RBR senior Jeffrey Villapiano of Little Silver is pictured at the Mount Calvary Cemetery the site of his Eagle Scout project. With the assistance of his volunteers, Jeffrey unearthed the hidden gravestones of Italian American victims who died during the great pandemic of the early 20th century.
Press release from Red Bank Regional High School
Red Bank Regional senior Jeffrey Villapiano, a Little Silver resident and member of Boy Scout Troop 126, recently achieved scouting’s highest honor of Eagle Scout. The idea for his Eagle Scout project germinated when he accompanied his father Gavino Villapiano to Mount Calvary Cemetery in Neptune, armed with metal detectors and trash pickers.
The Villapiano men were there on a mission to identify and recover the grave marker of a long-dead relative — Jeff’s great aunt Michelina Villapiano, who died at the age of two in the influenza pandemic of the early 20th century.
“My dad had heard that sometimes the graves were just marked by a lead pipe, as the families could not afford head stones,” explains Jeffrey. “At most, a small metal plaque would mark their identity.”
The Mount Calvary burial ground was used by many Italian American families during those years; a time before regular maintenance was performed on gravesites, and before the names of the interred were even recorded as a rule. Following an afternoon of scouring an old and overgrown section of the cemetery, they discovered the small stone of the child who passed away in 1917, during the onset of the so-called Spanish Flu that infected half a billion people across the world. Father and son lovingly repositioned her stone to see the sun again — and an idea occurred to Jeffrey.
Pictured left to right are Laraine, Jeffrey, and Gavino Villapiano, with RBR principal Risa Clay. Mrs. Clay honored Jeffrey at the October Board of Education meeting for his achievement of Eagle Scout.
In the Eagle Scout spirit of community service, the RBR senior believed that researching and recovering the neglected or overlooked gravesites of his great aunt’s contemporaries could bring the same feelings of joy and closure to other Italian American families — while providing a great assistance to the current Mount Calvary superintendent, who would then log these names in the cemetery’s official records.
Over several months of planning, Jeffrey diagrammed the gravesite area. creating a document for record keeping and data annotations. Then one afternoon, with a group of volunteers and fellow scouts, the area was methodically searched. The party unearthed seven buried grave markers. Five were concrete crosses — ala,s with no identifying marks — but two smaller sites were also discovered, with epitaphs indicating family names and years of birth and death. As Jeffrey suspected, the graves indicated that they were victims of the great pandemic that killed tens of millions of people between 1917 and 1920.
“I sincerely hope that my work will spark in the hearts and minds of others a reverence for Italian American history and legacy…but more importantly, for the hardship and misfortune of countless people during a very dark period of history,” remarks Jeffrey, currently a student in RBR’s Academy of Humanities and Social Science.
At the October School Board meeting, RBR Principal Risa Clay informed the Board of Jeff’s accomplishment in earning his Eagle Scout. She also commended his excellent academic record as an Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate diploma student, who has earned a spot on the honor roll or high honor roll throughout his entire high school career. Jeff is also a member of the National, English and Spanish Honor Societies, and has participated on several high school sports teams, including track, basketball, baseball and football.
Jeff — who plans to attend college upon graduation with a possible major in psychology, philosophy or English — is a first time Eagle Scout in his family, and has also served as a Senior Patrol Leader. Of his scouting career, which began when he was only seven years old, he comments, “I cannot state enough how much scouting has done for me, particularly in developing leadership and management skills.”