| Sarah Heinonen
AGAWAM/WEST SPRINGFIELD – Much has changed in the world since 1945 when Julia Valenti organized the first family reunion for her, her eight siblings, and their families. One thing that hasn’t changed in the years since is the tradition of gathering to celebrate family.
After a brief hiatus from 1966 to 1968, the Valenti Open, as the reunion is known, has been held every year since 1969, making this year the 50th family reunion. Normally about 100 people attend, but this year 150 people from different branches of the Valenti family tree came to catch up and reminisce.
“There’s a lot that live in Massachusetts, but not many that live in the Springfield area,” Julie Lavoie, daughter of Julia Valenti, said about her many relatives.
Lavoie, who now lives in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, said family came from California, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Lavoie’s Aunt Margaret Setterlund, who will turn 98 this month, attended the reunion. She is the last member of the generation that began the tradition in the 1940s.
Rose Palazzi, Lavoie’s sister, said the Valenti Open was a two-day affair that took place, as it does every year, on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. Lavoie said the locations and activities are always the same.
Palazzi said the first day kicked off at noon with rounds of golf at the Agawam Golf Course. Golf has always been a tradition for the family.
That night, five generations came together for dinner at the Dante Club in West Springfield. The dinner featured a DJ, lots of traditional Italian food, and photos that date as far back as the 1920s.
On Sunday, the family converges on St John’s Field in Agawam for a one-of-a-kind picnic. Lavoie said the custom-made barrel grill that is used to feed the scores of people is about six-feet long and gas-powered.
Often, the tables and chairs to seat everyone come from Dante’s Club, where Lavoie’s nephew works. There was a covered area and people brought generators for lights since the “picnic” often doesn’t end until close to midnight.
People who are local brought salads and “every kind of dessert you can imagine,” said Lavoie, but she stressed, it’s another nephew, David Amato, who deserves the credit for the food. His late father, Marco Amato, used to be in charge of providing the food, but since his death in 1998, Lavoie said, David has taken on the job.
Although David lives in Wareham, by the Cape, he comes early and shops at local farms for the vegetables. He gets the meat from the same places his father bought from when he was in charge. The tradition, Lavoie said, is important.
For entertainment, there was bocce, a waterslide, cornhole, a pinata, and sack races. Lavoie said they always play the “old-fashioned games.”
Lavoie explained that throwing a party of this size takes a committee of five family members. Most years, the committee funds the festivities by collecting $40 to $50 per person or $100 per family and whatever is left over goes into the fund for the next year. This year, Lavoie said, the reunion was free to attend.
Lavoie told Reminder Publishing that when her granddaughter was in first grade, a teacher asked what her favorite holiday was. She replied, “the Valenti Open.”
“[People] know they’re going to see their first-, second-, third-cousins, who they would never see if they didn’t have this,” said Lavoie.