#BravoGenealogy: Tracing Big Kathy's Family Tree

This season's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (RHOBH) has been one for the books, and a major factor has been the addition of Kathy Hilton to the cast. I've read a lot about Kim and Kyle over the years, but with Kathy added to the mix, I wanted to deep dive into the common denominator that binds them--Big Kathy.


Photo from Bravotv.com

A lot has been published on "Big Kathy," and she's clearly a dominant figure. Born Kathleen Mary Dugan on 17 April 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, she is the daughter of Edward J. Dugan and Dorothy Callahan. She's been married to four husbands: Lawrence Avanzino (father of Kathy Hilton), Ken Richards (father of Kim and Kyle), Jack Catain, and Robert Fenton. A lot of books and articles have gone into Big Kathy's husbands (House of Hilton by Jerry Oppenheimer is next to me as I write this), but I'm not interested in a muckraking piece here, since there's enough of that out there. I'm more interested in the family history that made Big Kathy who she is and by extension, the RHOBH characters we love (or love to hate).

Big Kathy obituary in the 9 March 2002 issue of The Desert Sun (Palm Springs, CA).

Big Kathy is Irish. Full stop.

Big Kathy descends from Irish immigrants, most who immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-19th century and eventually settled in the Midwest. Lots of typical Irish names like Dugan, Callaghan, Dougherty (and various spellings), Ryan, Kelly, Conway, and Quinn appear throughout the tree. Although I wasn't able to find all the ancestral origins, Big Kathy definitely has roots in counties Tipperary and Sligo. Various Ancestry trees place ancestral roots in Dublin as well, but I couldn't find evidence to corroborate.


County Sligo is in the north along the coast, while County Tipperary is inland. I always love using Google Maps and Google Earth to provide context to ancestral origins.

She has pioneer ancestors.

A couple branches were described as pioneer ancestors in their respective areas. Big Kathy's grandfather, Charles Mathias Dugan (1858-1928) was included in History of Crawford County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement, a 1911 publication that provides a great biographical sketch on Big Kathy's grandfather, Charles.


Excerpt on C.M. Dugan from History of Crawford, County, Iowa.

Charles's maternal uncle and Big Kathy's Great-Uncle, Thomas Ryan (1833-1921) also received a biographical sketch in volume 1 of the same work and within a Biographical History of Crawford, Ida and Sac Counties, Iowa in 1893, as the first pioneer ancestor of Vail, Crawford County, Iowa (more on him shortly).

Big Kathy's Great-Uncle

Another great-grandfather of Big Kathy, Neil Callahan, was described as a pioneer of Union County, South Dakota, in his obituary. Land records from the Bureau of Land Management illustrate that Neil Callahan obtained 120 acres in Sioux Falls Dakota Territory under the Homestead Act of 1862 in 1874.



Obituary found in 10 Feb 1906 issue of Sioux City Journal.

Big Kathy's great-grandfather's land patent.

"I Am Working on the Railroad"

Before their descendants were flying in private planes and sailing in luxury yachts, Big Kathy's ancestors were literally building infrastructure for travel. Big Kathy's great-uncle mentioned earlier, Thomas Ryan, was recorded as "laying the track" in locations like Cedar Rapids and Jefferson, Iowa, among other places. It was written, "for many years he was the able and popular section foreman on the road, and no part on the Northwestern railroad was kept in better shape or had less accidents than where he had charge of the track." He was also credited as "employed in building bridges, some of the best and strongest structures in the county having being erected by him."


Thomas's brother-in-law and Big Kathy's great-grandfather Martin Dugan, likely gravitated to the area because of his brother-in-law, and also was recorded as working on the railroad in Franklin, Linn, Iowa, in the 1860 census.

1860 Federal Census for Martin Dugan Household.

Big Kathy's likely 2nd great-grandfather, David Conway, also worked on the railroad in McLean County, Illinois, according to the 1870 census.

1870 Census for David Conway's household. Daughter Mary (18) is Big Kathy's likely great-grandmother.

Her father was an attorney and politician.


Edward Dugan, Big Kathy's Father

Despite more humble roots, Big Kathy's father, Edward J. Dugan (1901-1976), had a very interesting resume and highlights real upward social mobility for the family. Born in Vail, Crawford County, Iowa, he grew up on the successful farm described in the excerpt on his father, C.M. Dugan, above. He settled in Nebraska (likely sometime between 1917-1920, as there is inconsistency within the records) where he attended Creighton University. He later served in the state's house of representatives in 1933 and 1935.