More Than a Family Tree

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  • Charles Mapes and Nick the Bootblack. (From “The Man who One Day a Year Would Go ‘eelin’” by Charles Halsted Mapes, published 1913, Knickerbocker Press.)

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    Michael Dolan’s 1942 World War II draft registration card. (National Archives)

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    Patrick “Pa” Dolan, 1910.

  • Charles Mapes and Nick the Bootblack. (From “The Man who One Day a Year Would Go ‘eelin’” by Charles Halsted Mapes, published 1913, Knickerbocker Press.)

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    Michael Dolan’s 1942 World War II draft registration card. (National Archives)

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    Patrick “Pa” Dolan, 1910.

We are all the products of stories.

Every family history has characters whose relationships, struggles and triumphs are woven together over time, creating a sweeping saga that tells the story of how each generation came to be.

Today, thanks to the internet and genealogy sites like ancestry.com, many of us know far more of these stories than ever before.

With some basic information - ancestor’s names, birth dates and locations of life events - it’s possible to quickly track down documentation that uncovers a paper trail developed decades or centuries ago.

It’s easy to make mistakes, so it takes diligence and a lot of cross-checking to verify the accuracy of these family stories. Being a journalist, I always seek confirmation of information from multiple sources, preferably documents, before determining, yes, this is my ancestor and this is his or her story. For me, it’s so much more than a family tree.

In doing that additional research, I’ve discovered some of the most interesting details about generations of my great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Some of the information I’ve uncovered has even been helpful at times in unexpected ways.

My mom, who is healthy but experiencing some heart issues not uncommon for people her age, was having some anxiety about her condition.

“I’ve outlived them all,” she said, of everyone she knew of in her father’s family.

And their deaths were all heart-related.

Because of my research, I was able to tell my mom that wasn’t true.

My mother’s great-grandfather, Antonio Zupo, whose name she’d never heard until I told her about him, did not die of natural causes. He was at a ripe old age, older than she is, when, back in 1923 in Brooklyn, New York, he was run over by a vehicle in front of the building he lived in.

It’s a sad story, but knowing it brought my mom some solace today, nearly 100 years later.

Last year, a connection I made through ancestry.com helped answer a question my father always wondered about.

My dad, who died in 2016, spoke often of “Pa,” his beloved grandfather, Patrick Dolan, who emigrated from Ireland to northern New Jersey in 1908.

Pa married my great-grandmother, Mary McCormick Dolan, and lived on her family’s farm, about 25 miles from New York City.

Pa died in 1949, when my father was 10, but not before making a major impact on my dad.

One of my father’s favorite memories was of going, as a small boy, to a few Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games with Pa and a relative who lived in New York City. But my dad didn’t know who that relative was.

“I wish I knew,” my father used to say, when he reminisced about those days.

I could never find a relative of my dad’s living in the city in the 1940s. It didn’t help that Dolans are a dime a dozen wherever there are Irish people.

Then, one day, about a month after my father died, I received a message through ancestry.com from a woman I didn’t know.

She had viewed my family tree on the website and told me she thought I might be related to her half-brother, a man named Robert Dolan.

She told me his grandfather’s name was Michael Dolan, who came from County Longford.

I looked at some of the documents she had collected connected to this Michael Dolan and found his name and birth date matched one of Pa’s brother’s. The most recent information I had about my Michael Dolan was an Irish census record from 1911 when he still lived in County Longford.

Then I looked at a World War II draft record this woman had for her Michael Dolan, and there it was. Under “Name and address of person who will always know your address,” it said “Patrick Dolan” and gave the address of the farm where Pa lived in New Jersey, the place where my father grew up.

When Michael registered for the draft he lived on E. 70th Street in New York City.

I finally knew who my dad had cheered for the Brooklyn Dodgers with more than 70 years ago.

One of the most interesting characters I came upon in my family history search was known as “Nick the bootblack.”

My mother’s relatives, who arrived in Brooklyn from an impoverished section of Italy in the 1880s, made their way in the new world by shining shoes and selling newspapers on the streets of New York City.

When Nicholas Zupo, my great-great uncle died in 1935 at age 53, his obituary was news. The headline in the Brooklyn Eagle said “Nick the Bootblack, Barge Office Figure for 40 years, dies.”

Nick was the only man licensed to shine shoes or sell his wares in the military buildings along the waterfront in lower Manhattan.

News of his death earned a spot in a column by George Tucker, a humorist/columnist with the Virginia Pilot in Norfolk. That column was picked up by several newspapers and published throughout the U.S.

“He came from Italy in 1882 and began in the streets, as all Horatio Alger heroes do, with nothing but a native wit and a talent for wielding a flannel rag,” Tucker wrote.

That wasn’t the first time Nick the Bootblack made headlines.

Earlier in his life, while working on the waterfront, he jumped into New York Harbor a few times to save people who’d fallen in from drowning.

“Zupo never wears an overcoat, even in the coldest weather, and he boasts that he has never had a cold,” said an article published in 1924. “Anyway, he argues, topcoats would be in the way ‘If a guy jumped into the water to help another feller out.’ This bootblack is a Brooklyn hero.”

Nick was also the subject of a chapter of a book written by Charles Halsted Mapes and published in 1913. Mapes, a Yalie businessman who went down to the Battery everyday at lunchtime to see Nick, called the chapter “Ode to a Bootblack.”

“I have known many gentlemen sports, but the best sport I ever met, the ‘KIng of them all’ is my friend, Nick the Bootblack, who hangs out around the aquarium in Battery Park,” Mapes wrote.

Nick must have been a heck of a guy. He died before my mother was born, and she’d never known about him until I dug all this information up.

Enough about me.

I’m not special. Every one of us has characters like this who came before them, people who are more than a name, date of birth and date of death.

Anyone interested can take up the hobby of genealogy.

Like all serious hobbies, it’s not free. A subscription to ancestry.com comes with a price, as do some of the other genealogy websites. The documents ordered directly from offices of vital statistics and city halls also come with a cost.

But like all serious hobbies, if it brings you and others pleasure, it’s worth it.

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