The 90-year-old Passyunk Branch of the Free Library soon will have a new name. The change is a controversial one, however, because of the name the library won’t have.
Historian Joseph Vendetti started lobbying in June to have the branch at 20th and Shunk named for philanthropist Stephen Girard, whose legacy established the Girard Estate area in which the library is located.
Vendetti said he presented state Rep. Robert Donatucci and Register of Wills Ronald Donatucci with a letter to gain support for renaming the library for Girard.
Soon after, to Vendetti’s surprise, a hearing was scheduled in City Council to name the branch for Thomas F. Donatucci, the late father of the elected officials.
"I gave the Donatuccis a letter to gain support in my efforts. I never received a response," he said. "Later, I looked in the newspaper and read that the city was going to hold a hearing on Oct. 1 on the renaming of the library."
Vendetti testified at the hearing along with some supporters. At least a dozen Girard Estate residents backing the Donatucci proposal were also present, said John Hawkins, spokesperson for Councilman-at-Large James Kenney, who chaired the hearing.
Vendetti’s supporters included Rocco Montano, a graduate of Girard College — the private North Philadelphia school established as a provision of Girard’s will.
"I tried to compromise with City Council, but it was all cut-and-dry," said Montano, who proposed another branch bear Donatucci’s name. "The renaming of the library after Thomas Donatucci is a slap in the face to Stephen Girard."
Those at City Hall have a different take on the matter.
"This name change has been planned for almost two to three years. I received Vendetti’s letter last summer," said Ronald Donatucci, who himself sits on the board of Girard College. "I am the biggest defender of Stephen Girard, but it is time to give another prominent South Philadelphian — my father — a chance to be honored."
Thomas Donatucci became a Democratic committeeman in the early 1930s, working his way up to leader of the 26th Ward. He held other positions through the party, serving on the Democratic Policy Committee in 1969 and as deputy director of the Pennsylvania Liquor Auditors under then-Auditor General Bob Casey.
In his community, Donatucci was known mostly as a liaison between the common people and City Hall. Working closely with Councilmen William Cibotti (Council President Anna Verna’s father) and Thomas Guerin, Donatucci was instrumental in bringing city facilities to Girard Estate in the 1950s and ’60s. He helped secure funds for Guerin Recreation Center at 16th and Jackson and Barry Playground at 19th and Johnston.
Donatucci died in 1970 at the age of 58.
Hawkins, Kenney’s spokesperson, said Vendetti conducted a flawed campaign in trying to get the library named instead for Girard.
"Vendetti went to the wrong person to gain support. He was supposed to go to his district representative — Council President Anna Verna."
A spokesperson for Verna’s office said the local historian’s testimony for the Girard renaming was "irrelevant" to the legislation before Council on Oct. 1.
But whenever the name change comes, Vendetti seems resigned.
"I respect the Donatucci family," he said. "They won, I lost. Time to move on."