Thursday, February 20, 2014


Raymond Ezio DePrato, c1939

The man I knew as my grandfather was born in Ovaro in the Province of Udine, in northern Italy, just south of the Austrian border. Born Ezio DePrato on 25 August 1912, he was the second child of Luigi DePrato and his wife, Maria Bidoli. He would have no memory of his European birthplace, as his parents boarded the S.S. LaLorraine in the port of Le Havre, France, on 5 July 1913, while he was still an infant. They arrived in New York just a week later on 12 July 1913. Luigi was already an accomplished stonemason, and he and his wife were bound for Madison, Wisconsin, to join her sister and husband, Silvio and Oliva (Bidoli) Garlat, who had arrived in 1905 and 1907.

Luigi and Maria (Bidoli) DePrato
The child is supposedly Ezio, born in 1912,
but it is more likely their first born, Elisa, born in 1910.

Although my grandfather could speak Italian to his parents, or as I was told scream Italian to his parents (remember that Italians are passionate!), he bore no traces whatsoever of an Italian accent. This is in stark contrast to my father's side of the family. My paternal great-grandfather had lived in this country for over sixty years, and as a child I was always mesmerized by the gibberish that came out of his mouth that was supposed to pass for the English language. It was a language I never heard my maternal grandfather speak. Any relative who spoke it was long gone before I arrived. Only Aunt Liz remained: an odd woman who wore a bizarre assortment of men's t-shirts and pants, knee high stockings and dozens of copper anklets and bracelets to ward off arthritis. She would get defiantly angry if she did not promptly receive a thank you card for the five dollars she sent for birthdays and holidays, and I half expect that her desire to give us money was not as a gift, but as a timed event to see when she would be appropriately thanked. And all you need to do is say, "Aye yai yai yai yai!" loudly while shaking your head and waving your hands, and anyone in this family will giggle knowing you are referring to Aunt Liz. The woman was barely comprehensible in English; Italian was something that was a thing of the past.

Maria, Ezio and Elisa, c1913

The DePrato family's stay in Wisconsin was brief, as by 1917 they had removed to South Bend, Indiana, and in 1919 to Mishawaka, Indiana, where they would remain throughout their lifetimes. Another daughter, Inez, was born to the family in 1919, and Luigi worked for a short time at the Mishawaka Rubber & Woolen Manufacturing Company (Ball-Band) to supplement his income as a mason.

South Bend and Mishawaka, Indiana, had a large Italian population, most arriving between 1910 and 1920 during the period of rapid industrialization that occurred between Gary and South Bend, Indiana. Local industries such as Singer, Dodge, Bendix, Studebaker and Ball-Band (which became a wholly owned subsidiary of U.S. Rubber in 1922) offered Italian immigrants steady work and good wages. Several "Little Italy" neighborhoods formed in the area, and the Italian community on the south side of Mishawaka centered around the DeAmicis club on Spring Street. This is where the Garlat and DePrato families settled. Luigi and his family remained in the 1100-block of Spring Street through 1930, then lived a variety of places on the south side of Mishawaka before settling in a modest home at 219 West 12th Street by 1938.

Although ethnically and culturally the families were surrounded by people sharing their heritage, like many immigrants they also desired to assimilate into their American environment. Luigi became a naturalized citizen in 1926. Luigi, Maria and Elisa became Louis, Mary and Elizabeth (or Liz), and they never deviated from those monikers until their deaths. Surprisingly, Ezio continued using his given name - at least in public records - until at least 1937. Perhaps this was because there was no English equivalent for Ezio. Nonetheless by the time he met his future wife, he was calling himself Raymond. No adequate explanation has ever been given for this chosen name, even by my grandfather himself. "He just liked it." That was probably good enough.

Ezio and his family made one trip back home to Italy in 1930, but most of his time was spent in France, as his father worried that his eighteen-year-old son would be drafted into mandatory military service if his presence in Italy were known. The family returned via Le Havre to New York on the S.S. Ile de France on 21 April 1931. He would never again return to Europe. I know little of my grandfather's return trip as a teenager, but it must have made a lasting impression on him. He was a man of few words and curt answers when I was annoyingly asking dozens of genealogically-related questions, but he knew exactly the names, dates and details surrounding this trip. I was too young, and perhaps too shy, to probe further. My grandparents were loving people and they joked and hugged and kissed and played with their three grandsons. I did not fear them, nor was I hesitant to ask them questions. But asking how they felt about something, or how it might have more deeply affected them emotionally was just something you did not do. Perhaps it was a generational thing. They were not secretive about the past, but they were certainly not effusive about it either. I guess one can only imagine that a teenager with limited parental control in France would have experienced a trip that would be remembered for a lifetime.

Ezio DePrato, 1930

My grandfather was sent to St. Bavo Catholic School in Mishawaka until the sixth grade, and then to Mishawaka Junior High School where he stayed until the ninth grade. His parents maintained a modest existence, and as a skilled stonemason, Louis was rarely out of work during the Depression. They would have liked to have seen their son finish high school, but my grandfather wanted his own money, and he quit school to go to work. His first job was in the steel mills in Gary, Indiana, where he worked only six months. Being the only son in an Italian family he was a bit fussed over, and his mother could not stand him being away from home and persuaded him to come back to Mishawaka. He secured a job with the Mishawaka Rubber & Woolen Manufacturing Company, better known as Ball-Band, which was the major employer in Mishawaka. The name was changed to Uniroyal, Inc., in 1967, and my grandfather worked there until his retirement.

Readily available employment at Ball-Band not only attracted European immigrants to Mishawaka, it also attracted migrants from all over the country. There was a large contingent of Kentucky-borne workers at Ball-Band, having formed a sort of chain migration to Mishawaka, Indiana, through the 1930s and 1940s. There were so many of them, that they had a yearly summer event called the "Kentucky Picnic" that has long since disappeared. One of these Kentuckians was Rosie Arreda  "Rita" Dobyns. She came to Mishawaka in 1934 following her sister Eunice and secured a job at Ball-Band. Ray and Rita met at work, dated, and once marriage was a foregone conclusion, my grandmother converted to Catholicism. They were married on 11 February 1939 in St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Mishawaka. They spent their wedding evening seeing a movie at the Tivoli Theater before going home.

Ray and Rita began housekeeping in a number of small apartments in Mishawaka; first on Ann Street in 1940, and on East 8th Street in 1941, but eventually they moved into their own separate living quarters in the West 12th Street home of his parents. They would live in the parental home until 1946, when they purchased property on Lincolnway West in Osceola. My grandfather did the bulk of the construction of a seven-room brick home on a half-acre lot. This would be the house I would always know as my grandparent's home.

During the early part of World War II, Raymond's service was deferred due to his employment in an essential industry. When he was called up for examination later, he was rejected for service because of a "nervous stomach." He was shocked at the findings, as he never complained of stomach problems, nor had he ever experienced any. It was his belief that the doctors rejected him based on his status as a primary caretaker for not only a new wife, but for aging parents, and that his induction into the army would cause hardship and distress for all of them.

Ray and Rita (Dobyns) DePrato, 1953

I remember my grandfather in his 60s and 70s. I have no recollection of his working years, as his retirement occurred when I was too young to pay much heed to such things. He was playful and fun, and he was quick with a joke. I remember some of them were a little racy for young ears, but he was good at keeping them fairly clean for us. He was devoted to my grandmother, and like men of his generation, he took care of her. As was evident by his single-handed construction of their home in Osceola, he was handy with tools. He made a huge cedar toy box for me and my brothers with a hinged lid that served as a seat when it was closed. I used to like to empty all the toys out of it and hide inside it to smell the wood. He built floor-to-ceiling shelving in my bedroom in the 1970s, which of course was a dream come true for a budding bibliophile (read: nerd).

After his retirement from Uniroyal, my grandfather often volunteered to work at his nephew's restaurant in Mishawaka, The Covey. He enjoyed the interaction with the patrons, and he would bring us grandsons a whole variety of odds and ends that people would leave behind at the restaurant. This could be an assortment of toys, gadgets, sunglasses, hats or bangles. It was actually more fun than store-bought gifts, as it had a sort of scavenger hunt feel about it. I learned to hate banana cream pie through my grandfather, as he would bring home any uneaten pie from the restaurant that was too old to sell. The sliced banana garnish was brown and mushy, and although the pie was perfectly good, I could not stomach the look of those aging bananas. I developed my significantly unhealthy obsession with candy corn (Brach's ONLY) from the candy he would also bring home for us.

Raymond and Rita (Dobyns) DePrato, 1980

For some reason I detested Thanksgiving stuffing as a child. Perhaps it was the unappetizing look of brownness, or the strong smell of sage my grandmother used when making it, or the turkey organs and juices mixed within. Nonetheless I refused to eat it. My grandfather, unbeknownst to me, took the stuffing, squashed it into an aluminum pie plate until it was dense and flat and cut me a piece, calling it "sausage pie." I loved it. And I miss my grandmother's sage dressing to this day.

My grandfather chewed tobacco, and we were always required to find him a proper receptacle to spit in when he came to visit, which was every weekend. When we were very young, when asked what his can of chewing tobacco was, we were told, "You don't want that. It's yucky!" We were told it was yucky, so therefore we always thought that is what it was called. Simply, my grandfather chewed yucky. So from then on when we were to fetch him a coffee can designated for him to spit in, it was called a "yucky can." I cannot recall how old I was until I finally realized "yucky" wasn't a noun.

The Covey in Mishawaka burned down in 1985, and grandfather stopped going "into town." He was getting too old to tend to his beautiful vegetable garden he maintained on his property. I went to college. When he was ill during my Christmas break in 1989, I was home, but I never went to see him. I couldn't stand to see my grandfather dying, so I found reasons not to visit. I drove back to school for classes to resume on 8 January 1990, only to receive a phone call once I got to West Lafayette, Indiana, telling me to turn around and come back. He had died. I never got to say good-bye because I was coward. And I regret that to this day.

When I began my search for my mother's birthparents in 1982, this was the man I went to question regarding the events of 1946. This was my grandfather. He was seventy years old, and he was entering his "curmudgeon years." He would often nap on the living room couch, and he had constructed a cushioned board that fit perfectly to the furniture frame to give him more support. I unfortunately scheduled my "interview" after my first unrewarding research trip during his nap time. He spent the bulk of it lying on his side, face to the cushions, back toward me. My grandmother, sitting in her chair, did most of the talking. He would just shout out his two-cents' worth if and when he found it necessary.

But it was a single, annoyed, nap-deprived word that would break open the research floodgates to the identity of my mother's birthparents.


  1. Michael, I am so enjoying these stories about your genealogical journey. The next installment needs to hurry up!

  2. And??????? You are keeping us in suspense! BTW you are an incredible writer!

  3. Love the rich detail, inpatient for more.

  4. You missed your calling as an author Michael. Great composition using the genealogical discovered research details applied in a warm loving presentation.Learning things about my Dad's cousins I did not know. Thank you for taking the time to document their lives.

  5. I'm truly enjoying your stories! I started at the beginning as "The Armchair Genealogist" suggested. I love how you are bringing your family's story to life!

  6. My great grandfather Giovanni arrived on the La Lorraine in January 1912 from Le Havre. He, too, was from northern Italy. Small world!