He started out with a modest interest in his own family genealogy, but when Jerry Becker was done, he had more than 800 names on the family tree and relatives from around the world meeting each other for the first time.
Becker's not really done, of course. The Arlington Heights man is continuing the work his father started, with the help of his son David. Together, they have made ancestry mapping into an intriguing visual -- a coffee table-sized, computer-generated tree that depicts seven generations, all springing from a common ancestor born in Lithuania around 1800.
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Because of their enterprise, hundreds of family members have met and shared stories. The tree grows as memories and family lore are unearthed.
Father and son designed their latest tree on the computer, a more advanced version of one Becker and his own father put together with the help of an artist in 1974. The original was hand drawn and written with calligraphy.
The latest one is a more compact version of the 80-foot scroll David created in the 1990s using early computer database programming.
"The challenge is how do you get all of this information in a manageable place," said Jerry, now 70.
With a journalism degree and a father who was also interested in genealogy, Jerry said his curiosity was sparked from a young age.
As the family historian, he has spent hundreds of hours working on this family tree in all of its forms, doing the research to find relatives and planning family reunions. More than 170 relatives came to the 2007 reunion in at the Westin North Shore in Wheeling, and more than 200 will attend the next reunion in August 2012.
"It's amazing to see the amount of family we have," said David, 43. Growing up, he knew only of his small branch of the tree but had no idea it extended so far.
Jerry Becker owns Fast Signs, which opened in Arlington Heights in 2004. The equipment he owns is what made the graphical representation of the family tree possible.
In their research, the Beckers have found relatives they never knew they had, including a cousin in Buffalo Grove he didn't know existed.
The base of the tree -- the couple that spawned six more generations and 800-plus and counting descendants -- are Yeshuel and Bessie Widzer. Yeshuel was born around 1800, and the couple had three children: Morris, Abraham and Yochel. While Abraham's line peters out with his children, Morris and Yochel were fruitful and multiplied, and so did their descendants.
Jerry comes through Morris Widzer, whose daughter, Yochel, married Sam Becker. Yochel and Sam had Louis, who married Eleanor; they were Jerry's parents.
Jerry said they haven't been able to trace his great-great-grandfather Yeshuel's parents, so for now they are working on filling in the existing branches. No relatives remain in Lithuania, although several relatives are planning a trip to Eastern Europe to find where their ancestors lived and learn more about them.
Some branches of the tree end abruptly, representing a whole family that was wiped out during the Holocaust.
Although the Internet has been a helpful research tool, most of the work is done by email and word-of-mouth.
Jerry and David have spent years writing emails and making phone calls, often with awkward introductions and explanations of how exactly they are related to the person on the other end of the call.
"There's usually a long pause until they realize it's not a crank call," Becker said. Of all the people contacted, only a few have declined to be involved.
At the 2007 family reunion, Becker put a big tree on the wall for relatives to look at, but at his invitation, they also scribbled on it, making corrections and additions. A few delicate issues come up, usually related to divorce and remarriage, but they're making it work. Becker isn't dictatorial about it -- he generally lets each family decide how they want to be depicted.
Lots of people wanted their own copies of the tree, so the Beckers sold them at cost.
Learning the stories and history of their relatives has been the most interesting part of the process for the Beckers. Many were entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and retail store owners. There's one judge, Jerry said, but no celebrities. Though, one relative is an NFL agent representing big names like Tom Brady, and another was a finalist on the Israeli version of "Survivor."
And although their lives and vocations differ, many of the relatives, no matter where they live, profess a love for the Chicago Cubs. It's a commonality that Jerry, as a White Sox fan, can't quite comprehend.
Becker has the latest version of the family tree hanging in his living room, but they are always looking ahead.
"As technology changes we'd love to get it online," said David, envisioning a site that allows users to click on individuals, to learn more about them and how they are related.
"It's one of those addictive things that gets a life of its own," Jerry admitted. "But there's so much enjoyment that comes out of it."
The genealogy bug has spread to other family members. One of Jerry's nephews is working on the same project for his wife's father's family and has already gone back five and six generations.
"I just think you really need to know who you are a part of and where you come from," Jerry said. "People want to know about their roots."
David said the best would be to go back in time and meet his relatives, but the tree is a nice substitute.
"Everyone wonders where they come from, who were your ancestors," he said.
David added he knows that as the family grows, another generation will pick up wherever he and his father leave off.
But the two aren't stopping anytime soon, and one major project isn't enough. Now they are working on taking every old family video he can gather from various relatives and putting them into a movie.
"Curiosity must be in the DNA," Jerry said.