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For two families, ties go beyond marriage

By most measures, the Markello-Munson family is remarkable.

The children of poor immigrants from Sicily, three of the five Markello brothers who survived to adulthood became physicians. The other two earned doctorates.

The Munsons were an equally poor family with 12 children, and four of the brothers also earned doctorates.

All five of the Markello brothers have been married for 50 years or longer. James and Rhea Markello celebrated 64 years last week.

Six of the Munsons also celebrated their golden wedding anniversaries, and one missed that event by one week when her husband died.

But perhaps most incredible, three of the Markello brothers married Munson sisters. And two of those three Markello-Munson marriages were between doctors and nurses.

If all of that weren’t enough, the parents of the Munson brood, June Fenstemacher and Ray Munson, had siblings who married into each other’s families.

The tale of the families, who grew up in North Collins, would make a great book.

“I joke that we had to marry each other because we were the two big North Collins families,” said Grace Munson Markello, part of one of the doctor-nurse pairings. She will celebrate 64 years of marriage with Ross Markello in August.

“But there were a lot of big families in North Collins at that time,” she added.

More than 160 members – ranging from infants to age 94 – of the combined families gathered Saturday for a reunion at the Eden home of a relative. They pored over a complicated family tree, renewed friendships with double cousins, and marveled at the professional and personal accomplishments of the two large families.

“We all knew each other so well, and our families were so intertwined,” Rhea Munson Markello said. “We did so many things together in the church, school and community, which had only about 1,500 people at that time.”

‘We didn’t have a lot’

Both families had humble beginnings. The patriarch of the Markello family, Rosario Markello, was born in Sicily on July 4, 1893. He came to Western New York as a young man with an uncle, but returned home to serve in the Italian army during World War I. He was captured by the Germans and held as a POW, then returned to Sicily after the war ended. At 26, he married Carmela Todaro, 15. When he brought his bride to the United States in 1921, she was 16, pregnant and spoke no English. He changed his name to Ross, and the family settled in Clymer, where he worked for the railroad.

“My parents were poor, uneducated immigrants,” James Markello said. “So for them, education was extremely important.”

Almost as important as schooling was hard work. After the family moved to North Collins, the children assisted farmers.

“We have a wonderful picture of the three boys who became doctors with bags of beans on their backs,” Grace Munson Markello said.

“We didn’t have a lot, we struggled, we had goals and we attained those,” said James Markello.

Although he inspired his children to pursue higher education, the Markello patriarch died at age 56 and never saw most of their success.

The parents of the 12 Munson children, Ray Munson and June Fenstemacher, married in rural Pennsylvania when he was 20 and she was 17. When the first children were young, the couple became deeply involved in the Pentecostal religion. With Ray Munson building churches and occasionally preaching, they moved to Tonawanda and then to North Collins.

The oldest daughter, Irene, was valedictorian of her high school class and then started working at Remington Rand in Buffalo.

“My parents were very religious, and my father didn’t even want us to go to college,” Grace Munson Markello said. “My older sisters didn’t even consider college a possibility, but Rhea was determined to go into nursing.”

Irene, Marie and Rhea helped support their mother, who was pregnant with her 12th child when Ray Munson left the family to go on a religious mission to another state. He was gone for more than two years.

“My mother was a wonderful mother, born maternal and with wisdom that you can’t find in books,” Grace Munson Markello said. “My father was kind of a romantic.”

Her sister Irene – who, at 94, was the oldest person at the reunion – “says she is just so thrilled to have lived long enough to see all us kids become productive citizens,” Grace said.

Grace Munson and Ross Markello started going out when they were 15, but the first Markello-Munson pair to marry was Rhea and Jim.

In high school, Rhea Munson was friends with her future husband’s sister Nina, but not Jim.

In fact, she said, “we were sort of competitive” academically.

“Our classmates, at later reunions, were surprised that Jim and I ended up getting married,” she said.

In early 1962, The Buffalo Evening News ran an article about the medical Markello couples. The photo showed the three brother doctors in white coats and the three registered nurses from the Millard Fillmore School of Nursing – two of them sisters – in starched caps.

The final doctor-nurse pair is Anthony Markello and Nancy Hammond Markello, who will celebrate 61 years of marriage in October. Nancy also grew up in North Collins and knew both families from school and church.

‘I just followed suit’

Although several of the couples will celebrate wedding anniversaries this summer, Saturday’s party focused on the youngest of the Markello-Munson couples, Samuel and June, who will celebrate their 50th anniversary in August.

“I just followed suit” after her older sisters married Markellos, June said.

The couple also went into medical fields. Samuel has a doctorate in epidemiology, and June is a dental hygienist. Samuel made the transition to his field later in life with the help and encouragement of his wife and the rest of the family.

“I think there’s a ‘let’s get it done’ approach” to the professional achievements, Sam said. “We each have our strengths. Each of us also had one or two people who were influential in our lives, who encouraged us.”

The Markello and Munson families each lost a young son.

Joseph Markello was 20 and a pilot in the Army Air Corps when he died in action during World War II. Philip Munson died as an infant.

Two of the Munson sisters, Irene and Esther, married ministers. Irene’s husband, Florn Johnson, died at age 61. Esther and her husband, the Rev. Harry Tripp, had a double wedding with her sister Grace and Ross Markello, and mark 63 years this summer.

The final Markello brother, Carl, earned a doctorate in education and retired as deputy superintendent of the West Seneca Central School District. He and Rose Barone were also married for more than 50 years, but are both now deceased. His sister Nina Markello Presher was a longtime teacher.

The Munsons with doctorates are Albert, Benjamin, Richard and Paul. Their sister, Beulah, missed her golden anniversary with husband Eugene Wing by one week.

Marie Munson Glezen helped support the family with her wages when she was a girl, held a management position in a garment factory and returned home to help Irene take care of their parents during their final illnesses.

Beside the strong family work ethic and bonds, the siblings – who among them have 29 children – share a lifelong dedication to learning.

The oldest Markello sibling, Concetta Markello Howles – who died in 2005 at age 84 – took college classes when her youngest son was in college.

“Everybody just loves to learn,” said June Munson Markello.

The skills they acquired growing up in large families prepared them for long marriages, several family members say.

“We don’t have any secrets from each other,” said Rhea Munson Markello. “You just have to hang in there and don’t sweat the small stuff. Neither of us tend to hold grudges, we exchange ideas and if we differ, that’s fine.”

“We have a lot of love and commitment and a strong Christian commitment,” said Nancy Hammond Markello. “We have always been in very comfortable, loving relationships with everybody in the extended family, and that makes it strong.”

Having two sisters marry her husband’s brothers “was an incentive to keep the family together,” said Grace Munson Markello.

“But when people ask my husband, he says having two bathrooms is how we survived 50 years,” she added.