My Cousin, Woody Woodpecker

by Rev. Dr. Rick Jordan

My mother was a Lantz. Her mother liked to paint landscapes. Her uncle, George, was the staff editorial cartoonist for the Tampa (FL) Tribune newspaper. Then, there was the celebrity artist in our family, Walter Lantz.

Walter Lantz was the creator of several popular cartoons, the most well-known was the ever-charming, ever-in-trouble, Woody Woodpecker. It was a favorite cartoon of mine before I knew that I was related to the artist. And he was a favorite of my friends. Everyone was impressed when I told them that Woody Woodpecker was drawn by my great-uncle Walter. I don’t remember now who told me this, then. Maybe my mother. Maybe my grandmother. Maybe one of my uncles or aunts. Whoever it was, I trusted that what they told me was true. So, I had bragging rights.

Last week, I got an email from a college friend, Carol Woodward King. She said, “Hey Rick, yesterday, I was channel surfing and I saw Walter Lantz on ‘Too Close for Comfort.’ It was cool and I thought of you and Woody and that chilly penguin. HahahaHAha, hahahaHAha, haaahaaaaaha.” Of course, she was trying to type out that inimitable laugh of Woody’s. Isn’t it something that she remembered that connection from a conversation we had in college 40+ years ago?

It made me wonder about the exact familial relationship I have with Walter Lantz. During the pandemic, I have picked up the hobby of genealogy. I have been researching and building my family tree and my wife’s family tree. So far, I have over 1000 family members and have traced back to our families’ immigrations from Europe to the US. The Lantz family and the Bodamer family and the Stahl family from Germany, the Winslows and Jordans from England, the Stewarts from Scotland.

With all those names, I wondered if I could have added Walter Lantz without paying attention to him or his name? Not likely, but possible. So, I did a name search. There was no Walter Lantz. Next, I created a family tree for Walter Lantz, thinking I could go up or down the ladder and find the connection that we have with one another.

What I found is that Walter Lantz’s father’s name was Francesco Paolo Lanza. That did not sound German. Neither did his mother’s name, Maria Gervasi. They were Italian. A little more research and I found that when the Lanza family immigrated from Italy to the US, the immigration officer decided to change their surname to Lantz. Why? We will probably never know. He is Italian. I am (mostly) German, with no Italian relatives that I know of, so far.

So, it turns out that I am not related to Walter Lantz. How is that possible? Didn’t my family tell me that I was related to him? Was it an honest mistake? Back then, there were not the powerful research tools we have today. “How many Lantz’s could there be? Surely we are related.” Or is it possible that I made the connection on my own – a child’s wish to be tied to a famous celebrity? Fifty-plus years later, I am not sure how I came to this “family fact.” But now, I know it is not true. Woody Woodpecker is not my cousin.

The Coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the George Floyd killing, the January 6th Insurrection – these have caused many persons to question previously unquestioned truths, like

● “Care for the greater good is more virtuous than individual freedom.”
● “We are no longer a racist society.”
● “The policeman is always your friend.”
● “America will always remain a democracy.”

It is a scary time. Solid truths are demonstrated to be illusions with every news blast.

Churches are facing the same kind of core-shaking trauma. Unquestioned truths are now being challenged:

● “To be political is unfitting for a church/minister.”
● “Weekly worship attendance is a reliable measurement of Christian commitment.”
● “Pastors come and go but members stay forever.”

Walter Lantz is not my uncle. This is a new truth to me. It may lead me to uncover other untruths about my family connections and history. Do I have Cherokee in my blood? How about Seminole? Was a Quaker family member run out of town because he refused to support fighting in the Civil War? Was a grandfather a lightweight boxing champ? As I do more research, I wonder which other “truths” will be affirmed and which will be disproven?

Where does this leave me? Where does this leave the Church? We follow Jesus Christ who said, “the truth will set you free.” So, we face the truth of our bloodlines, be they physical or spiritual. We aspire to be persons who incarnate faith, hope, and love. We humbly acknowledge that some of the truths that we have held – even using a great many Bible verses to support our point of view – are simply not true.

Walter Lantz was really Walter Lanza. I must live with that.

These thoughts above are from Rev. Dr. Rick Jordan, our partner based out of Lewisville, North Carolina. He has been in various roles from a local church level to state and national leadership roles. For more information on how he can help you, contact him here.

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