Wednesday, June 24, 2009 | 6:40 p.m.
Heroes are where we find them.
The sun beamed a little brighter August 12, 1930, when Santo Vilardi and Jennueffa Polizzi, immigrants from Alimena, Palermo, Sicily, welcomed their new son in Kearny, N.J.
Anthony "Tony" Santo Vilardi was too young to participate in World War II, but he served on the crew of the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Harlan R. Dickson (DD-708) that was launched in 1945 in Vilardi's home town of Kearny. Vilardi crewed the Dickson under the United Nations flag in the Middle East from December 1948 to April 1952 and completed eight years active duty in the Navy; he then enlisted in the Army National Guard and retired after 30 years in 1987.
First-generation American and career military man, the wise-cracking, guitar-playing Vilardi seems an unlikely adoptees-rights hero.
In 1955, Vilardi married my aunt, Emma May Sutton, in Seattle; he also adopted Emma May's son from a former marriage.
The Vilardi family settled in his native Kearny. Emma May became town historian and in 1967 published Heritage and Legacy, a history of Kearny. Tony and Emma May lived in several places with the National Guard, moving to Carson City in about 1974.
They became pioneers and heroes in the adoption-rights movement when they founded the International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISRR) in Carson City in 1975.
Emma May's mother, my grandmother, was an adoptee who did not have her original birth certificate until Emma May persuaded an Indiana judge to unseal her mother's birth and adoption records. Emma May succeeded on behalf of my grandmother, but most adult adoptees do not have the ability to retrieve their original birth certificates.
The adoptees-rights movement began lobbying state legislatures in the early 1970s to enable adult adoptees to obtain the original documents of their births that name their biological parents, state their correct places and dates of birth, and provide leads to their genetic backgrounds.
A mutual-consent registry such as ISRR does not violate privacy rights of birth parents, because individuals register only when they wish to be found by their lost family members.
In more than 34 years, the independent, not-for-profit, mutual-consent ISRR has reunited thousands of adoptees with their biological parents free of charge.
The ISRR operates nationally and internationally and has enjoyed an excellent reputation that was enhanced by the integrity of its founders.
Between 1983 and 1997, Dear Abby commended the registry 11 times in her columns, and publications as varied as Reunions Magazine, Business Week, Albuquerque Tribune, Nevada Appeal, Arizona Republic, and the Associated Press and Knight-Ridder news services have profiled the organization. Although ISRR is not affiliated with other organizations, its peers in the adoptee-rights movement uniformly praise its efforts.
After Emma May died in 1990, Tony served as ISRR executive director until September 2001. In October 2001 he married volunteer Susan Braun, and the couple retired to their ranch in nearby Genoa; Tony resigned as ISRR executive trustee in 2007.
My Uncle Tony, adoptive father and adoption rights hero, died in Reno June 14, 2009, survived by his second wife, Susan, and his extended family. Advocates such as Tony, Emma May, and Susan have enabled adoptees to gain information about their health backgrounds and to establish bonds with their biological relatives.
Tony left his earthly home a better place. Through the ISRR the American-born son of Santo Vilardi and Jennueffa Polizzi became an adoptees-rights hero. But to those who loved him, he already was one.
Stefani Evans is a board-certified genealogist and a volunteer at the Regional Family History Center. She can be reached c/o the Home News, 2275 Corporate Circle, Third Floor, Henderson, NV 89074, or firstname.lastname@example.org.