Tracing family folklore

January 15, 2019

Most families have a story. You know the one. It’s probably been passed down for generations about a family member from years ago but no one is really sure whether it’s true or not.

Now that tracing our genealogy or tracking down ancestors seems to be the thing to do these days, moving those long-told stories from just folklore to the family album has become a lot easier than in years past.

But how do you sort fact from fiction?

We’ve read those stories about people who claim to be Native American, only to find out their roots seem to be planted in Europe and not the Great Plains. Or, have you watched “History Detectives” on PBS? Researchers are able to track down family information based only on a letter, picture, a party invitation or even a piece of jewelry. Oftentimes the results aren’t what the family member wanted, but man, what an interesting journey to the truth.

I’ve been told that my husband’s side of the family is related to George Washington. Apparently there is the genealogy to prove it, although I’ve never seen it.

“We found that typically with every story, there is a thread of truth,” says Curt Witcher, manager of the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center.

Along the way, as people explore and do the research, they are able to find out about their family based on their stories. That’s when they discover how the story is woven into their family’s fabric, or they realize, “Wow, this got really distorted,” Witcher says.

That’s what happened to Bruce Novak.

Novak grew up being told he had a Civil War hero in his family. He even has a picture to prove it. It is a black-and-white photo of an older man in a uniform with a white mustache that stretches across his face.

The 70-year-old Fort Wayne man loves the Civil War. Even as a kid he recalls playing with toy Civil War soldiers : both lead and plastic : when he lived in Chicago. He was an only child, so it was hard to create the Battle of Antietam by himself, but he did the best he could.

Apparently he did a pretty good job, because when he visited his childhood home 50 years later the owners asked if he was the one responsible for all the toy soldiers they kept digging up in the garden and flower bed.

Then he moved to Indiana. About 2000, he started reading Civil War books to pass the time while he was waiting in airports while traveling for his job. He soon began giving lectures on the war, speaking at high schools, organizations and teaching classes about it at IPFW.

But he never forgot about that photo.

It was a photo of his great-great-grandfather Karel Novacek, on his mother’s side. She told him that Novacek was a Confederate and a war hero.

Novak began researching and couldn’t find much about him. Then he had an idea. He took the photo to a Civil War uniform expert, who identified Novacek’s uniform as a veterans uniform of the Grand Army of Republic. Union!

Also, the uniform had a medal. Confederates didn’t give medals, Novak says. He was a Yankee.

“Everyone in my family was turning over in their graves,” Novak laughed. “They thought he was a Rebel.”

Military is in Novak’s family.

Witcher says that in every generation, there’s a possibility that the family member served in the military. He says there are a lot of documents associated with the military and the Genealogy Center can help people find them.

Witcher says the center encourages people who are interested in history to seek family stories from a number of individuals, which helps to give a complete, fuller story. 

But not all family stories are so heroic. Some are pretty dark and possibly embarrassing.

Meet Jimmy “The Goat” Novak : an uncle of Novak’s father, who was a part of notorious Chicago crime boss Al Capone’s gang. Yes, Novak had a gangster in the family.

Jimmy lived in Berwyn, Illinois, which was close to the Cicero neighborhood, where Capone operated.

Novak says his great-uncle wore silk shirts and even his dog had gold fillings. Whenever he would get a call, Jimmy would go into his bedroom, get his gun and shoulder holster and tell the family, “Big Al needs me to crack some heads.”

Jimmy was later a suspect in the St. Valentine’s Massacre, in which seven men associated with the Irish gangster George “Bugs” Moran, one of Capone’s longtime enemies, were shot to death by several men dressed as policemen on Valentine’s Day in 1929. The massacre was never officially linked to Capone.

No one ever to went to jail for the murders, but Jimmy became a suspect. He was later arrested with other Capone gang members and several years later he disappeared. No one from the family ever knew what happened to him.

“This is me and my crazy,” Novak says.

And Novak is creating quite a story of his own.

In addition to his Civil War talks, he is an adjunct instructor in the department of finance and accounting at Purdue University Fort Wayne, when he is not working at Almco Steel in Bluffton. The 70-year-old says he has retired three times. He also plays the trombone and plays in his church’s orchestra.

He has been married to his wife, Linda, 47 years and they have two children and three grandchildren.

Novak hopes to continue his research and bring more stories to the public, even if they’re not his own.

“Family stories or finding one’s story is the principal driver as to why people do genealogy history,” Witcher says. “They long to know their family story.”

Terri Richardson writes about area residents and happenings that affect their lives in this column that publishes every other week. Email her at trich@jg.net or call 461-8304.