandfather, once he retired from active duty with the rank of Rear Admiral, continued to serve by teaching mathematics to young recruits at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Besides that, in what is probably the event that had the most impact for me, he was the one who introduced his daughter to the man who would become her future husband. If he had failed to do that, I wouldn’t be here to write about it. Thank you, Hop.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotape, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse

There are a number of people who have found their way onto our family tree through marriage. As we trace their lines, we discover segments of history that have not only helped to shape our family but also our nation.

Mark Snow was a farmer from Virginia who happens to be the 5th great grandfather of the man who married one of my nieces. And without Snow, and others like him, the Revolutionary War may have turned out quite differently.

Snow served under Captain Jacobus Early as part of Col. Charles Lynch’s regiment in the Virginia Militia. Once France entered the war in 1778 on the side of the Americans, the British army began focusing on obtaining victories in the south so as to gain a foothold from which they might launch an offensive to the north. In March of 1781, when Lt Gen. Cornwallis and his 2100 men marched upon Guilford Courthouse near Greensboro NC, Mark Snow and 4500 other soldiers were there to meet him.

After a battle that lasted nearly two hours, the colonial troops withdrew, giving the British a dubious victory. Dubious because due to the Americans’ early withdrawal, their troops were left largely intact while Cornwallis’ army suffered casualties of 25% or more, decimating their effectiveness. As British statesman Charles James Fox commented when asked about the battle, “Another such victory would ruin the British army.” 

Afterwards, Cornwallis abandoned his efforts to gain a foothold in North Carolina, marched his troops into Virginia to refit and replenish but to no avail. In October of the following year, after the Battle of Yorktown, he surrendered to George Washington.

Snow later married Elizabeth Torrence and relocated to Gwinnett County, Georgia where his name was drawn as part of a land grant lottery made available to Revolutionary War veterans who had given service for 3 years or more. He died, in Georgia, in 1843 at the age of 79.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

Baa Baa Black Sheep?

Some family history can be unpleasant. Or, at the very least, unsettling. Such is the case surrounding my wife’s great grandfather, Francesco Saccente.

Saccente was born in Italy in 1883 and, like many others, emigrated to the US in the early 1900s. He settled in Patchogue, New York. Over the next couple of decades he married three times, had fifteen children and made his living as a peddler of ice and coal.

One day, in 1933, he, with seven of his children in tow, paid a visit to the Miramar Beach Hotel in East Patchogue. While his kids were playing on the beach, he entered the hotel. Moments later, he was dead. Killed by a shotgun blast through the heart. James Stephani, the hotel’s proprietor, was charged with murder. Saccente was fifty years of age at the time.

After a well publicized trial that stretched over four months, Stephani was acquitted by the jury and the incident was reclassified as an “accidental shooting.” We may never know what really happened… even the main witness at the trial reversed his earlier testimony and said that he now couldn’t remember what took place at the time.

It so happens that, as I was poring over the newspaper articles about this event, I discovered another newsworthy story involving this family member. Five years earlier, Francesco and his son Louis were arrested for the assault of their neighbors, Raymond Anderson and his wife, who suffered two broken ribs and facial lacerations at their hands. According to the newspaper accounts, the Andersons were accusing the Saccentes of killing their dog and when Mrs. Anderson went to demand satisfaction, she was chased off by a shotgun wielding Saccente. Early the next morning, the Saccentes allegedly assaulted the pair as they were walking home. While the Saccentes were eventually acquitted in that case, Francesco found himself again charged with assault nine months later after beating up a man during a brawl in connection with an Italian celebration in West Patchogue.

In keeping with the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” philosophy, I chose long ago to avoid arguing with my wife. I’m not saying she inherited any traits from her great grandfather but it seems to me to be prudent to err on the side of caution and defuse any potential conflict that may arise. Just in case.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives and slides. For more information call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

Go West Young Man

Patterns tend to emerge whenever we trace our origins. Back in the day, families would establish a home base and entire generations thereafter seemed to stay close to that same area. But eventually an enterprising soul would spot an opportunity and venture from the familiar into the unknown. For most of us, this is exactly how we came to be born and raised in America. One or more of our ancestors took the chance on the opportunity of a new life in a new world.

But once settled in America, the pattern repeated. Generations would remain in the area where their parents lived, and their parents before them. Eventually, other opportunities would arise that would cause people to venture beyond the homes they had always known. One branch of our family is an example of this. They were, for generations, firmly entrenched as farmers in the Cove Creek area of West Virginia. But in the late 1800s, evidence of the family name began to be seen showing up on the other side of the country… in Oregon.

Looking deeper, we find an explanation. The federal government, under the Homestead Act of 1862, released public domain land to the general public. it was made available for people to be granted ownership of land (up to 160 acres) in exchange for a willingness to work and live on said land for no less than five consecutive years. Governor D. Daniel, the great-great-granduncle of one of our family members, was among those who took advantage of this opportunity. Leaving his home in West Virginia he, along with his wife and seven children, traveled west by train and wagon to the untamed land of Wallowa County in Oregon. He was 39 years old. Once there, he built a home for his family as well as a school which he called Utopia. He even served as postmaster for the area for a few years while it got established. Today, Wallowa County has a population of 7008.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.

The Old Corner Bookstore

If you ever find yourself along The Freedom Trail in Boston, you may stumble across a little piece of my family’s past. The Old Corner Bookstore, which stands at the corner of Washington and School Streets, was once the site of the home of Anne Hutchinson, famous Puritan dissident and religious reformer. While she was not a relative, after she was expelled from Massachusetts for heresy, her home was bought by Thomas Creese II, my wife’s 8th great-grandfather, in 1708. Although the original home was lost to the Great Fire of 1711, Creese rebuilt a structure upon the land to be used as an apothecary shop.

Over the years it traded hands, eventually to be turned into a bookstore and printing shop managed by Ticknor and Fields. They were the nation’s leading publisher in the mid 1800s and produced works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott, many of whom were frequent visitors to the building.

In the 1960’s it was in danger of being demolished to make way for a parking garage but was saved through a purchase by Historic Boston, a not-for-profit organization. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Michael Ondrasik and Home Video Studio specialize in the preservation of family memories through the digitalization of film, videotapes, audio recordings, photos, negatives, and slides. For more information, call 352-735-8550 or visit our website.