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  “The books tell the story of our family,” says Louis Greco ’44 COM, MD ’45, a retired surgeon who began writing the first volume of his 12-book series in 1991.
Photo credit: Christopher Gannon
 

My Passion

Louis Greco discusses his efforts to chronicle his family’s history and what surgery and writing have in common.

As I grew older, I had many questions I wanted to ask my grandparents. I wanted to know what life was like in Italy. I wanted them to tell me about their experiences taking a boat to America and starting a new life in this country. But by the time I had my questions, it was too late. They died long before I thought to ask. 

Looking back on a life filled with the joys of raising five children and operating on more than 10,000 patients as a general surgeon in Boone, Iowa, I began to think about the questions my own children and grandchildren might ask one day. I didn’t want them to wait too long. I wanted to give them the story of their family.

I began my first book shortly after I retired in 1991 after practicing medicine for nearly 50 years. As a general surgeon, I knew what I was doing; but as a writer, I stumbled through telling what happened with words and pictures. One thing surgery and writing have in common, though—they’re both hard work.

I’ve written 12 books covering the years 1922–2009, beginning with the year I was born. Each chapter marks a year, telling the history of what happened and ending with photos taken that year. I’ve used many of the more than 100,000 pictures I have stored on my computer.

The books tell the story of our family, including important moments in the lives of my wife and myself, my parents and grandparents, my children and grandchildren. I obtained information in various ways from family members, uncles, cousins and friends.
An Italian genealogy researcher helped me track down birth and marriage documents, dating back six generations. I visited Italy in 1994 and 2005 to obtain information about the four small towns in the Campania and Calabria regions where my grandparents were born. It was great going back. There was an old water fountain in the town square in Oliveto Citra, where my maternal grandfather was born. As I stood there, I wondered if he ever drank from it. Sadly, I had no way of finding any living relatives, although many of the people I met had my grandparents’ last names.

One of the most valuable sources of information came from letters I wrote to my parents from 1940-81. I discovered the letters after my parents died; they kept them all that time. It was too expensive to phone, so I wrote letters at least once a week and told them down-to-earth things about my travels and common everyday happenings (such as a 35-cent, all-you-could-eat lunch at Prehn’s in Urbana when I was in school). Letter writing was our only form of communication for 40 years, except for emergencies. It was a great find. There were more than 2,000 pages of letters, which I copied and bound into two books that are each three inches thick.
I wish my wife, Helen, could have seen the books. We were married for 45 years; she died suddenly of a heart attack on May 11, 1993. I met her when I was an officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, assigned to the station hospital in Fort Douglas, Utah, in 1948. She was the secretary of the doctor in charge of the hospital. We had a great marriage—blessed with five children, 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild with another on the way. They all have copies of the books, which I hope one day they’ll treasure as great sources of information about themselves and their history.

I helped write a book about the history of Boone County (Iowa) medicine and plan to do one on genealogy, but the books I’ve written about our family life are the ones I value most. While I am alive and after I am gone from this world, this is my way to communicate about the past. The most important thing I’ve learned is to talk to your relatives; learn their stories before they die, because their history is yours.

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