Party Like It’s 1988

Happy 125th Birthday, San Pedro! There’s no way to predict what the next 125 years will bring, but I strongly believe that in the next 25 years we will do much more than in the previous quarter century. And, contrary to some local critics, we’ve come a long way in that time.

Consider this: In 1988, when we celebrated San Pedro’s Centennial, anyone venturing into downtown at night would have found a virtual ghost town, which was considered too dangerous to visit after dark. The only place of note to eat and/or drink at night around this time was Papadakis Taverna.

Everything changed almost immediately after 1988 when Alan Johnson opened John T’s, which was later taken over and changed to the San Pedro Brewing Company by James Brown. Suddenly, young San Pedrans had a downtown place for drinks at night. The crowd soon invaded Tommy’s next door (now Crimsin) and the spark was lit for a downtown scene where one can now eat and drink at numerous locations.

The fact that downtown is a much better nighttime place to visit than it was 25 years ago flies into the face of the nostalgia you often hear from old-timers. True, retail isn’t nearly as strong as it was in the years prior to the opening of malls like Del Amo, but that’s the case in downtowns all across America. And the next 25 years will get better – much better.

Everything starts with the port. There are currently two major developments – AltaSea and Ports O’ Call – that will not only change the face of the waterfront, but all of San Pedro, especially downtown.

AltaSea will greatly expand the current Marine Research Institute by relocating at City Dock 1. The research center, which is a collaborative effort of eleven major universities, including USC and UCLA, will feature seawater labs, classrooms, lecture halls, an interpretive center, and an opportunity to develop the world’s largest seawater wave tank.

A world class research center will drive to San Pedro a large wave of academicians, vendors, businessmen, and professionals that will either work at AltaSea, service its operational requirements, or create business partnerships that leverage the research being done there. The most natural place for these newcomers to locate their offices will be in downtown. And more people in more offices will establish the environment for a better variety of places to eat and drink in downtown… and at Ports O’ Call.

Ports O’ Call will create a waterfront dining and shopping experience that will spark tourism, as has happened in other port towns such as Seattle, Sydney, and Barcelona. However, the key to making our area a regional attraction will be our ability to integrate for visitors a seamless experience where they can traverse between a great waterfront and a vibrant downtown scene.

The reason I was so inspired by the choice of the L.A. Waterfront Alliance as the Ports O’ Call developer is that the team includes Eric and Alan Johnson. The Johnsons own property throughout San Pedro and understand the importance of an integrated plan linking the waterfront and downtown. What other outside waterfront developer would have been such a strong advocate for downtown? Alan has a vision for downtown that includes one-way streets with better parking, enhanced public performance space, wider sidewalks that allow for sidewalk dining, and transforming alleys into pedestrian walkways – much like in Old Town Pasadena (I’d add bringing the Red Car up 6th Street to Centre).

In addition, Alan is on the board of Marymount University and is very active in helping the college establish a film school at the Klaus Center on 6th Street, which could assist in Mayor Garcetti’s idea for making San Pedro one of the city’s entertainment corridors.

It all adds up to a downtown on the upswing… it should be a great quarter century for our town!

Jack Baric can be reached at jackbaric@hotmail.com.

A Victory For Waterfront Development

On a Tuesday evening in September of 2009, I had the honor of spending a long evening together with many hundreds of San Pedrans, all passionate about the future of a town we love. We all crowded into a meeting room at Liberty Hill Plaza and stayed well past midnight for a Harbor Commission meeting on adopting a proposed development plan for our waterfront.

The 400-acre project was designed to give the community better access to the water – and it included a promenade that ran alongside the water’s edge, water cuts and downtown-adjacent boating slips, various pocket parks, fountains and plazas, an extended Red Car line, and several other public features that would create a great waterfront experience for locals and visitors alike. The plan passed unanimously.

This was not just a plan to beautify the area, but to aid regional economic development through the introduction of various new shopping, dining and convention facilities that would give Los Angeles a waterfront that could compare to places such as Baltimore, Seattle, and San Francisco. At its core, the plan created a pathway for the Port of Los Angeles to redevelop Ports O’ Call Village with 300,000 square feet now zoned for shops, restaurants, a convention hall and other establishments that would make our waterfront a regional attraction.

It was great, except for one glaring problem. We were smack dab in the middle of a recession and there were very few development projects being launched anywhere. I recall a sobering dinner during this period with a friend on the real estate board at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management who told me that he saw no chance of Ports O’ Call being redeveloped.

However, as the economy slowly started to rebound, the Port finally felt optimistic enough to put out a request for real estate groups to submit their qualifications to be chosen to negotiate the right to redevelop Ports O’ Call. Although the Port was optimistic, it was a cautious optimism – as one Port source told me, they realistically hoped for two or three groups to submit. However, much to their delight, the Port received eight bids.

Among the seven bids they reviewed (one group dropped out); the Port chose a group dubbed the Los Angeles Waterfront Alliance to earn the right of negotiating a development deal with them. In my opinion, it was a great choice.

The lead member of the group is real estate developer Wayne Ratkovich. I first became familiar with Ratkovich when I noticed his name on the Wiltern Center in the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood where I lived in the late ‘80s. I became interested because I automatically assumed that with his “ich” last name, he must share my Croatian heritage, but I later found out he was actually Serbian (can’t win them all).

Our ethnic differences aside, I experienced firsthand the positive effect of Ratkovich’s redevelopment of the Wiltern. It created a great place in my neighborhood to see a concert in a grand music venue, or eat dinner and have drinks in hip restaurant establishments. It became a must-visit destination for me and tons of my friends that lived and worked throughout Los Angeles and Hollywood.

I later learned that Ratkovich has a great reputation for redeveloping places that had seen better days, but doing so without losing the authenticity of what made those places special in the first place. I’m excited and can’t wait to see how he and his team will make Ports O’ Call new again while giving a nod to the heritage of our waterfront and community.

Ratkovich’s local partners on the project, the Johnson brothers, Eric and Alan, are also fantastic choices. Their company, Jerico Development owns several properties in downtown San Pedro that both retain historical authenticity and are well kept. Ask the business owners that occupy their buildings and you will learn that these are great guys that deeply care about our town and do their part to contribute to the shared success of the downtown community. For example, Alan’s wife, Liz, runs Grand Vision, the non-profit that played the lead role in the restoration and administration of the Warner Grand Theatre.

Congratulations to the Port and to the Los Angeles Waterfront Alliance. I, and all of San Pedro, can’t wait to see you make Ports O’ Call great again. spt

Jack Baric can be reached at jackbaric@hotmail.com.

San Pedro’s Living Treasures

On March 1, the San Pedro Historic Downtown Waterfront District will host the Living Treasures Dinner at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown San Pedro, kicking off the year-long celebration of our port town’s 125th anniversary. While there are plenty of living treasures in San Pedro who could be on this list, the following select few are being honored for their contributions to our community.

(photos by Joleen D'Rage)

Jean Wilder

Jean Acalin Wilder has lived her entire life in San Pedro. She was born in 1928 to Italian and Dalmatian parents. She lives in a beautiful 100-year old Craftsman house built in 1913 that has a spectacular view of the Cabrillo Beach breakwater. The home sits on two lots in the Point Fermin area that was given to her husband’s family by George H. Peck, one of San Pedro’s notable real estate developers. Jean and her husband, Charles Wilder Jr., had six children together – five boys and one girl, all of which were born at the old, brick, San Pedro Hospital.


Joe Marino

Joe Marino moved to San Pedro with his family from Rockford, Ill., at the age of 13. Marino, a Sicilian, has lived in town now for more than 72 years, and says he’s “in love with the town of San Pedro and the community at large, as the community has come together to make this a great place to work and live.” Marino spent 48 years as an educator and worked as a local elementary school teacher for 10 years –at Leland, White Point, and Crestwood – and as a school administrator for 25 years. After retiring from the LAUSD, Marino mentored college students studying to be schoolteachers at Cal State Dominguez Hills in 1992, and did so for 13 years. Marino was honored as LAUSD’s Principal of the Year in 1987 and was Honorary Mayor of San Pedro from 1988-1989. Joe is married to his lovely wife, Marian. Together they have two children and three grandchildren.

Harry Hall

Harry Hall will celebrate his 100th birthday this June, which makes Harry and the Angel’s Gate Lighthouse the exact same age. Born and raised in San Pedro, Hall’s parents came from Swedish immigrant families that settled in Minnesota. Hall made it to San Pedro when his family moved there in 1905. At age 9, Harry fell in love with the violin after a salesman knocked on the family door selling violin lessons. This love would lead Hall to become a professional violinist and teacher, teaching lessons at Vine’s Music, Compton College and a private studio in Palos Verdes Estates, just to name a few. He even conducted a 2,000-violin orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in 1948. Hall married two times, and is twice widowed, but says he feels blessed to have had two wives who both shared his passion for music and his love of San Pedro. Amazingly, Hall is still playing the violin around town. You can find him at such as the Harbor Terrace Retirement Community, First United Methodist Church and a downtown favorite, The Whale and Ale.


Anne Gusha

You can still find Anne Gusha behind the counter of Williams’ Book Store on 6th Street in downtown San Pedro. At 93-years-old (and still counting), the Seattle-born Gusha is best known as the current owner of the historic, and historically independent, bookstore. Soon after she was born, she moved to San Pedro from Washington with her Croatian family in 1920. Gusha first stepped foot in the bookstore when she was eight. In 1941, Gusha began working at the store for then-owner Ethel Williams. When Williams retired in 1980, Gusha and her son, Jerry, took over the store, calling it their own. Gusha has spent much of her time on philanthropic causes, such as Soroptomist International, Los Angeles Harbor, and has worked hard to promote literacy and women’s issues. Anne was married in 1945 and has three children.


Muriel Olguin

Muriel Olguin says that San Pedro “was the best place to raise kids and build careers while living in one of the most beautiful places.” Born in our port town in 1923, Olguin, 89, bounced around the Harbor Area before settling in San Pedro, where she’s lived for the past 65 years. Her life with her late husband, John Olguin, was the stuff of legend and romance novels, and was chronicled in San Pedro Today columnist Jack Baric‘s San Pedro documentary, Port Town, where the couple’s love of sleeping outside under the stars and rowing their 15-foot rowboat to the Isthmus at the West End of Catalina Island was featured. An artist and philanthropist, Olguin completed a Master of Arts degree in 1958, at a time when “mothers didn’t go to college with children and a husband at home,” she says. She was a founding member of the Angel’s Gate Cultural Center, the Rembrandt Crew that started the Palos Verdes Art Center, and with other artists, The Loft in downtown San Pedro. Both Muriel and John Olguin, for the majority of their lives, have immensely and unselfishly contributed to San Pedro and the surrounding communities. Together they had three children and a very active home life in San Pedro.


Matty Domancich

Kuzma Domancich, best known around town as “Matty,” is as true a San Pedran as they come. Born of Croatian parents and raised in San Pedro for the past 90 years, Matty remains one of San Pedro’s greatest, active, goodwill ambassadors. Domancich founded and became the first President of San Pedro High School’s Pirate Booster Club in 1958, an all-volunteer, fundraising organization originally established to provide moral and monetary support to some of the high school’s athletes and their needs. Today, it has expanded its support to include all SPHS sports, academic clubs, theater arts and many other campus-sponsored activities. It is also believed to be the LAUSD’s oldest booster club. Domancich also served as a past Honorary Mayor of San Pedro from 1989-1991 and is a past “Exalted Ruler” of the San Pedro Elks Lodge. If you’re old enough, you may remember Domancich’s two Shell Gas Stations – one on Gaffey St. and the other on Pacific Ave. After Shell told him to stop providing full-service to his customers, Domancich became angry, immediately closed-up shop, and went on to open the Bike Palace. Today, you can find Domancich selling historic photos of San Pedro with the proceeds going to the San Pedro Elks Lodge, who in turn funds scholarships for local students. Domancich was married to his late wife Mary and they had one daughter.


Goldeen Kaloper

Goldeen Kaloper turns 96 this month. Born in Zlarin, Croatia, Kaloper came to the United States with her family at the young age of 12, first settling in Seattle, Wash. In 1942, Kaloper met her second husband and they moved to San Pedro. Both were widows with small infants at the time, and built a long and happy marriage of 65 years. Together, they had five children. She was one of the “cannery girls” and worked there for 24 years. The Kaloper home was a center for hospitality, especially for fishermen whose families were still back in the “old country.” God and family are the two most important things in Kaloper’s life. She believes this is what makes San Pedro great – as long as people have a deep faith, and love for their families, problems can be solved. She says the secret to a long life is, “Eat healthy, wish good for everyone, and God bless my children who take care of me!”


Thelma Gatlin

Thelma Gatlin was born in Shreveport, La. on July 15, 1924. Born Thelma Johnson, she was one of 18 children. Gatlin moved to San Pedro in 1942 to work in the shipyards during World War II. She soon married John Gatlin in 1944 and had they had children. At 88 years of age, Thelma is still very active in the community and serves on several boards, including the Toberman executive board and First Neighborhood Council in San Pedro. In the past, Gatlin served on the first board for the Central Neighborhood Council, and was one of the first recipients of the YWCA’s “Racial Justice Award.” She has also served as the President of the San Pedro YWCA board, President of the Women Church United, Vice President of the Republican Club in San Pedro. Today, you can find Gatlin as an active member of Ocean View Baptist Church.


Helen DiMaggio

Helen DiMaggio is 94-years-old and the wife of the late Neno DiMaggio. Half Mexican and half Croatian, she is the daughter of Andrew & Mary Fistonich who founded Star Fisheries Inc. in 1921. After her father Andrew passed away, her husband Neno assumed leadership of the company. With her husband at the helm, DiMaggio worked behind the scenes for 39 years, along with her sister, Anita Mardesich, who continued in the family business with subsidiary, American Fisheries. DiMaggio has been active in many community groups including San Pedro Peninsula Cancer Guild, Little Sisters of the Poor Auxiliary, the Assistance League of San Pedro, Mary Star of the Sea Church and Holy Trinity Church. She is past president of the prestigious Rotary Ann’s and was an active member of the former Women’s Chamber of Commerce.


Nicoletta “Nikky” Troy

Born in San Pedro on January 12, 1924, 89-year old Nicoletta Troy grew up with four siblings, speaking both Greek and English. Nikki was born at one of the Papadakis family homes, by the help of a midwife, and is cousin to San Pedro community leader, John Papadakis, former owner of Papadakis Taverna. She began working at the age of 12 at her father’s restaurant on Beacon Street, known as the City Hall Café. At just 4′ 10″ tall, she fondly remembers standing on a box in the kitchen to cook hamburgers and hot dogs for their customers. She worked side-by-side with her father until she graduated high school and continued working as a waitress throughout her adult years, at restaurants such as The Fireside, a carhop located on the corner of 6th St. and Gaffey, Cigo’s Restaurant on 9th St. and Pacific, and the legendary Ante’s, from which she retired at age 75.

 

Florence Collins
(no picture available at press time)

Ninety-eight-years-old and still going strong, Florence Collins was born in San Pedro to Italian/Ischian parents on May 28, 1914. She attended Fifth Street School, San Pedro’s original elementary school, which was located where the San Pedro Courthouse sits today. Florence was also in the first graduating class of Dana Middle School. A young wife and mother during the Great Depression, she and her husband, Bill Collins, lived on 9th St., which at the time was referred to as “Dago Flats.” Her husband was a sailor stationed with the Pacific Fleet in San Pedro, which was eventually moved to Pearl Harbor before WWII. His ship, the USS West Virginia, was sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For two weeks, Collins did not know whether or not her husband had survived. It turns out Bill was knocked unconscious below deck, but was carried up top by a fellow crew member and thrown overboard, which saved his life. Collins has been a lifelong member of Mary Star of the Sea Church, and has several dozen grandchildren, great grand-children and great, great grandchildren, almost all of whom still reside in San Pedro.

An Ancestral Adventure

Greg Vitalich (left) and his long lost cousin Steve Vitalich stand atop a hillside in Komiza, Croatia on the island of Vis. (photo provided by Greg Vitalich)

As a child, all I knew were the Croatian curse words.

While I possessed a very “San Pedro-like” last name ending in “ich,” the extent of my exposure to Croatian culture was limited to my grandfathers’ cooking during the holidays, those choice curse words, and infrequent visits to San Pedro’s legendary Croatian restaurant Ante’s. My disconnection to my Croatian ancestry led to several awkward, albeit humorous, moments.

Life in San Pedro meant knowing many friends who grew up in households where the primary language was Croatian, Italian, Spanish or even Greek. It was common for friends to frequently visit the Old Country and enjoy staying with relatives. I was always intrigued by how deeply ingrained and important many of my friends’ ancestral heritage and culture were in their modern lives. Perhaps I was a bit envious, but mostly these observations simply drove my curiosity to learn and discover more about my own family history. Little did I know that this curiosity would lead to an amazing journey of discovery, new friendships, a magical adventure abroad, and a definitive silencing of that nagging sense of disconnection.

Sometimes negative events or experiences act as catalysts that inspire us to do something productive and positive. Not long after my 100% Croatian paternal grandfather Andrew and my father Andrew Jr. both passed away just four months apart, I sadly realized what a lost opportunity it was to not seek out more of their memories, stories, and insights about their life experiences and our family history. Although priceless family history had been lost forever, I still wondered if I could still discover and learn. When did my Croatian ancestors make their courageous voyage to America? Who were they? Why did they leave? How was “cousin so and so” and I related? It was time for me to take action and begin exploring my Croatian roots to find these answers.

In 2009, I decided to research my genealogy by signing up with Ancestry.com. I quickly discovered many interesting facts that answered many of my initial questions. My great grandfather Joseph Vitalich (Vitaljic) had emigrated from Croatia (then part of Austria) in 1903 and settled in Tacoma, Wash. Over the next decade, his siblings followed him to Tacoma. Joseph and his Croatian immigrant wife Lucy moved to San Pedro around 1919, presumably for the opportunity provided by the tremendous growth of the tuna industry in the area. Now I was getting somewhere. Fact after fact poured in as I continued my online research. History was coming alive as I laid my eyes on fascinating documents like census records, World War registration cards, and naturalization applications. I was gaining a wonderful perspective on how my family history mirrored the classic American immigrant story.

In Dec. 2009, I received an email from a guy in Seattle named Steve Vitalich. Steve had decided to reach out to me after viewing my family tree on Ancestry.com and determining that we were cousins. Turns out his grandfather Louie was brothers with my great grandfather Joseph. We were indeed second cousins. In an interesting twist, Steve had coincidentally begun researching his family ancestry at about the same time I had. His genealogical curiosity was piqued after receiving several messages of condolences after a person he didn’t know named Vitalich had passed away. Steve had also felt that sense of disconnection with his Croatian roots and had finally decided to sign up with Ancestry.com to get some answers.

Steve and I began communicating frequently and filling in each other’s gaps in family research. Then in a scene right out of a Harry Potter movie, Steve discovered an old shoebox in his attic that belonged to his aunt labeled “Vitalich Family Archives.” The box contained several letters from Croatia to relatives in America, the 1940 death certificate of my great great grandfather Andrija who had lived and died in Croatia, and several remarkable black and white photographs of Andrija’s funeral procession and burial in Komiza, Croatia. Thanks to Steve’s meticulous research utilizing rented microfilmed birth, marriage, and death records obtained from his local Mormon Family History Center; we were slowly able to identify Croatian ancestors back to the early 1700s.

Steve and I finally met for the first time when he visited San Pedro in the spring of 2011. I gave Steve the grand tour, taking care to weave in San Pedro’s fishing history with that of our family. We also squeezed in time to visit family burial sites at Green Hills Memorial Park and at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles where many Catholics from San Pedro had been laid to rest in the early part of the 20th century.

The highlight of Steve’s visit was our family feast at Ante’s Restaurant celebrating my brother Mike’s birthday. Steve had never experienced Croatian food before and was in wide-eyed in amazement when he realized the giant painted mural on the restaurant wall was our ancestral home – the tiny island fishing village of Komiza located on the island of Vis. The friendly waitress happened to be from Vis and she enthusiastically shared some wonderful memories about her early years and life on the island. Then the jovial owner, the late Tony Perkov, came by to say hello. Soon I was the one in wide-eyed amazement as Tony began recalling several entertaining stories involving him and my grandfather. Remarkably, Tony even remembered my great grandfather Joseph sitting in his wheelchair mending fishing nets down by the tuna boats circa 1950. This was the first time I could recall hearing any story about Joseph.

In July 2011, I travelled to Seattle to visit Steve. We visited an abandoned building in downtown Seattle where Steve’s grandfather Louie had started a successful bowling alley. We also took an interesting drive to nearby Tacoma where our ancestors had first settled in America. Tacoma is very similar to San Pedro in that it is a port town with a rich history of Croatian immigrant fishermen. Tacoma even has a Slavonian Hall. (How many towns have one of those?) Another interesting highlight was visiting a remarkably well-preserved 120-year-old two-bedroom cottage located in a well-kept historical residential district. My great grandparents and great aunt and uncle had once lived there together circa 1917.

I also met for the first time my other long lost cousin, Steve’s sister Andrea. It wasn’t long before the three of us over a bottle of wine expressed an interest in planning a trip to experience Croatia. Let’s take this family history thing all the way, we proclaimed. The table had been set for the next phase of our genealogical adventure.

The Motherland

In October 2012, the three of us embarked to Croatia. Although our itinerary included fascinating Croatian destinations such as the capital city of Zagreb, the coastal towns of Zadar and Split, the extraordinary natural beauty of Plitvice Lakes National Park (the Yosemite of Croatia), and the amazing walled fortress city of Dubrovnik, our mecca would clearly be Komiza since at least six generations of relatives had called this island village home.

As we stepped off the ferry onto the island of Vis we were overcome with surrealism. How cool was this? After decades of hearing vague family references to Komiza, years of online and field research, meeting long lost cousins Steve and Andrea, and months of planning our travel, we were now walking in the footsteps of our ancestors.

Komiza has a special connection with San Pedro. Thousands of San Pedrans can trace their roots back to this sleepy fishing town of perhaps 700 people. This fact couldn’t have been any clearer than upon arrival at our first destination, the Komiza cemetery. Walking in the shadow of Komiza’s main landmark the St. Nikola church, the names inscribed on the graves were quite familiar: Bjazavic, Bogdanovic, Bozanic, Mardesic, Marinkovic, Stanojevic, Vidovic, Zuanic. Was I reading a San Pedro yearbook or walking around Komiza?

I had this naive expectation that we would find a cool gothic headstone with a large “Vitaljic” inscribed on it, say hello and give our respects at the burial site, and then pose for some memorable photographs. Not to be. We did find some Vitaljic graves but not those of our particular bloodline. We knew it was unlikely to find any current living relatives in Komiza; they had left for America long ago. So we were determined to at least find our deceased Komiza relatives. Wandering the quiet cemetery confused as how to find our relative’s gravesites, I decided to approach the only other person I saw. Hoping the gentleman would understand at least some English, I hesitantly greeted him and explained in slow simple English our dilemma. He responded, “Oh hey, I’m Frank Biazevich. I live in Everett, Wash. but am moving back to Komiza, it’s where I grew up. Vitalich? You from San Pedro?”

What were the odds?

Steve and Andrea trekked 6,000 miles from Seattle to Komiza and the first person they meet lives just 30 miles from them. The four of us enjoyed a friendly chat. Frank gave us his phone number and promised to ask around for any information about our family. He also recommended we travel across the island to Vis Town to visit the Registration Office where the old public records were kept that might help in our ancestral quest.

The next morning, we eagerly walked into the musty Registration Office. We were fortunate that the first person we encountered was a nice lady who spoke decent English and was quite willing to help. After we explained that we were from the U.S. and looking for our Komiza family records she perked up and smiled; rose up out of her squeaky chair and immediately walked over to a large cabinet full of old records. In another Harry Potter movie moment, she pulled out this enormous book that looked hundreds of years old, blew off an inch of dust, and began slowly turning 150-year-old pages of crinkly parchment. Within minutes we were gazing at small handwritten birth, baptismal, marriage and death records of our ancestors. It was an amazing moment. I felt like Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code pouring over century old secret manuscripts. Steve and I enthusiastically posed with the heavy book for a photo and we graciously thanked the office lady for her help. I then asked forgiveness for not asking earlier for her name. “My name is Sanja Fiamengo”, she replied. Of course, it was another familiar San Pedro last name.

Without public records to dig into during the weekend, we immersed ourselves in exploring Komiza and the surrounding parts of the island. Because the island of Vis was off limits during the Cold War due to its strategic military location, Komiza has been fairly untouched by commercialization. Komiza did welcome an increasing number of sun loving tourists in the summer. But the pace of life here was generally super slow-motion, posted store hours were more like vague estimates, the food and wine were excellent, the natural beauty of the place inspiring, soothing, peaceful.

We wanted to avoid the tourist season in order to experience a Komiza more like what our ancestors would have recognized. Mission accomplished. It was usually quiet enough at any point in the day to hear goats and donkeys chatter blocks away from our apartment balcony.

We walked the Riva, the main street along the shoreline where all the fishing boats were moored, and explored all the small narrow side streets and beaches of Komiza many times over to soak it all in. It became a running joke that almost every single person we met had the same reaction; “Vitalich? You from San Pedro?” Then they would suggest we meet a guy in town named Frank who could help us with our research. Yes, the same Frank who was the very first person we had met by chance that first day at the cemetery.

On Monday, we rejoined the quest to find our relatives gravesite. We eventually confirmed my theory; the grave was there but unmarked. A cemetery worker graciously gave us a ride from town to the cemetery and showed us the exact location. A blank headstone was not terribly unusual; people were poor and couldn’t always afford an engraving. It crossed my mind to pay for an inscription right then and there. The guy who drove us to the cemetery happened to also be the one who actually did the inscribing. I decided to hold off on the engraving, as I wanted to be certain that adding an engraving to the headstone wouldn’t unintentionally encroach on any customs or beliefs I wasn’t aware of.

Then & Now photographs of the Komiza cemetary where Greg Vitalich’s great great grandfather Andrija Vitalich was buried.



Our five wonderful days in Komiza felt like a trip back in time. We left Komiza to spend another week along the scenic and spectacular Croatian coast in Split and Dubrovnik. Steve, Andrea and I enjoyed our last night at an outdoor pub in Dubrovnik where after three days of being pub regulars the friendly bartenders had come to memorize each of our drinks of choice. After two weeks immersed in Croatian culture we had become old pros at socializing with the locals, especially servers and bartenders. Steve had studied up on his Croatian in preparation for the trip and was particularly impressive, drawing compliments from many natives during our journey.

Ask, Listen, Learn

We had experienced life in Croatia as best as any novice Croats from America could do. While we certainly learned much about our heritage, we had also grown to know each other better. Steve and I certainly got along great, but Andrea and I hadn’t really known each other at all prior to this trip. Within days we had become best buds hanging out into the wee morning hours at smoky Croatian dive bars blaring Guns N’ Roses to “Gangnam Style.” Casual bonds between distant cousins had evolved into closer relationships.

This adventure was only possible because two people in far away cities were curious enough to begin researching their family history. Genealogy brings history to life. It helps us gain perspective on where we came from and who we are. When we learn about our own family’s past, we make better connections to the broader history taught in school. Our past becomes more relevant to our present.

A final dinner in Dubrovnik with long lost cousins Steve and Andrea (photos provided by Greg Vitalich)

I urge everyone to research their past; even if it only means simply talking to your parents and grandparents about their lives. Do it before it’s too late. Listen to them, ask questions, learn. I certainly have much more to learn about my ancestry and heritage, but that nagging feeling of disconnection has been replaced with a solid sense of accomplishment. I had taken a giant leap towards understanding and experiencing my Croatian ancestry. The memories of this amazing journey and the friendships that grew between cousins who hadn’t even known each other just four years ago will now last a lifetime. spt