Tuesday Talk… with Rich Venezia, HHS 2008

There are pros and cons to being the youngest sibling in the family, but one of the cons is having people make assumptions about you based on your older siblings. But it didn’t take very long for Rich to distinguish himself from his older brother Robert with his many different interests and talents. Still, they both were members of HHS Debate, where I first got to know the younger Venezia brother. I would also get to know him as a singer via performances in the Variety Show. He is one of the most amiable and positive people I know.

How would you describe your childhood (pre-high school)?

I had a happy childhood. I swam competitively since I was about five, and was on various swim teams up until high school (when I gave it up for theatre and marching band). I did a lot of reading, listening to music, and making home movies with my brother and his friends. My family took vacations every year, sometimes a couple, so my love of travel was instilled in me from a young age. Theatre was also important to me starting around third or fourth grade. I basically loved all things art/music/drama-related.

What was your high school experience like? Can you share some thoughts about your experience in your social studies courses?

Overall, I’d say my high school experience was positive! It was busy. I liked to be really involved — some things never change — so I was often running from one activity to the next. I was in marching band (clarinet) my first two years, and involved in theatre all four years. I was in choir/chorale at various points, and started working right after my freshman year. I was a favorite face at the local Starbucks (even on school nights) starting my junior year. My last year-and-a-half of school, I basically lived out of my car, much to my parents’ chagrin, running from school to rehearsal to work or some other activity. Combine that with several AP classes — honestly, I am not sure when I slept in high school. I also went to VoTech my senior year, for musical theatre. And, as you know, I was involved in Model UN and Model Congress (perhaps less so than I would have liked to have been later on), and traveled with HHS Debate to New Brunswick, Seton Hall, Philadelphia, and Nashville.

I have to be honest in that I don’t remember much of my early high school history classes… I definitely slept through some of my freshman and sophomore year. (I know, I know!) I took Dr. Garber my last two years. Her classes were super challenging — but also really great. The classes were small and intimate, so it was impossible not to be an active participant. And if you weren’t prepared… let’s just say you only had to do that once before it never happened again. I’d love to spin a story that my high school history classes informed my current career in genealogy… but I can’t really tell you that that’s the case. History was always something I was surrounded by and interested in — my father was both a social studies teacher and history professor, as is my brother today. (Like father, like son, anyone?) And family history was always something that surrounded me – see more on that later. 

Present company excepted, who was your favorite teacher (at any level) and why?

If you recall, I never actually took your class, Fenster! (Don’t ask me why?!) My favorite teacher was definitely Briana Dixon (now Briana Dixon-Kale) at HHS. Drama teachers will always hold a special place in this thespian’s heart, and Dixon (as we affectionately called her) often felt more like a friend than a teacher. She worked hard with me on my college audition monologues through an independent study course that we designed together, she consistently challenged me to be my best, and she always made it known how proud she was of her students and their accomplishments. Theatre kids are often a bit… out there. She loved all of us just as we were. I will forever remember HHS Drama very fondly.

What led you to choose Point Park University for college? Was the goal always an acting career?

The goal was always an acting career, since I was in my early teens. I really wanted to focus on musical theatre, but let’s face it — I was always a much better actor than I was singer or dancer. (We like to call ourselves “actors who move.”) I auditioned for nine conservatory programs, and Point Park was the only one that accepted me for a conservatory-style program. (I got into others for academic programs or theatre studies programs – but I wanted to act, not study theatre pedagogy.) So, off to Pittsburgh I went! Honestly, I felt boxed in when going, but Point Park actually worked out *super* well for me — I got to know Pittsburgh (a city I adore and now call home), I was able to graduate in three years, AND I was able to take a leave of absence to study abroad in Dublin during my last year — something I’d wanted to do so since before even deciding which college to attend. Things always have a way of working out, don’t they?

What was it like living in Ireland after graduating? 

It was glorious! Easily one of the best times of my life. I had studied there and absolutely loved it, so I was thrilled for the opportunity to go back. I lived and spent time with friends I’d made during my term abroad and made some wonderful new friends. I jet-setted off to different destinations in Europe or throughout Ireland on weekends, did some research into my Irish roots, and worked several interesting jobs. I worked on the box office/marketing team during the opening of a new theatre (Smock Alley Theatre 1662) that was on the site of Ireland’s first Theatre Royal. This history lover was super-chuffed, to say the least. I also did some random acting work – you can still find me on the Irish Ferries website. I tried to stay longer, but wasn’t able to get a visa extension (and wasn’t yet an Italian dual citizen, which I am now).

You spent some time backpacking through Europe and North Africa. Was this a late gap “year” for you? What did that experience do for you?

Yes, after Ireland, I backpacked for five months. It did feel like my gap year, albeit between college and “real life” as opposed to between high school and college. It was a great experience. I traveled alone for the most part, so it was lonely at times, but I was able to see some incredible places and meet some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I learned how to make a euro go exceedingly far, that new friends are always just around the corner, and that camels smell really, really bad. From Budapest to Paris to Marrakesh, I saw beautiful sights, ate phenomenal food, and fed my sense of wanderlust (which has only grown since). I would recommend inter-railing to anyone in their twenties, or just anyone, really.

For five years you worked as an actor. I’m sure you were somewhat prepared for the ups and downs… and more downs of that vocation. What were the highlights for you?

I was lucky to act professionally throughout college and into my early twenties, something certain college professors railed on me for, but I thought there was no better opportunity to hone my craft than to put it into action. My favorite role was also one of my first professional roles: Lady Macbeth in a gender-bending production of Macbeth. I had this INCREDIBLE coat that I still wish I could have kept. I also had a small role in Ripper Street (BBC) when I was in Dublin… that was quite an experience, being on set for about a week of shooting and learning how it all worked. It was so fascinating just how different theatre and film are… the idea of 50 takes in film/TV vs. one “take” in theatre. I also did this incredible three-hander in college called Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me which was a totally humbling experience. There’s something magical about small casts, when you really start to feel like a family. That’s the main thing I miss about theatre — how much of a bond is formed between people in a short amount of time. It’s necessary for good work — if there’s no trust, the show won’t be any good. It’s unlike anything else I’ve experienced.

What were your greatest challenges in that profession? Why did you opt to leave?

Well, of course it’s no secret that being an actor is HARD. There’s a lot of rejection, a lot of go-go-go, and the roles often don’t pay nearly what they should (if they pay at all). The best places in the US to live to be a working actor are New York, LA, and Chicago, and none of those cities really called to me. Moreover, I found the idea of working several other jobs to sustain the thing I really loved to do, which is so often the case, a bit distasteful. How could I focus on my art if I was exhausted from all my other jobs? It’s the same story as a lot of other people… I just decided it was time to start afresh. Don’t get me wrong: tons of people make this work and love it and wouldn’t have it any other way. It was just not the life I wanted for myself.

You spent some time as a drama instructor at a day camp. How did you enjoy the experience of being a teacher?

I did! It was exhausting. I worked with kids ages three all the way up to thirteen, so figuring out lesson plans and appropriate drama games for that wide of an age range was tough. I gained a lot of respect for teachers through this process, especially for teachers of young kids. I am still flabbergasted by just how much energy four year olds have! Elementary school teachers are SAINTS. I was also flabbergasted by just how smart — and inspiring — kids could be. One moment I remember vividly was when I asked some of the kids to tell me what “imagination” meant. One responded, “Dreaming up something really big” and then another interjected, “And then making it happen!” Kids really do say the darndest things. My work there involved both teaching acting — so a lot of theatre games, improvisation, running around — and also directing the show, which involved rewritten lyrics to well-known songs and a plot somehow related to the camp. I even wrote the show the second year! My favorite part of the whole experience was providing a home for kids who reminded me a lot of me at their age, whether it was kids who didn’t fit the box of their gender stereotype, kids who were made fun of, or kids who just didn’t always feel like they fit in… it was tangible to see the effect theatre can have on people, and how empowering it can be.

You also worked for Garden State Equality. What did your work involve? How would you describe that experience?

I worked for Garden State Equality right after college for about two months. I was brought on as a development associate, to assist with donations for and the organization of a silent auction at the annual gala. The work was at times really taxing — and could be a bear with a one-hour-plus commute — but also exhilarating, as I worked at GSE when NY passed marriage equality. Being involved in an organization that aimed to do that for my home state, in whatever capacity, felt really meaningful. 

When did you develop an interest in genealogy?

I’ve been interested in family history since my early teens. My maternal grandmother was the family historian, and so I grew up seeing pictures of all my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. It was instilled in me from a young age that these people were important. I was really close with my grandmother (see my blog), so when she died, it seemed only logical for me to take up the mantle in her honor. It wasn’t until many years later that I even began to fathom the idea of genealogy as a profession.

You worked as a researcher for PBS’s “Genealogy Roadshow.” What sorts of things did you learn in that job?

I was super fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on the Roadshow research team for two seasons. It was like genealogy boot camp. There were only a few of us, so we had to stretch our skills in ways I never would have been able to do for a normal client. I worked on projects that I couldn’t have dreamed of getting into normally, considering my main expertise/experience is in immigrants, especially Irish and Italian. One of those stories actually even became a book (White Like Her by Gail Lukasik). Roadshow was a great experience. It made me a better and more efficient researcher, it taught me a lot about teamwork, and really positioned me well to be a full-time independent researcher. 

Can you talk about how an effective genie needs to develop a set of historical analytical skills in addition to just knowing “where to look”?

Our ancestors didn’t live in a vacuum. If you find that your Irish immigrants came over in 1851, but have no concept of the Great Famine, you’re missing half the story. Likewise, immigrants post-1924 had to deal with strict quotas. It’s not just about finding the records — it’s about placing those people in the time they were in. I always tell people — know the history and know the laws.Think about a story being written about the first half of 2020 without mention of the COVID-19 pandemic — sounds ridiculous, right? So, how can you faithfully tell the stories of your ancestors only through the documents in which you find them? Big events lead to big decisions — the Dust Bowl might help you understand why your parents were born out west instead of in the Great Plains, where your family had been for a few generations, as one example. The documents are only half the story.

You helped me find some key documents about my father’s family that were in German, Hebrew, and Hungarian. That was a fun experience, trying to translate key terms and then deducing what I could from birth, death, and marital records. I know you’ve done a lot of work on your own Italian roots. How’s your facility for world languages?

I remember it well! Yes, translating documents, or trying to piece together what they say when you only know a few words, is quite a hoot! I am fluent in Italian, which allows me to understand *some* other Romance languages, moreso when they’re written… but Italian is really the only I’d say I have any proper facility with.

Do you think of yourself as a detective of sorts, trying to piece together pieces of a puzzle? Can you share a couple of moments where you sniffed out a particular good lead, latching onto some piece of historical evidence that cracked open a story?

Absolutely! Many genealogists even have the words “Detective” or “Sherlock” as part of their genealogy business name. (Mine is Rich Roots – pun!) I see most of the work I do as puzzles, some much more difficult than others.

Because of confidentiality clauses, I can’t talk much about client work. I can say that oftentimes things people take for granted can actually help you break open a case. For instance, I’ve used signatures on documents more than a few times to confirm an individual was the same person. Likewise, a common idea is that not all the information matches up exactly so this can’t possibly be my person of interest… it never holds water. I have seen birthdates/years, ages, places of birth, etc., listed as wildly different for someone who I can confirm otherwise is the same person.

One project I’ve been working on that will eventually become an article (or a chapter in a book?) is about an individual that naturalized in 1904 in Brooklyn. He married in Italy in 1908 – rendering his wife a US citizen automatically at that time.The couple had several children in New York, and one more in Italy in 1917. I was provided the wife’s Certificate of Derivative Citizenship for use as an example, and that led me down a rabbit hole. Normally, pre-1906 naturalizations mean there are very little records to be found, and oftentimes, nothing noted about the wife or children who received derivative citizenship on those records. In this case, the addition of the wife’s subsequent citizenship file was already a boon to the family story. I came to uncover literally dozens of documents about this family, both in public archives and also via FOIA requests to various governmental agencies. Because the individual went back to Italy to fight for the Italian Army in 1917, he was presumed to have expatriated himself by the US government. This led to all sorts of problems for his wife and children who’d remained behind in Italy after he hightailed it back to the US, and led to further documents when his wife and child moved back to the US and wanted passports later in life. And it all started with one file! If I’d been researching this family otherwise and stopped at the 1904 naturalization (as one might be wont to do with early naturalization records), so much of the story would be missing. It goes to show that we must mine every document we receive for all clues, and also include in the analysis of that document questions about what other documents it could point us to.

How would you go about helping an adopted person research their roots?

DNA all the way! There are so many individuals in DNA databases now (20+ million) that looking for an adoptee’s birth parents has more success than ever before. Even somewhat distant matches — third-cousins for instance — can help a good genealogist uncover someone’s biological parents. As well, some states are opening up birth records for adopted individuals or their descendants, so check your state of birth for more information.

In 2017, you did a Ted Talk called “How to Grow Empathy From Uncovering Your Roots.” How did your drama training color your approach to designing your presentation?

My background in theatre informs all of the genealogical and public speaking I do, including the TED talk. As an actor, I learned how to think on my feet (bet you’ll never guess when I went up on my lines in that talk), to be concise, and to speak with authority. Knowing the material isn’t enough, it’s all about the delivery! (Surely this is reminiscent of your work as an educator.) I won’t say I wasn’t nervous, but performing in a large and dark theatre was second nature to me long before that talk.

What changes would you like to see in public policy regarding genealogy?

Oh, where to begin?! There are a lot of double-edged swords here, but I think one of the biggest issues I have is in regards to “hiding behind the law” and/or the idea that public records should remain private for such a prolonged period of time, especially when the same or similar information is available elswehere. Case in point: the state of Pennsylvania’s marriage records are open to the public. Wide open. These records include exact addresses, whether a spouse had evidence of transmissible diseases, parents’ residence places, etc. In other words, what many would consider “private information,” yet these are public records. Birth records, however, are closed for 105 years, and death records for 50 years. A colleague and I tried to convince the State of Pennsylvania to release the birth indexes up to 1939 via a Right-to-Know request, under the idea that (a) many of these individuals are deceased, and (b) more importantly, this information can be found elsewhere in other publicly available records (like voting records, the 1940 census, etc.). These indexes include date and place of birth and mother’s maiden name. Access to the indexes would allow those of us that want copies of these records to order them much more easily. The State just cited the law, saying that birth records (and thus, in their opinion, their indices) must remain confidential for 105 years, period, end of story. It’s just not sensible, and will make a lot more work for those very same people. 

You might also know I ran a campaign called Records Not Revenue that received quite a bit of press late last year. We were fighting a proposed fee hike to records from the USCIS Genealogy Program of up to 500% in some cases (i.e., up to $625 for a copy of a single file).There’s lots I could say about that, but it comes down to this: our ancestors paid for the creation of certain records via filing fees. No sensible researcher is suggesting that genealogists or family historians shouldn’t pay for access to records, but it shouldn’t cost a fortune, either. Governmental records can sometimes be the only places in which we can find certain information about our ancestors. Not all of these records are scheduled to be preserved, but until they are destroyed, they can be accessed via FOIA. Requests for these records then back up the FOIA queue for people who need records from these agencies for journalistic reporting, freedom of information, or life-or-death scenarios (with USCIS, for instance). I don’t have the answer, but there must be some better happy medium to be found, especially with the advent of digitization. Even if the paper records need to be destroyed (*cringe*), surely digitization partners could be found, which could then improve access to the records.

Looking ahead to 2022, how exciting will it be to get your hands on the 1950 census records?

It will be wonderful! April 2022 can’t come fast enough! This is the first census in which my grandparents are married adults, and both already started having children, so I’ll get to see some of my aunts and uncles. As well, it may help to solve a few of the genealogical mysteries I am currently working on.

What advice do you have for amateur genealogists, other than to hire you at Rich Roots?

Well, I do consultations, too ;). 

One thing people are always amazed to learn is that there are genealogical societies in almost every county in the country (and there are sometimes even more than one). Once the quarantine is over, check out your local library and see what events are there. Many genealogical societies are in-residence at libraries and hold meetings there, or the libraries themselves host events or lock-ins. Even if your ancestors are from a different area of the country, learning the ins and outs of the basics like census records, wills, and deeds, will be helpful no matter the location.There may be skill-building workshops, or programs for novices and experts alike. Genealogists like me also often do one-day seminars at these types of locations, too, in which we’ll talk all about a specific topic over four or five lectures. Also, look for online classes, too! There are some great resources available online, often for free or a nominal fee. I am currently involved in a webinar series with a company called Vivid-Pix specifically designed to keep people engaged whilst in quarantine over the next few months – see more here.

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