The loss of an icon
Sicilians remember Sebastiano Sbona, former mayor of sister city Melilli
MIDDLETOWN —The former mayor of Middletown’s sister city of Melilli, Sicily, is being remembered this week as a man of integrity and vision who changed the lives of those he touched.
The longtime politician and ambassador to Middletown’s Sicilian population, Dr. Sebastiano Sbona, died Tuesday from complications of pancreatic cancer. Sbona had just turned 70, his cousin Tony Milardo said.
“Everyone who knew him called him Ianuzzo — or Iano” — for short,” Milardo said. “He was a gentleman. He was like an icon over there in the provinces of Syracusa and Palermo,” said Milardo, 66, whose father and Sbona’s mother were brother and sister. Milardo, a Vietnam veteran, was born in Melilli and came to America in 1951 at age 7.
Sbona was also the former regional deputy of Melilli.
“He was a people person, a family man. He cared for the citizens of Melilli. He did so many favors because of job scarcity over there,” his cousin said. “He was very religious and his brother was a priest. A good, good man. I can’t even describe how good this man was,” he said.
One of Middletown’s most popular mayors, Anthony “Buddy” Sbona, who died in 2003 at 73, was a second cousin.
“How ironic is that,” Milardo asked, sitting at the kitchen table of his home at Stonegate Apartments. His sister Tina (Milardo) Maselli
Sbona was elected in 2001 to the Palermo Regional Assembly. He served five years. Milardo said his cousin was involved in politics from a very young age — about 24.
Sbona was a councilman in Melilli, a mayor several times, and president of the council on many occasions, Milardo recalled. After obtaining his medical license, Sbona became chief medical legal officer for the provinces of Syracusa and Ragusa.
“He handled workman’s comp and disability. He was also a forensic pathologist,” Milardo said. “He did so much. It’s amazing.”
Sbona leaves behind his wife, Filomena; his daughter, Ester; son, Salvatore; and grandson, Sebastiano, his namesake.
Middletown Common Councilman and former mayor Thomas Serra met Sbona at the beginning of his council career in the early 1980s while Sbona was mayor. “When we went over there, he treated us like kings and queens,” Serra said. In 1994, when Serra was mayor, Sbona came to the city with about 70 people, including his family and members of a band who played at the high school and South Green.
Sbona was last in Middletown in 2011, Serra said, and while Sebastian N. Giuliano was mayor, the council honored Sbona with a resolution that his daughter read in English. Many former residents of Melilli integrated in upper Middlesex County, Serra said. “They came to Middletown, Portland, Cromwell. Some were farmers and — a lot of them were stone masons because of the quarries.” Some went to Massachusetts quarries, too, he recalled.
Serra remembers one time, when he and his wife were in Melilli in 2008 on a 12-day trip, she came down with laryngitis. “(Sbona) was in a special council meeting and she couldn’t talk. He told her to open her mouth and look down and saw she had a red throat. He actually prescribed medication for her,” said Serra.
That’s not the only time Serra saw Sbona’s caring side. “When he came over in 2009, my son had been in a severe accident, so he came to visit him at the Hospital for Special Care and checked him out.
“‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘You’re going to come out of this. As long as your joints are not compromised, you’ll be fine,’ ” Serra recalled. “My son remembers that he told him he would walk again. He always remembers Dr. Sbona being positive.”
Serra remembered a story his older son told him when he was visiting Melilli for his honeymoon. “At the airport (Sbona) had a sign saying, ‘Jason and Jill Serra.’ He was holding the sign. That’s the type of guy he was.”
Sbona was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March. “It was a shock,” Serra said.
Milardo said when he visited Sbona earlier this
“Everyone who knew him called him Ianuzzo — or Iano” — for short . ... He was a gentleman. He was like an icon over there in the provinces of Syracusa and Palermo.” Tony Milardo, Sebastiano Sbona’s cousin
year, he was resting on the couch and although the family didn’t speak about Sbona’s health, Milardo knew something was wrong.
Milardo’s aunt and uncle, Sbona’s parents, came to Middletown in the 1950s, he said. Sbona and his brother, who eventually became a priest, and sister stayed behind.
“Sebastiano was so young,” Milardo said, “he still had to go through school, so my aunt went back and my uncle stayed here.”
The family lived on Hotchkiss Street. His uncle Salvatore worked at Goodyear Rubber as a carpenter until 1968, Milardo said, so he could get his full pension, then returned to Melilli. He put his son through medical school, Milardo said, but sadly didn’t see his son become a doctor.
“His first time in the U.S. was 1975,” Milardo said. “He was a young politician and just finished medical school — he was 28 or so — and stayed here two or three weeks. He started to love it here. We tried to make him stay,” Milardo said. “He liked the medical system, how it worked.”
“It was nothing like socialized medicine,” back in the home country, he said.
Still, Sebastiano told his cousin, “‘My language is over there.’ He was going to get married eventually. He made several trips here after that.”
Sbona was mayor of Melilli in 1982, when the two towns first officially pronounced themselves sister cities. At the time, Sbona told The Press, the sisterhood was intended “to deepen and reinforce the connection, seeking to establish cultural, commercial and social ties, between the two cities.”
At the time, Michael Cubeta was mayor of Middletown. “He came here and Sen. Lowell Weicker and U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson made sure he took a trip to the White House,” his cousin said. There was a big celebration, with 400 people, at Wesleyan University’s McConaughey Hall, where the tennis courts are now, he said.
Former mayor and now Common Councilman Sebastian N. Giuliano, who met Sbona around 2003 when he visited Middletown, said Sbona was very impressed with Middlesex Hospital.
“The level of technology that is available to us here and how reliant on that technology the delivery of medical service is now in the United States. Doctors over there are almost like doctors were in the 1950s and 1960s in this country,” Giuliano said. “They diagnosed based on their personal observations — whereas we go with all kinds of technology and diagnostic tools and the batteries of tests we run.
“They’re more like seat-of-the-pants airplane pilots as opposed to the guy flying on instruments now.”
Giuliano last visited Melilli in 2011 with his wife and daughter. “I’d love to go back. Going back and not seeing him there, it’s going to be different. He was so much of a fixture.
A memorial Mass will take place Thursday at 7 p.m. at St. Sebastian Church, 155 Washington St.
The former mayor of Melilli, Sicily; Sebastiano Sbona, 70; center, died at home on Tuesday of pancreatic cancer. Shown at left are Sbona’s brother, Monsignor Ignazio Sbona; and cousin, Tony Milardo, of Middletown.
A woman honors a statue of St. Sebastian during the annual feast at Middletown’s St. Sebastian Church. In Melilli, Sicily, Middletown's sister city, the patron saint has been celebrated for more than 600 years.