Ardent Stephen Girard crusader and historian Joseph N. Vendetti, a native of 10th and Wharton streets, passed away on July 3 in Boynton Beach, Florida at the age of 95.
Vendetti, a World War II veteran and father to three children, Joseph, Angelo and Carol, dedicated much of his adult life to advocating for various causes in South Philadelphia, chiefly making local headlines for his decades-long campaign to honor the memory of Stephen Girard, an affluent philanthropist, banker and sailor living in Philadelphia during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Born in 1924 as the eldest of six brothers and sisters, Vendetti grew up in the Passyunk Square neighborhood before serving in the military. Upon returning, he worked as a driver and dispatcher for the Army Signal Corps in South Philadelphia for 31 years before running the supply department at a Center City law firm for 15 years until he retired in 1989.
Throughout his life, reading and writing were Vendetti’s instruments for advocacy success.
Cooped up in the office of his Lower Moyamensing home, he poured hours into typing letters, clipping newspaper articles and delving into piles of research whenever he was amidst a cause dear to his heart, according to his daughter-in-law, Marie Vendetti.
“His hobby was that typewriter…communicating to people, reaching out, touching them. Keeping them informed,” she said. “Letting them know what’s happening.”
As featured in the “One Of Us” column of a January 1999 edition of the “Philadelphia Daily News,” Vendetti’s business card read “R.N.C” or “researcher, newspaper clipper,” as he read five newspapers every day.
Vendetti, who married his wife, Ester Jean, in 1947, not only vigorously clipped articles about his own hobbies, which included traveling and collecting postcards, but he persistently preserved newspaper reports regarding the interests of his loved ones.
“Whatever it was you felt passionate about, he found a way to get everything you needed,” Marie Vendetti said. “If we would have Sunday dinner at our house, he would bring bread, salami and an envelope full of articles….He soaked up knowledge. It was unbelievable. He was the most knowledgeable person I knew. If he didn’t, he’d find out about it.”
Through his friendship with two Girard College graduates, Charlie Roseman and Col. Bob Ross, Vendetti became captivated with the legacy of Girard, according to Marie Vendetti, as well as a report from the “Philadelphia Free Press.”
“When these two guys and I would get together, they talked about their college days,” Joseph Vendetti told the Philadelphia Free Press. “When I retired in 1973, I took up research about Stephen Girard and I thought, ‘Oh my God, Stephen Girard’s wife has been forgotten and ignored.’”
The French-born millionaire, who maintained a home on the grounds of what is now known as Stephen Girard Park at 21st and Shunk streets, is said to have nursed yellow-fever patients to health in the 1790s when the epidemic plagued Philadelphia.
Girard also helped finance the War of 1812 and, most notably, opened the 43-acre campus of Girard College during the 1840s in North Philadelphia. The school was established as a private boarding school for poor white male orphans.
From the 1990s through the early 2000s, Vendetti embarked on various campaigns throughout the city to memorialize both Girard and his wife, Mary Lum, who, in 1790, was committed to the basement mental ward of Pennsylvania Hospital, where she died 25 years later.
“His passion was Stephen Girard,” Marie Vendetti said. “…He just felt he was forgotten.”
One of Vendetti’s first crusades sparked in the 1990s as he picketed outside of Pennsylvania Hospital, advocating for Mary Lum’s tombstone to be placed on the grounds of the Society Hill institution, according to a May 1994 report from the “Philadelphia Daily News.”
In the early 2000s, 81-year-old Vendetti, alongside Girard College alumnus Michael DiMeo, campaigned for the benefactor’s face to be printed on a postage stamp, but the duo faced pushback, as Girard had been labeled a racist by local civil rights leaders, according to a November 2005 report from the “Philadelphia Daily News.”
“My father-in-law didn’t join. He was the leader, and he didn’t back down,” Marie Vendetti said. “He didn’t intimidate. If he knew something was right, then it was right, and it was what he had to do. He just never let anybody diminish his passion.”
Around the same time, Vendetti lobbied for the Thomas F. Donatucci Sr. Library, 1935 Shunk St., to be renamed in Girard’s memory. In the early 2000s, Vendetti sent state Rep. Robert Donatucci and Register of Wills Ronald Donatucci a letter to gain support for renaming the library, according to a 2003 report from the “South Philly Review.”
Shortly after, a hearing was scheduled with City Council to rename the branch, but the late politician’s name was eventually elected to remain as the library’s title.
“I respect the Donatucci family,” Joseph Vendetti told the “South Philly Review.” “They won, I lost. Time to move on.”
“He never sought anything for himself, only for others, and he deserves to be remembered,” Marie Vendetti said in an email “His favorite saying was ‘One day at a time.’ I can only assume he meant if he didn’t win one day, he had another day to fight.”
In December 2009, Vendetti helped to spearhead an effort to erect a plaque dedicated in memory of Stephen Girard on the wall at Holy Trinity Church, which was the site of Girard’s initial internment in 1831, according to the March 2010 edition of the “S&G Quarterly,” a newsletter for Girard College alumni.
According to Marie Vendetti, Girard College named Joseph an honorary “Hummer” – a sobriquet for former students.
Vendetti is survived by his children and three grandchildren, Robert, Gina and Stacey.
“I really want him to be remembered because he deserves so much,” Maria Vendetti said. “He was such a good person. I just want people who knew him to think back and smile and remember a time they were with him because I’m sure…everybody has a story about Joe.”