It started out as a tale bound not to Easter but to a famous Frank Capra movie about Christmas. Four months ago, Elizabeth "Lill" Kress of West Falls took a call that reminded her both of how she came to be and of how an act of sacrifice remains a living force for generations.
Her maternal grandmother, Elisabetta Varacalli, was from Seneca Falls, arriving there a century ago for one main reason: On April 12, 1917, Elisabetta's brother – a 20-year-old Italian immigrant named Antonio Varacalli – was working near a bridge over the Cayuga-Seneca Canal when a despondent teenager plunged into the frigid water below.
The bridge, built in 1915, is in the heart of the village. At the time, said Seneca County historian Walter Gable, it was surrounded by industrial bustle. Varacalli jumped in to try and save Ruth Dunham, 17. He managed to push her to safety on the bank before he was overcome by the sheer temperature of the canal, and drowned.
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According to accounts of the time, Dunham barely survived. As World War I raged in Europe and a flu pandemic soon cast a lethal shadow, a community grateful for a reminder of pure humanity erected a plaque on the bridge to honor Varacalli, then raised enough money to grant a family wish: A fundraising drive helped his mother, sisters and a nephew leave Italy 100 years ago this summer to join his grieving father in Seneca Falls.
That is how Elisabetta, grandmother and namesake of Lill Kress, arrived in this nation. Two generations later, Kress – who was a child when her mother died – would spend summers in Seneca Falls with her aunt, Asunta Palandro. They often walked together to the plaque on the bridge, where Asunta would explain:
Every minute of Lill’s journey could be linked to a great-uncle who was not around long enough to leave behind a family photograph, and gave his life for a teenager he had never met. In Seneca Falls, which holds an annual festival to celebrate its similarities to the Yuletide film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Varacalli rescue is held up as a real-life example of the cinematic scene in which George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, leaps from a strikingly similar bridge to save a stranger.
While that movie invokes a Christmas theme, the events that caused Kress and her husband Don to travel from Erie County last week, exactly 105 years to the day since the rescue, had far more to do with the philosophy surrounding this weekend's holiday.
“From death comes life, and that’s Easter,” said Rev. James Fennessy, a Catholic priest who attended a small and emotional ceremony on the bridge.
The goal was bringing together the 62-year-old Kress with Kathy Williamson, 71, a retired special education teacher from St. Louis. Williamson brought a gift for Seneca Falls: A framed family image of her own grandmother, a woman named Ruth Winslow, who settled in Washington, D.C.
To the best of Williamson's knowledge, her grandmother never spoke of how her own life began as Ruth Dunham in Seneca Falls, a Seneca County community about 115 miles from Buffalo that is best known as the cradle of women's rights. She displayed inspiring courage of her own, leaving behind the terror at the bridge to lead a long life of warmth and grace.
Yet Williamson believes the trauma of that moment led to this result: Dunham's grandchildren never knew the only reason they were born was because Varacalli risked everything to save their grandmother – an act that led to a posthumous Carnegie Medal from a Pittsburgh commission that honors extraordinary bravery.
Last Tuesday, on the bridge, Williamson and Kress studied the plaque that describes how Varacalli “gave his life to save another.” The event was organized by Anwei Skinsnes Law, Henry Law, Fran Caraccilo and other coordinators of an "It's a Wonderful Life" museum, which is closely tied to a Seneca Falls December festival that celebrates the film, set in the fictional upstate community of Bedford Falls. For years, organizers have been passionate about similarities between the movie and their small town.
"It just seemed so important for Seneca Falls to bring together people whose lives intersected in such a way," said Skinsnes Law, explaining last week's gathering on the bridge.
Williamson and Kress met for the first time Monday night, at the nearby Gould Hotel. That connection occurred only because of Megan Smolenyak, a Florida researcher and genealogist. She is an old friend, and when she learned last year I was writing of the rescue and its legacy, she took a shot at helping me to find descendants on both sides – a task that always led me to frustrating dead ends.
As usual, Smolenyak discovered answers. My biggest challenge, after she came up with contacts for Williamson and Kress, was keeping them on the phone long enough once I called to convince them my interest in their long-ago family stories was for real, and not some elaborate scam.
Thankfully, though leery at first, they did not hang up. The initial column ran last December, explaining the ongoing impact of a story of faith and sacrifice that transcends even the movie, because this narrative is true. In Seneca Falls, which holds a separate "Antonio Varacalli Day" later in April to celebrate acts of civic selflessness, the next step seemed obvious:
The grandmother of Elizabeth "Lill" Kress of West Falls arrived in the United States because of a community reaction to the sacrifice of a great-uncle, Antonio Varacalli, who died saving a young woman from drowning near a famous bridge in Seneca Falls.
They needed to close the circle with a meeting on the bridge.
Throughout the year, volunteers already encourage visitors to hang small memorial bells near Varacalli's plaque, bells inscribed with the names or memories of someone you love. Each one is a reminder of the moment in the film when a child called Zuzu says that every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.
For the anniversary of the rescue, not far from the spot where Varacalli saved a young woman's life, his great-niece joined the granddaughter of Ruth Dunham in ringing a bell for the teenager who survived and for the young man who gave his life for her.
It led Williamson to say of Varacalli what she expressed repeatedly during her visit: "Without him, I would not even exist."
She made the 750-mile drive from St. Louis with a friend, Terri Stendeback. During that ride, Williamson worried the meeting with Kress might be "awkward" – she was thinking of how one family's blessing came from another's sacrifice – but their bond was quickly cemented by all they shared in their careers.
Kress is a retired nurse practitioner, and the two women marveled at how they each spent decades dedicated to the well-being and success of people born with developmental disabilities. “That blew my mind,” Williamson said.
On the bridge, they rang a bell set on a simple table, before hanging their own small memorial bells near the plaque recalling Varacalli. Kress dedicated hers to her Aunt Asunta, from whom she learned the story as a child, while Williamson wrote down the names of her grandmother, her siblings and her mother, Rose Marie – all these lives that only happened because of the rescue at the bridge.
Afterward, during a reception at the nearby National Women’s Hall of Fame – a beautiful space carved from a 19th century stone knitting mill – Kress met Tony Dellefave, Debra Swenson and Lena Marr. They are cousins whose grandfather, Dominic Romeo, stepped in to cover the balance when an Elks Club fundraising drive came up a little short in the effort to bring Antonio Varacalli’s family to this country. Once again, Kress saw every second of her own life cascading from a stranger's generosity, long ago.
"If Antonio hadn't saved Ruth, I wouldn't be here and Kathy wouldn't be here," she said. Like Williamson, she spoke of the gratitude that accompanies such a realization: Without an act of utter sacrifice by a guy without even a photo, nothing of who and what they are would be the same.
It was a thought they carried with them, as they drove home toward Easter.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at email@example.com.