A fascinating glance at the origins of a family


June 23, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Glancing through the day's junk mail, one envelope stood out. And I immediately thought: "Ah, an obvious pitch for a ripoff."

It was addressed to me at my home. But on the front of the envelope was this message:

"A remarkable new book about the Roykos is about to be published -- and you, Michael Royko, are in it!"

The letter inside did little to dispel my suspicion that it was a scam.

"Dear Michael Royko," it said, which told me that the computer that wrote the letter didn't know me, because no one since my grammar school teachers had called me Michael.

"I have exciting news for you and fellow Roykos! We have been doing some work relating to people who share the Royko name. Finally, after months of work, we are ready to publish 'The World Book of Royko,' and you, Michael Royko, are listed in it.

"The Royko name is very rare as discovered in our research through over 170 million individual households using an international network of computer sources in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We now know that less than four in every 10 million people share the Royko name.

"We have spent a great deal of effort and thousands of dollars and have now located almost every Royko household in the world. This amazing new publication features this valuable extensive international directory of Roykos, and it is as complete as possible."

It went on to say that besides a list of the world's Roykos, the book provides information on the meaning of names, heraldry, genealogy and other general subjects.

The book would be nicely bound in a burgundy grained cover, with an original heraldic insignia and "is certain to be quite a rare and valuable addition to the Royko family library."

And the letter urged me to order one for the pre-publication price of only $34.50, plus shipping costs.

Actually, the price seemed reasonable, amounting to less than the cost of two poorly written best-selling novels.

So I called the publishing company, located in Bath, Ohio, to get details on their unusual pitch.

It turned out that they aren't running a scam. They've been in business for more than a dozen years, putting out about a million same-name books a year in 12 countries.

This has been made possible by computers, which can search phone books, driver's registration lists, election rolls and other public databases.

Douglas Haslinger, whose father, Dennis, started the business, explained how it works:

"There's a real curiosity. So much genealogical information was wiped out during the two world wars. Then there's the sheer thrill of thinking you could be linked to some great royal family in some other country. I remember one guy, a high school teacher. They traced him all the way back to the 15th century and he was from a royal line of Irish kings. He was pretty surprised."

(Actually, that's no big deal. The average Irish king in the 15th century bathed about once a year, ate with his fingers, wiped his nose on his sleeve, slept with shaggy hounds and had fleas. You wouldn't want them as house guests today.)

Haslinger said the books have helped some people find long-lost relatives. "We've reunited people all over the world. Two brothers who were separated after World War II bought the book and found each other after 45 years. A man who ran away from home at 18 was mad at his mother. When he got older, he bought his name book, found his mother and made up."

Basically, they put out two kinds of books: one is made up of more common names, such as Miller, Parker, Turner, Meyers, Abbott, etc. These books contain histories of the name, ancient coats of arms, and other information.

Then there are less common names, such as mine. "With Royko," he said, "the list would be much smaller. We found 62 Royko families in the U.S., 18 in Canada, one in Austria, and seven in Germany."

That appears to be the biggest flaw in his search process. Because of the wars and the communist bureaucrats, it is almost impossible to do computer name-hunts in Eastern Europe.

"Another thing," he said. "Royko is one of the names where we could not find a coat of arms or the meaning of the name."

Which shows that his research is flawed. It happens that there is a Royko coat of arms, going back to the 12th century and the Duke Joe Royko, who ruled Roykonia, a small but lively dukedom in the Glotz Mountains. It had the only tavern within 200 miles that had a 4 a.m. license, which made it a favorite overnight stop for thirsty Mongol hordes, Turks, Huns and other warring drunks.

The coat of arms bore the slogan, "no checks or credit, cash only," and the symbol was a clenched fist with the ring finger extended, making it the original "bird" gesture. Had Duke Joe thought to get a copyright, his ancestors would now be wealthy.

And contrary to Haslinger's research, the name had a meaning, but it was lost when the Roykonian dialect faded away. Royko meant: "Swell guy; bowls good." A peculiarity of that dialect was that the same word could have a different meaning for women. In the female usage, Royko meant: "Cooks good; don't talk much."

Anyway, I'll probably blow $34.50 on the book. Maybe I can get all those long-lost Roykos together to celebrate Duke Joe's birthday and the anniversary of when he invented the world's first sophisticated mixed drink -- the boilermaker.

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