Making the connection: Grass Valley genealogist helps trace ancestors |

Making the connection: Grass Valley genealogist helps trace ancestors

Leita Spoto and Hank DiPillo go over a family book that Spoto has put together for an Italian-American family. "Genealogy is an on going and life time hobby," wrote Spoto on her website:
Teresa Yinmeng Liu/ | Teresa Yinmeng Liu

Hank DiPillo discovered a few fascinating facts while probing his family history.

His grandmother, the woman whose maiden name was Luigi Castigia, broke away from the Catholic Church when she emigrated to the U.S. from Italy. She later became a Protestant.

She became pregnant 16 times.

DiPillo’s research also returned a heartbreaking detail. Five women on the DiPillo side of the family, including his older sister Marty DiPillo, have contracted and died of breast cancer.

“As a genealogist, I feel that we need to honor our heritage, we need to honor our family. It’s through them that we really find out about our past and about who we are.”Leita Spotoa genealogist

“I wished I knew before my sister got breast cancer,” said the 72-year-old Grass Valley resident. “I don’t know if that would have change anything, but I thought about that.”

Hank DiPillo is among a rising group of Americans who are interested in tracing their family roots, said Leita Spoto, a genealogist based in Grass Valley.

They become interested in genealogy not only because of a desire to fill an empty spot on a family tree, but also to reconnect and personally meet with family members.

“As a genealogist, I feel that we need to honor our heritage, we need to honor our family,” said Spoto. “It’s through them that we really find out about our past and about who we are.”

Spoto’s first brush with genealogy came 30 years ago out of a wish to trace the lineage of her husband, Bill.

“I wanted to know more about Bill’s family,” said Spoto. “He didn’t have anyone in the United States except his father and his aunt, and his siblings.”

This yearning blossomed into a lifetime hobby and resulted in almost 20 years of tireless research. After combing through numerous records and certificates, Spoto has not only helped her husband reconnected with relatives in U.S. and Italy, she has also developed an expertise around Contessa Entellina, a small commune in the province of Palermo where Bill came from.

Over the years, Leita Spoto said she has stored more than 50,000 records. Her website,, featured at least three families from Contessa Entellina that she has came upon during her research.

“After she talked to families, she added to that information, “ said Bill Spoto. “She’s gaining new information all the time.”

But Leita Spoto said the thrill of tracing your family roots is finding the connections between family members.

“One of the reasons why Italians do this is because they heard stories from their grandparents,” said Leita Spoto, “and they wanted to reconnect with them.”

This is especially true for DiPillo.

“I was very close to my grandma,” said DiPillo. “There came a point in my life when I wanted to find out who I am … Unless you are a Native American, you didn’t come from here.”

DiPillo said the desire to unravel his family history resulted in numerous visits to Raiano, a small town in the Abruzzo region of Italy from which his father emigrated. He spotted and connected with a distant relative during one of these visits. But an unforgettable experience was spending time in the parks and churches that his father saw as a child.

“It was very emotional when I stood in front of the church,” recalled DiPillo. “My dad was 14 when he came here (to the United States), He spent his first 14 years in Raiano, and nothing changes in small towns.”

Leita Spoto had a similar experience.

“When we found the lineage of my husband and we walked in the town, knelt in the church where we know his family was baptized, we felt this real connection of being there,” she said. “It’s really a fulfilling thing.”

Both Bill Spoto and Hank DiPillo identified themselves as first-generation Italians, who were born in the U.S.

But Spoto said Italian Americans are not the only ones enthused about finding their family roots. With the advance of digital technology and the growth of websites such as and, it is easy to track down family records.

“You have to know the town where they (ancestors) come from, you have to know the immigration record and naturalization records,” she said.

“I love genealogy,” added Spoto. “It’s such a loss when many people who are direct descendants of those who immigrated from the 1850s or the 1900s no longer know the direct town of their ancestors.”

To contact Staff Writer Teresa Yinmeng Liu, call 530-477-4236 or email

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