Wauconda man delights in spreading happiness
Handing out a business card identifying himself as CEO of World Renowned Treasure Hunters, 21-year-old Nick Salvi of Wauconda smiles broadly.
"World Renowned," Nick says, letting those words hang in the air as if contemplating how odd that phrase must sound to a stranger who doesn't know the real Nick Salvi. "Well, I'm going to be."
With childlike enthusiasm, Nick explains how he came to be the guy he wants to be, despite a condition that others find debilitating.
"Treasure hunting has been in my blood since I was little, since I was born," says Nick, who sports a scruffy red beard that adds to his pirate persona. "The hunt for treasure is very exciting because you don't know what is there."
Parents Al and Kathy Salvi, known mostly for their past political candidacies and involvement, gush about how much they treasure Nick even if they don't always know what is inside his head.
"He's the happiest guy you'll ever meet," Al Salvi says.
It's a hot sunny day and Nick ventures onto the backyard deck of the family home wearing ill-fitting, cuffed, pinstriped long pants from a suit and a long-sleeved black sweatshirt.
"That's my thing," Nick says, explaining how he prefers dark-colored clothes and long pants and sleeves even when he is combing a beach on vacation. The deck looks out on a private lake, but Nick will not go into the water. He says he doesn't like the feel of water on his skin and notes that tolerating showers is enough water for him. His favorite spot in the house is sitting on the fireplace hearth, his mom says.
Even as a baby, Nick's unique "quirks" led his mother to take him to a specialist shortly after his first birthday. He was slow to reach the milestones expected of babies, wasn't vocal and had poor muscle tone. Kathy Salvi massaged her baby, who wore orthopedic shoes for a bit. Doctors suspected he fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. The Salvis removed him from the public elementary school and home-schooled their son until high school.
With the help of his parents' advocacy and dedicated educators, Nick avoided special education classes and graduated from Mundelein High School in 2010. He still takes classes at College of Lake County, where his grades range from an A to a D, his parents say.
"I am trying to get an associate degree, and then I'm done with the school experience," Nick says, acknowledging that some things are difficult for him. "But I pull through. I persevere. I show leadership, and I overcome challenges."
It wasn't until he was 18 that Nick and his parents learned those challenges stem from a form of a condition known as Angelman syndrome, a little-known chromosomal abnormality that occurs once in every 15,000 births. The syndrome, named after the British doctor who first diagnosed the condition in three of his young patients with disabilities in 1965, can result in severe developmental issues.
"Angelman syndrome can be very debilitating, very limiting," says Deitra Rucker, resource specialist for the Aurora-based Angelman Syndrome Foundation.
Typically, people with the syndrome have severe problems talking and may only be able to speak a few words, Rucker says. Some have problems walking, moving, going to the bathroom by themselves or eating without the assistance they need all their lives.
But its most recognizable symptom is an almost constant smile, frequent laughter and a euphoric sense of happiness.
"I am happy because I make people happy," Nick explains, refusing to see any disability in that ability. "I make them think they are on the top of the world."
Nick's voice has a lilting, playful quality that almost sounds British. His gait can be uneven, and he has ruled out applying for a driver's license, acknowledging, "I don't have the knack for it." His imagination never seems to take a vacation, and he often questions friends and loved ones with his "what if?" queries. At times, it seems apparent that Nick has learning disabilities. Then he'll provide some insight that makes people suspect he's far more intelligent. One of his teachers recommended him for an honors English class.
"I got my interest in treasure hunting from reading books about adventures, novels, stories about all kinds of treasures and lost gold. I read history for fun and for information and the whereabouts of treasures," says the young man who is a regular at many suburban libraries, and often ends up visiting libraries on exotic vacations in Mexico, Japan, Italy, Spain or the Caribbean islands. "I like going to different nations, different cultures, different diversities."
He takes exhaustive notes while researching the locations he wants to search for treasures. He writes out detailed plans and compiles pages and pages listing relatives, friends and strangers from around the world he might ask to be crew members on a treasure hunt.
"I don't segregate them, because they are all friends to me," he says.
That friendship is genuine, say cousin Quinn Keller and friend Dan Feld, both 19, who stop by just to hang with Nick.
"He's always positive, and you don't have to worry about drama with Nick," says Feld, who notes Nick was among his closest friends at his recent birthday outing. "If you want to put a smile of your face, he's the kid you want to see."
They recall the time, armed with a metal detector, they found a set of rusty brass knuckles in a local field with mobster ties. Another treasure hunt on a farm the family owns in Richmond yielded a few pieces of old currency that Nick researched and concluded are part of the ill-gotten gains that 20th Century bank robber Harvey John Bailey reportedly hid in the area. On trips out of state, Nick has found Civil War relics near old battlefields. During family vacations on beaches or their annual pilgrimage to Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia, Nick has unearthed fossils of everything from whale bones to crab droppings.
In the world where Nick resides, there is no acknowledgment of the few instances when people have made derogatory comments or mocked him. The Salvi family stresses the positive. Nick, who often puts an arm around a parent's shoulder as he talks, speaks lovingly about his parents and siblings, who have dubbed him the "Minister of Entertainment."
"Nicky brings out the best in everybody," Kathy Salvi says.
The second oldest of six Salvi children, Nick notes, "All of us are different, but all of us are the same in other ways." Ask him why he wore a flashy top hat to a school dance, and Nick answers as if trying to convey an obvious answer to someone who struggles with logic. "Well," he says slowly, "it is a top hat." Nick has his own style and is comfortable with his choices.
"All my friends love him," says younger brother, Joe, echoing the sentiments of other siblings.
The Salvis, both partners in a family law firm, acknowledge that Nick is protected by a close-knit family with the financial resources right now to make his life easier. Having used their own money to pay for therapy and education services often available through public funds, the parents admit to concern about Nick's future if that situation changes.
"We don't know what will happen when we're gone," Al Salvi says. Eligible for Social Security benefits since he was 18, Nick only recently started receiving a monthly check. That money is being saved in a special fund in case he needs it someday, his dad says. No one can say what life will bring for a spirited treasure hunter with Angelman's syndrome.
Kathy Salvi turns to Nick and asks her son if he can envision living on his own someday.
Nick nods and, of course, smiles. He talks of living in Hawaii or Florida, getting married and having a family.
"I want kids," Nick says, his eyebrows arching mischievously. "Who else is going to get the treasure-hunting gene and find the stuff I didn't find?"