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New Ulm couple share family connection to orphan trains

Jan and Sid DeLeo speak with an attendee after their presentation on the orphan trains.

NEW ULM – Sid and Jan DeLeo of New Ulm shared their findings surrounding Guy DeLeo and others who rode on the orphan trains during their lunch and a bite of history event Thursday.

From 1854 to 1929, an estimated 250,000 orphans were sent from overcrowded cities like New York to smaller areas so they could be housed. The orphan train system itself was set up by the Children’s Village, Children’s Aid Society, and New York Foundling Hospital. They were supported by wealthy benefactors who looked to give orphans a better life.

It was the predecessor to our country’s modern foster care system,” Jan DeLeo said “New York in the 1880s was a difficult place to live. There was an influx of immigration, high rates of infectious diseases, and poor conditions. Children were being abandoned at tragic amounts.”

The Midwest was a popular destination for these trains, and many were sent to Minnesota. Guy DeLeo, who toured his big band across Minnesota, led the Cathedral and St. Mary’s school bands, and served as director for the Marine Corps during WWII, was one of these orphan train riders.

He was born Gaetano DiLeo on April 21, 1913, in the Bronx. Jan DeLeo said seven days after he was born, he was brought to an orphanage and left there. From there, the orphanage changed his name to Joseph Lee. She said this ended up hampering their investigation into Guy DeLeo’s past, as they were looking under his birth name and had no knowledge of this changed name.

Misty, Jan, and Sid DeLeo (L-R) stand with posterboard displaying several photos of Guy DeLeo in various stages of life, his family tree, and history of the orphan trains.

In 1915, a New Ulm woman named Cecilia Jutz wanted a dark-haired boy to raise as her own. After contacting an agent with the orphan trains, Lee was put on a train with other orphans and sent to St. Paul, where Jutz picked him up and brought him home.

Jutz sent letters to Lee’s orphanage after he was adopted. Thanks to transcription work from Darla Gebhard, Jan DeLeo was able to read a letter Jutz wrote one year after adopting Lee.

“Just a few words to let you know that Joseph Lee is getting along nicely and loved as much as always,” Jan Deleo said. “He still is a very good boy and is very healthy. He’s so big and fat I don’t think you would recognize him. We are more than satisfied in every respect. And as you want to hear from us twice a year, we give you that glorious report.”

Joseph Lee was not formally adopted until 1925 when he took his adoptive parent’s last name to become Joseph Jutz.

By the time he got married in 1940, he had found out he was adopted and taken several avenues to find his birth name. Jan DeLeo said this was very difficult, as by then representatives claimed the records had been destroyed to deter orphan train riders from looking further.

In 1941, Joseph Jutz changed his name one final time, to Gaetano DeLeo. Jan DeLeo said there must have been a mistake, as the last name was originally DiLeo instead of DeLeo. Shortened to Guy, this is the name many knew him as until he passed in 1992.

Jan DeLeo said there are many stories intertwined with the orphan trains. It’s estimated there are over two million direct descendants of orphan train children. Every year in September, a gathering of Minnesotan orphan train descendants is held in Little Falls.

Sid DeLeo said when he was younger, he was curious about his father’s birth family and pestered him about it. He said Guy DeLeo responded he was not interested in doing so.

“‘Why do you want me to [do that]?'” Sid DeLeo said. “‘This woman gave me away. Why would I do that when the Jutz’s took me in and were so nice? It doesn’t make sense.'”

The DeLeos also found Guy DeLeo had two sisters and one brother. His brother Anthony Poggi was raised and stayed in New York. One sister, Deborah Korthof-Stanton, ended up in Minneapolis. The other, Nancy Holstrom, settled in Michigan.

At the presentation’s end, Darla Gebhard said a new law change in Minnesota will allow anyone 18 or older to access their original birth records. She said this change will allow many to avoid the struggles and effort many go through to find their past, especially to the degree of the DeLeos.

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