Lives touched by Rosecrance: After 70 years, a gift of family
In 2016, Rosecrance will celebrate its 100th anniversary — and we want your help. If you have stories, photos or memories related to Rosecrance that you’d like to share, please contact Communications Director Judy Emerson at 815.387.5605 or email her at email@example.com
Note: This is an expanded version of the feature story that appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Rosecrance’s Reach magazine.
By Judy Emerson
Perhaps it was only for a matter of days in 1940 that a 3-year-old boy named Biagio and a 9-month-old baby named Frank were residents at the same time of the old Rockford Children’s Home on Longwood Street.
Circumstances would take Frank and Biagio on different life journeys, and it would be more than 70 years before their stories merged again when they discovered they are brothers.
Biagio Cacciatore – called “Billy” back then – was brought to Rockford Children’s Home in 1937 as a tiny infant. He remained at the orphanage until he was 7, when he was transferred to the Rosecrance Memorial Home for Children in New Milford. A few years later, possibly because he ran away so much, young Biagio was sent to St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Freeport to do the rest of his growing up.
Biagio would have been living at the Rockford orphanage in 1940 when baby Frank was surrendered for adoption. Right away, he was placed for adoption with a stable local couple, Ruth and Clarence Beach. They gave Frank their name and raised him alongside their three biological children.
The story of Frank and Biagio begins with an arranged marriage in the mid-1930s between their biological mother, Angelina Markese, and Vincenzo Cacciatore. Angelina was a 17-year-old girl of Italian heritage from Kenosha, WI, and Vincenzo was a Sicilian immigrant more than twice her age. Vincenzo was Biagio’s father.
Growing up in orphanages
“The marriage never worked, maybe because of cultural differences or the age difference,” said Biagio, now 76and living in northern California. “So, when I was an infant — one, two or three months old — I was placed in Rockford Children’s Home.”
Vincenzo retained custody of the boy after the couple separated, but he worked and couldn’t care for Biagio. Still, Vincenzo remained involved in his son’s life to a degree. Biagio recalled that his father would occasionally take him out of the orphanage to live briefly with him, aunts and uncles or friends, or to visit relatives on holidays. Biagio lived for a short time with an aunt in Brooklyn, NY, and visited relatives in Ottawa, IL, and Rockford. After these visits, the boy was always returned to one of the orphanages.
At age 7, Biagio was placed at the Rosecrance Memorial Home for Children, where he lived for about three years along with 9 or 10 other boys.
The caretaker created a family-like environment, even though life was highly structured. Everyone had chores and they ate and played together. They went to church and school and summer camp. Still, with boys going in and out of the home frequently, Biagio said, it was clearly an orphanage and the boys experienced very little affection. He got along well with the other boys, but he doesn’t remember any of their names. (To read Biago Cacciatore’s recollections of the Rosecrance home, click here.)
He remembers frequently leaving the home at night through the second-floor fire escape chute attached to the outer wall of his upstairs bedroom. He’d walk up to 10 miles to where his dad was living in Rockford, only to be returned to the orphanage when his dad could arrange it.
From the ages of about 10 to 13, Biagio lived at St. Vincent’s in Freeport, still running away now and then. At age 16,he dropped out Lincoln Jr. High School three months before finishing the 9th grade. He was older than most other students in his class because his schooling had been erratic due to numerous moves. He remembers repeating the 6th grade. After leaving school, he took care of himself and lived on and off with his father.
He joined the U.S. Air Force at age 17, serving four years on active duty and four years of inactive duty.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Biagio said.
Biagio completed all but one semester of his education in the military by going to night school. He took the GED test and received his high school diploma from Rockford’s West High School.
The military trained him to be a dental hygienist and X-ray technician. He was stationed at a military hospital in England. Returning to the states, Biagio made a career in commercial insurance, starting out with Monumental Life in Rockford and working through the years in Boston, Oak Brook, IL, and San Francisco. He was successful enough to retire at age 61.
Along the way, he met and married his wife Edith in 1966. They just celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary. They have a son who has a doctorate in neuroscience who lives with his family in England. Biagio and Edith have a 3-year-old grandson.
They live now by a lagoon on beautiful property in Marin County, CA, where they enjoy watching wildlife and traveling.
Frank’s persistent daughter
Frank calls himself “blessed” to have been adopted by the Beaches, solid citizens who were foster parents to almost 40 children during their marriage and who were deeply involved in the work of the Salvation Army.
“My mom told me from as young as I can remember that I was adopted,” said Frank, now 73. “When I graduated from high school, she told me she could probably get me in contact with my biological mother if I wanted, but it didn’t mean anything to me at that time.
“I never wanted to hurt her feelings.”
And that is what he told one of his daughters, Jodi, who began asking him about finding his biological family more than a decade ago. Jodi Beach is a Rockford-based singer, musician, actor and recording artist.
“He would always say, ‘As long as my (adoptive) mother is alive, I will never pursue it,’” Jodi said recently. “And there wasn’t a real need to know for any other reason than curiosity.”
Ruth Beach, Frank’s adoptive mother and Jodi’s grandmother, died in 2001. Jodi was busy with teaching and her music career. It wasn’t until the Illinois General Assembly passed a law in 2010 allowing some adopted adults easy access to their original birth certificates that Jodi approached the subject again with her dad. She helped him order his birth certificate from the Illinois Department of Public Health.
It arrived in the mail on Dec. 17, 2010. For the first time, Frank saw the name of his biological mother. He saw that Angelina Markese also had given birth to a son in 1937. Frank’s father is unknown.
It took Jodi only a couple of hours on a computer to locate Angelina’s obituary – she had died a month before Ruth Beach, Frank’s adoptive mother. The obituary yielded the name and city of residence of Frank’s half-brother, Biagio Cacciatore. The telephone number was easy to find.
With her dad’s permission, Jodi made the call.
“Biagio answered the phone, and I realized I had no idea what to say,” Jodi said. “I took a breath and said, ‘This is going to sound very strange, but I live in Rockford and my father was adopted, and I believe I identified his birth mother today. If it really was her, then I believe you would be his brother.’”
Biagio and Jodi talked for hours. It turns out that Biagio had reconnected with his mother when he was in his 50s. He knew that he had a younger half-brother younger who was given up for adoption, but he had no way of finding him.
Frank and Biagio were quickly in touch to catch up on family history. Biagio and Edie traveled to Rockford in the summer of 2011 to spend a week with Frank and his wife, Sonja, and their daughters Jodi and Lori.
On one outing during the visit, Frank and Biagio went to New Milford to look at the former Rosecrance Memorial Home for Children, which still stands. After the orphanage closed in the mid-1950s, the home was occupied by the Manzullo family. Former U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo, who once represented Illinois’ 16th Congressional District, lived there when he was a boy, and the home later became Manzullo’s Famous Restaurant, which closed in 2004. Another business now occupies the building.
In an interesting coincidence, Frank Beach is a respected Rockford alderman of 33 years who has been a staunch advocate of Rosecrance’s work in the community. He currently represents the ward that is home to Rosecrance’s long-term recovery home for teen boys.
Biagio decided when he was in his 50s to reach out to his mother, who was living in Michigan. He wrote a letter asking if he could visit. She said “yes” and then, “no.” He waited a few years and one day, while he was on a business trip, he took a detour and dropped in on her.
“She looked through the peephole on her apartment door and I heard a little scream. She recognized immediately who I was,” Biagio said. “She opened the door and we both had a good long cry.
“She said she had felt so guilty. I told her that these things happen, that it was all right, that she was so young and that I realized it just did not work out with my father.”
During that visit, Angelina told Biagio she had something she wanted to show him.
“She went into her bedroom to find her wallet to show me a photo of me, when I was perhaps 3 or 4, that she had carried all these years with her,” Biagio said. “On the back of the photo was written, ‘My son, Billy Cacciatore.’ That small gesture in itself told me how much she loved me.
“She gave it to me, and I will treasure it forever.”
After that, they corresponded by letter and spoke on the telephone. She was 83 when she died in 2001.
“I really regret that she did not know that Frank had been adopted by good parents and that he had a good life. It would have meant so much to her,” Biagio said.
For his part, Frank said, he is filled with an “incredible gratefulness” that his mother allowed him to be adopted when she couldn’t care for him. He only wishes he’d had the opportunity to thank her.
Since discovering his roots, Frank has met his biological mother’s two sisters, one of whom told him: “From the day we found out my sister had given you away, we have been praying for you and asking God to watch over you.”
As for finding his family after all these years, well, “It feels surreal,” Frank said.
“At this point in my life, out of the kindness of the Heavenly Father’s heart, this happens. What a gift.”