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The Last Word: You Can Go Home Again


I can blame it on Martha Duell.

I never knew my father, and was I raised being told by my mother that my last name was Italian-American. I never noticed that Chavonne did not fit with the Musselwhites, Dallases and Lancasters sprinkled throughout the Massey Hill mill villages. And, to be honest, I never spent a moment worrying about it.

But that all changed in 1972 with the release of The Godfather. Marlon Brando made being Italian special and having a name that ended in a vowel suddenly became hip. I walked the halls of school with a little more bravado, extending lots of people “offers they couldn’t refuse.” I rode that wave through the releases of the Godfather movies and even got some Rocky Balboa thrown in for good measure. I gained a new appreciation for all things pasta and even red wine started to have some appeal. It was a great time to be Italian-American.

Or so I thought.

The first real challenge to my proud new heritage presented itself when I was elected mayor. Fayetteville enjoys a sister-city relationship with St. Avold, France and has many French-born people living here. Martha Duell, a proud daughter of France, was convinced that my name was French and not Italian. Martha was a powerful force in our community, and her strong arguments made me begin to question my heritage for the first time.

My wife Joanne and I led a local delegation to visit St. Avold in 2010, and during our trip there we visited a small town with a population of 192 in the middle of France actually named Chavonne. We had hopes to visit with the mayor there and was surprised when, upon finally finding the town hall, we discovered his office hour was 3 – 4 p.m. on Wednesdays. We were indeed a long way from home.

Finding Chavonne in France challenged my lifelong beliefs. Perhaps my mother, who we had lost a few years earlier, was mistaken and Martha Duell’s strong feelings were correct. Even croissants suddenly began to look more appetizing. My thoughts were torn; should I pursue the truth? Was I ready for where that might take me, including finding out more about a family I never knew? And how would I do it even if I wanted to?

We have all seen the Ancestry ads on television with the guy dressed in lederhosen who ended up being Scottish rather than German. Perhaps that was what could happen to me. I decided to take the DNA test and find out for sure. A tube of saliva and a few weeks later I had the answer – 54 percent Italian. That not only answered the question of my heritage but also revealed that I was likely to have a recent immigrant from Italy in my family.

Once you take the Ancestry DNA test, they begin to share the results anonymously with other people who share similar DNA. That is where the fun and excitement began for me and our sons, the next generation of Chavonnes. A few weeks after receiving my results, we started to receive emails from people the DNA test had identified as relatives. A few stressful but exciting phone calls later, we found that I have lots of relatives in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Sadly, my father is deceased, but there is no shortage of cousins and other relatives to learn about. While they pronounce their name the same way we do, they spell it “Schiavone.”

These newfound family members led us to our goal, finding our family’s roots in Italy. Our discussions ultimately revealed that my grandfather has immigrated from Castelfranci, a small town outside Naples. Soon we discovered that other family members, including my great-grandfather, had been born there as well.

Last summer we made a trip to Castelfranci. In a scene reminiscent of Vito’s return to Corleone with his family in The Godfather II, my entire family, including our sons and their wives, visited Castelfranci and its rolling hills filled with luscious vineyards. We had the opportunity to meet Adele Schiavone, who had previously reached out to me on Facebook, and who we now claim as some sort of distant cousin. We spent hours with other residents of Castelfranci to review the information we had gleaned from our Ancestry search and tried to reconstruct the family members that had immigrated from Italy as Schiavone, settled in America, and had found their way to Fayetteville, North Carolina, as Chavonne.

We walked the streets where my great-grandfather and grandfather worked as shoemakers and saw the houses where they were born. We found dozens of Schiavones and formed relationships that continue to help us in with our ongoing search for additional family members.

The impact of the Coronavirus in Italy has been overwhelming. The Schiavones in Castelfranci, like much of Italy, have been quarantined since early March. Those actions are devastating for a small rural community with a limited local economy. We anxiously await each new email and rush to Google to translate it for news of their current status. Suddenly the world seems a smaller place when you put a name and a face on the people you hear about on the nightly news.

Maybe that is the real story of this journey. Through name changes, different languages, the discovery of new families, and the challenges of a new disease, we find that we are all truly connected on this planet of ours.

North Carolina’s own Thomas Wolfe once wrote “You can’t go home again.” But with today’s technology, the magic of a movie, the challenges of a strong French woman, and a little nerve yes, you can.