New York Daily News -
Kids' hero was 'in it for life'
--Clem Richardson

Monday, July 11th, 2005

A hero will be buried today. We hear that word a lot in this town, but if ever there was a person who deserved the title it is Dr. Vincent Fontana, who passed away last week while vacationing on Block Island.
He was a real hero - no firefighter, police officer or emergency room doctor has saved as many lives as Fontana did over the course of his career.

And if we rain accolades on a person who rides an adrenaline rush to meet the crisis of the moment, what praise is enough for a man who, year after year for more than four decades, put herculean efforts into a Sisyphean task - the fight against child abuse?

It was an issue that consumed Fontana's life. His 1963 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, "The Maltreatment Syndrome in Children," established the criteria for recognizing child abuse, allowing for countless interventions by authorities.

Fontana would expand on those observations in his books, "Somewhere a Child Is Crying" and "Save the Family, Save the Child."

As medical director of the New York Foundling Hospital, a post he assumed in 1963 at the request of Francis Cardinal Spellman and held until his death, he ran an agency that provided a safe haven for hundreds of abused, abandoned and neglected children.

Some of these rescued children are now our friends, neighbors, colleagues and loved ones.

Fontana created a temporary residential shelter at the hospital where abusive mothers and their children could get counseling. He also opened a crisis nursery, a respite for abused and neglected babies.

The fact that more than three-quarters of the children who came into his care were black or Hispanic was of no consequence, although he told me he was dumbfounded by the lack of support the hospital received from many of the city's minority leaders and politicians.

I first met him two years ago when Daily News President and Chief Operating Officer Les Goodstein suggested Fontana would make a good subject for this column.

I've met many fascinating people writing this column, but precious few like Fontana. Benevolence radiated from him like perfume from a flower.

You felt good just being in the room with him.

He called to make a lunch date a month ago. I neglected to write the appointment down and forgot it. When I didn't show, he called my answering machine, and the first thing he asked was if I was all right.

I kept our date the following week. When I turned the corner on Christopher St., he was standing outside the Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection, spare umbrella in hand.

He gave me a personal tour of the multimillion-dollar facility. I often found myself skipping to keep up with him. He took particular pride in "Journey Through Healing," a display of often-heartbreaking paintings and poetry by abused and neglected children from across the state.

We ate sandwiches across his desk. He said he had no plans to retire; he liquidated $1 million of his retirement fund and gave it to the center when it opened last year.

Like the last line of a card he kept on his desk, Fontana said he was "in it for life."

And he was.

A real hero has come and gone.

All contents 2005 Daily News, L.P.

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