Tips on reunion planning

How you plan a reunion intrinsicly relates to the particular family and its history/genealogy. The Agelasto reunion in London, July 2008, was probably the first family gathering of breadth since our forced exodus from Chios, Greece, in 1822. Three of us--Carolyn in London, George in Germany/Greece and myself in China/France--were involved for a year in the events' planning. One of our prime directives was to maximize participation. In developing the genealogy website and tracking down the family, I (with many people's help) had discovered disparate groups of ancestors and their living descendants--some still in Greece, branches in North America and France and the bulk who reside in the UK. The diaspora has left neither bloodline Agelastos nor titled land on Chios. The logical location for the reunion, therefore, was London, and we chose as a date the week or so before British school holidays and folk's departure on vacation.

Planning the reunion conincided with our TNG website development (as well as my getting access to Argenti [cited below] and my retirement from academia). Planning occupied the better part of a year, well over 1000 hours. I'd often approach people by email--having located them on the web-- and once I eventually had their address I would mail out printed invitations (a very professional wedding-type card which George had designed and had printed). The reunion planning and website work reinforced each other. People when contacted would in turn refer me to more and more relatives. Of the hundreds of contacts I made--some barks up the wrong genealogical trees--only two people were hostile and didn't want to be involved; only a handfull never responded to (or perhaps didn't receive) my inquiries. About 80 people attended the reunion; there are over 200 living bloodline Agelastos known to me and who-knows-how-many unknown--certainly as many. More and more people crop up as new branches are being continually discovered.

When I started our website I was fortunate, genealogically speaking, to have two indispensible sources. One was Philip Argenti's Libro d'Oro de la Nobelesse de Chio (London, Oxford University Press, 1955). His data run until the late 1930s; the marriage of my parents in 1938, for example, is included but not the birth of my brother in 1940. An updated Argenti, with corrections, appears on Christopher Long's invaluable website. Initially, I had planned to follow their tradition and track just the Y-chromosome, examining descent through sons--families surnamed Agelasto. At my nephew's urging, however, I have been following blood, not just surname. Chiot families intermarried--even after the diaspora--so whenever an Agelasto girl married into another Chiot family covered by Argenti/Long I was able to track the line--families such as Ziffo, Schilizzi, Mavrogordato, Rodocanachi and Negroponte. In fact, Argenti's Negroponte tree begins with the union of Ambrosios Paul Negroponte and Angela Augustus Agelasto, making all Negroponte descendants bloodline Agelastos. Argenti's Agelasto tree, unfortunately, does not begin until 150 years afterwards so we cannot connect the two trees. Nevertheless, assuming people surnamed Agelasto on Chios were all related, Angela Augustus Agelasto Negroponte was likely the sister of a direct ancestor of Augustus Zannis Agelasto, who resides near the top of Argenti's Agelasto tree.

Working from information provided by the living on their ancestors (my great uncle in the USA responded to Argenti's letter of inquiry from London in the 1930s) as well as chruch, civil and cemetery records, Argenti did an amazing job. We have found mistakes, though. Several children placed with the wrong parents; several other children (and thus their descendants) altogether omitted. We have had some luck with three extant lines of Agelastos--descendants still living in Greece--who were totally omitted by Argenti; all three have connection with Alexandria, Egypt, a city which Argenti largely ignored. Using historical records and family documents, we have made educated guesses and can graft these branches onto Argenti's tree.

As I have just described it, our reunion planning seems almost a subset of the larger genealogical endeavor. The reunion over, the genealogy continues. In fact, participants brought so many photos, documents and information on their relatives, many unknown to me, so that much new work has been generated. As genealogists often note, the living, especially seniors, are an important, much overlooked, source of data. In our case the family reunion has greatly developed our knowledge of our family.

From the start the reunion was to be a simple affair--a Sunday lunch at a Greek restaurant. I figured that booking a restaurant was the first step and, forced to provide a figure, I had estimated 50 attendants (a good round sum), having no idea exactly even how many invitations we would send out. We had printed 200 invitations and probably distributed three-quarters of them. In composing the invitation, we decided to include the Saturday, in the most vague of terms, thus making a weekend event. Saturday activities would be determined by demand, and we suggested a visit to the Greek cemetery, the Greek cathedral and a dinner Saturday night at another Greek restaurant. I began receiving feedback that expressed an interest in services at the Cathedral (a memorial mass, an adolescent serving during Liturgy) as many of the invitees remain devout and Greek Orthodox (unlike the coordinators). The Bishop and his staff were keen, also. Thus, the Cathedral, located in Bayswater, took on a prominent role, not unlike the role it once played in the expat Chiot community in London. Flexible planning (ie, not having a firm schedule) permitted our using the Cathedral as a focal point.

Despite the expense and nuisances of air travel, 40% of the guests flew in from abroad (Greece, Denmark, Slovakia, USA, Canada, New Zealand and France). And somehow people managed to get around London, not one of the world's easiest or cheapest cities to navigate by public transport. We were delayed on the way to the cemetery because Victoria Station ws shut down for an hour's security alert (an unclaimed bag). The subway serving Bayswater, the Circle Line which forms the system's core, was closed the entire reunion weekend for upgrade work. Four years until the Olympics, good luck!

Some details. We printed nametags--absolutely essential. We distributed a table of relationships -- for both the Agelasto tree and the Negroponte-Agelasto tree -- so that each participant could learn his/her relationship with another (A and B are third cousins, once removed; A and D are fifth cousins, etc.). We had a cemetery plan and had identified the location of several family plots; we distributed a listing of an additional 100 graves we were interested in finding; we found more than 20. We printed out and distributed for each reunion participant his/her individual webpage from TNG. Each was asked to provide missing information (for some people we lacked the very basics: date and place of birth, name of children, etc.)

Despite the best laid plans, an organizer should expect to bear some of the unrecoverable costs of a reunion. (One, I guess, could charge admissions--an administrative fee--but that seems to me a bit uncouth, given all the cost and effort demanded from attendees just to attend.) Not just the printing, mailing, phoning, etc. Also, transportation and meals. We booked vans to transport folks from the church to the restaurant and someone (not me) ended up paying for no-shows. Saturday night's dinner was 'each person pay for what s/he eats'. The restaurant's accounting, however, was by dinner table. Relatives who didn't know each other often shared tables (this was good), but by the time everyone paid me and I paid the restaurant what we owed over and above our 1000 deposit, I was still short 350 (this was bad). Those shared appetizers, that communal bottle of wine, the 10% service charge--became my responsibility to pay. Thus, I increased the prix fixe for Sunday's buffet by 5 (20 for adults, 10 for teens, tots for free), so that much of the previous night's loss was eventually recovered. It would have all been recovered if the 'no-shows' had shown up. Exactly how much of a loss remains a secret (i.e., I don't know). In any case you can no more put a price on discovering long-lost relatives than you can price-out a once-in-a-lifetime event, one I wouldn't have missed for the world, at virtually any price.

The biggest gaff was an instance of lousy communications on my part which left the Bishop curbside after Divine Liturgy searching in vain for his promised transport to Sunday's restaurant; the vans had departed while he was changing his vestments and I was busy in the restaurant. Our sincere regrets, your Grace.

Otherwise, the reunion went well. There is interest in a trip to Chios next year as well as an ongoing effort to maintain West Norwood Cemetery and prevent it from further decay. As for the next reunion, that's up to the next generation.

Michael Agelasto

August 2008