Governor Tom Vilsack is pondering whether he should seek out information about his birth mother. Vilsack, who was born in a Pittsburgh orphanage, recently received a letter that might have been lost in the volume of mail his staff culls through. But a long-time friend from Mount Pleasant who’s on his staff saw the letter came from Pittsburgh and put it in a pile for him to go through.
“When I looked at it on Sunday, my initial reaction was this is a solicitation letter because it’s the holiday period and that’s usually when you get those kinds of letters,” Vilsack says. “I started reading it and it was a little shocking to read because it was from the administrator of the facility that was indeed the orphanage where I was born.”
The letter included pictures of the orphanage and some of the nuns who may have cared for Vilsack when he was a newborn. “It was a little shocking to receive that on my 56th birthday,” Vilsack says. Vilsack’s birthday was this past Sunday.
Vilsack says the orphanage was started in the 1880s, and run by nuns. “It was a place where unwed moms could come for what they referred to as the ‘period of ‘confinement’…They would be cared for. They would deliver the children and the babies at this facility, so apparently that’s where I was born and then moms would make a decision of whether or not to stay and keep the child or they would leave and have the child put up for adoption,” Vilsack says. “My birth mother made that decision to leave.”
Vilsack’s adoptive mother told him records at the orphanage had been destroyed by fire, but he’s now learned his birth records are still there. According to Vilsack, the records have “non-identifying information” about the religion, education, age and nationality of the birth mothers who gave their children up for adoption. Vilsack doesn’t know yet whether he will seek out his biological mother’s records. “Up to this point, I do not know what my nationality is, but I could learn something about that, perhaps, if I would be willing to send a signed, notarized statement asking for that information,” Vilsack says.
The governor says he is not going to make a “snap decision” about asking for the records. “It’s hard to explain…but you have a sense of loyalty to the family that raised you and you ask yourself: ‘If you ask for this information, are you in any way not being loyal to that family?'” Vilsack says.
The birth mother, if she is still alive, may not wish to be outed, either. “On the other side, there is apparently some health information…so you maybe have a sense of what health problems you may face in the future,” he says.
Vilsack told reporters on Friday morning that he has never before had a desire to track down his biological mother. “The reason I hadn’t is because my parents did a great job of making me feel accepted as part of a family,” Vilsack says. “They made my adoption day a second birthday…so I was always proud of the fact (that I was adopted) and they never hid it.” Bud and Dolly Vilsack, the couple who raised Vilsack, are deceased. His sister died of cancer.
Vilsack says he is proud that the number of adoptions in Iowa is increasing, and he questions new restrictions proposed by the country of China that forbid adoptions of Chinese children to parents who are, for example. “We ought not to be making judgements about whether or not you can be a good parent if you’re this or you’re that,” Vilsack says. “If you love a child and you’re willing to accept that child into your home and you’re willing to accept it with unconditional love, then there should be no question about that.”
Vilsack and his wife, Christie, are the biological parents of two sons, Jess and Doug. “Being able to raise children is such a wonderful experience and such a wonderful gift and some people, for lots of reason that they don’t control, have no ability to have that opportunity, so if you can encourage adoptions — by all means we should do that,” Vilsack says. “We should have a national effort to make sure that there’s never an unwanted child in this country.”
Vilsack leaves office in January and announced earlier this month that he is running for president. In the summer of 2006 when Vilsack’s name was on John Kerry’s list of potential runningmates, a media outlet asked for permission to search for his birth records, and Vilsack told them no.