HIBBING — Several years ago, Kevin Milani became interested in discovering details about Italian families on the Iron Range.
The chemistry instructor at Hibbing Community College dove into the research project by trekking over to the research library at the Minnesota Discovery Center, where he studied maps and searched for the surnames of local citizens on a daily basis. His fervor on the subject was partially inspired by the fact his own grandparents were born in Italy. That included his grandmother Maria Staffaroni, who was from a small Italian village named Costacciaro, tucked in the region of Umbria. He hoped to help his community understand its own past as he did.
After six months, he organized more than 3,000 names and locations into a spreadsheet. He also managed to figure out that the majority of the families he researched hailed from the Italian regions of Umbria, Marche or Calabria. In fact, about 20 percent of those who left Italy for Minnesota had all lived within a 15 mile radius within the mountainous area of Monte Cucco. Milani was familiar with that part of Italy, having visited family in previous years.
Then last April, his research project took an unexpected turn when he spent several weeks teaching astomnology through the International Planetarium Society, Inc., which hosts American planetarium operators each year who work with high school students taking English as second language.
During this time, Milani met with an area historian named Euro Puletti, who arranged for him to speak about his Hibbing-based research project to people in Costacciaro. The village of 1,200 is set in the Province of Perugia, which boasts notable structures like the Church of San Francesco and their Civic Tower, as well as outdoor activities such as hiking, caving, gliding and cross-country skiing.
There, in the birth place of his grandmother, Milani’s presentation was held in a public meeting hall with 50 in attendance, everyone curious to hear about their descendants living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. He shared a powerpoint packed with his findings and information about the City of Hibbing.
A woman named Caterina Morelli served as Milani’s translator to help him with his self-admittingly “rudimentary” Italian. Together, they conveyed details about some of the “famous” Iron Range natives with Italian roots, including Jeno Paulucci, founder of Jeno’s Pizza and Chun King Foods brand, Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor of Charles Manson, and Joe Micheletti, professional hockey player, among others.
“It was a great time,” Milani reflected.
At the presentation’s conclusion, one of Milani’s cousins who was seated in the audience addressed Costacciaro Mayor Andrea Capponi to suggest that since Milani had conducted all the research proving the ties between Hibbing and Costacciaro, they ought to make the two sister cities.
“The mayor thought that was a great idea,” Milani said.
The Capponi mayor went on to email Hibbing Mayor Rick Cannata to pitch the idea. Last November, the local City Council unanimously approved a resolution making Hibbing and Costacciaro sister cities. (Costacciaro is now the second sibling Hibbing has, the first being Walsrode, Germany.)
The idea of sister cities goes back to World War II as a way of drumming up understandings and friendships across cultures, often via a legal agreement. It also encourages the promotion of tourism and trade.
For now, Milani is considered the unofficial liaison between the two cities and encourages anyone who is interested in learning more to reach out. He can’t help but smile and shake his head over how it all came together.
“In life you never know where things will lead when you start a project,” he said.
While researching, Milani created a Facebook page called “‘The Iron Range Umbria/Marche Descendants Group.’” The online group has 53 members who are encouraged to post photographs of their travels throughout the regions and share reminiscences of their “nonnas” and “nonnos.” The group has even met several times locally, including at a cabin get together last summer. Today, they’re kicking around ideas about how to adapt the page since Hibbing and Costacciaro are sisters.