Genealogy quest points Naperville man toward Germany
It started early this year with a yes or no question:
Is attorney David Wentz of Naperville related to scientist Myron Wentz, who recently made a major donation to North Central College in Naperville for rights to name its science center?
Nearly eight months later, the question still doesn't have a yes or no answer. Because in genealogy, Wentz has learned, solutions are never so simple.
Wentz, a 54-year-old attorney and former Naperville City Council member, started doing some genealogical digging in January to determine whether he's related to the donor for whom North Central's fine arts center is named.
Some in town assumed he was, but Wentz never had the proof. All he knew was both families came from Germany and both spelled their last name as "Wenz" without the "t" when they were in their native land.
With the help of a judge and genealogy enthusiast, two ancestry websites, a cemetery in Pennsylvania and his son's exchange trip to Europe, Wentz discovered a distant cousin living in Germany whose existence he'd never known.
"This is more fascinating," Wentz said, "than anything I was looking for initially."
But he still doesn't know if his line of Wentzes is related to Myron's line of Wentzes. So the saga continues.
The genealogical journey got a kick-start from DuPage County Judge Bonnie Wheaton, who says tracking family histories is her favorite subject, other than law. She's traced her own family's roots in Scotland and recently attended a reunion in South Dakota for descendants of her great-grandparents, including some of her 91 new second cousins.
"It's addictive," Wheaton said. "There are always more branches that you can follow."
A few months after Wentz reached out to her, asking her help probing any connection between his relatives and those of the North Central donor -- an internationally known microbiologist and immunologist -- Wheaton found a hit.
She emailed Wentz an address and phone listing for a Reinhard Wenz near Mussbach, Germany, where Wentz's family came from. She knew to look for Reinhard because he was mentioned as a young boy in letters Wentz's parents wrote to German relatives in the 1950s.
"It was a total shot in the dark," Wentz said about reaching out to his potential German cousin. "I was like, 'Why not?'"
He drafted a letter and sent it away, through another German family with whom his son, Luke, stayed this summer during an exchange program offered by Metea Valley High School. Soon he got a reply and the two began emailing. Reinhard Wenz, a 67-year-old retiree, was the relative Wentz thought he was -- technically a second cousin, twice removed -- and that opened new avenues of family for both men.
The connection helped Wentz determine members of his family are alive and well in their native land. It opened Wenz's world with knowledge he isn't the only bearer of the ancestral name -- and that his 8-year-old self was the subject of cross-Atlantic letters to America.
Wentz said he was always the historian of the family, so he's enjoyed sending his new discoveries to his sister in Peoria, his brother in San Francisco and his closer cousins in Texas.
He's also reached out to the Naper Settlement, the keeper of family lineage for several deep-rooted Naperville families including town founder Joseph Naper. President and CEO Macarena Tamayo-Calabrese says the Settlement already helps out often when people are on genealogical quests. And one element of the museum's plan for a heritage gateway and innovation hall is an interactive feature to help families preserve their histories as part of the city's broader story.
"We're putting together a digital wall; It will allow you to self-curate your family's story," Tamayo-Calabrese said. "It's a beautiful way to do genealogy and for us to keep it in terms of your story."
Wheaton said she hasn't been able to find the connection between David Wentz and Myron Wentz.
"If there was one, it was way, way, way back," she said.
But Wentz says he's not done looking. He's also gained a new interest in the "whys" of his family background -- Why did his great, great grandfather come to America in 1860? Why did the shoemaker leave his hometown? Why didn't other branches of the family come with him?
"That's one of the gems of genealogy," he said. "Not only do you see the facts, you can kind of connect the dots."
Even without a potential relationship to a deep-pocketed donor, Wentz said it's worthwhile to delve into family history. Wheaton calls it "a modern form of ancestor worship."
"I'd like to encourage more people to do this," Wentz said, "because you don't know what you're going to find until you get started."