By Pete Kennedy
Frank Varone grew up the son of a shoemaker, but his parents never intended for him to join the family business. After graduating from high school in 1959 in his native Reading, Pennsylvania, Varone attended Braden’s Prep, a small school in upstate New York that sent many students to West Point military academy, located just a few miles away.
Though he ended up pursuing a business degree, his time at Braden’s — and, later, Valley Forge Military Academy — instilled in him a particular work ethic and set of standards.
“If someone took 10 minutes to do something, you would do it in eight or six. First and file — do it right the first time,” Varone said. “At Valley Forge, it was very regimented. We had the uniforms, marching in the parades and everything else. Make sure your shoes were shined, and everything was done to perfection. It stuck with me.’’
Varone, now 76 and living in north Wilmington, carried those ideals through a career selling insurance. He always wears a sport coat or suit when doing business, setting him apart in a world that has become corporate-casual. He’s been in the business for more than 50 years, with no plans to retire soon.
The grandson of Italian immigrants, he’s also active in the Societa Da Vinci. Varone’s maternal grandparents came from Abruzzi. His father’s parents emigrated from Naples and landed in Reading, Pennsylvania, where his grandfather worked for Reading Railroad. Varone’s father was the shoe repairman, and his mother worked the hosiery mills.
After graduating from Reading Central Catholic High School, Varone had a difficult time getting into traditional colleges before heading to Braden’s in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. Like many of his classmates there, he would frequently hitchhike to visit West Point, and he was often picked up by a woman in a big white Chevy Imperial. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the driver was Kitsy Westmoreland, wife of Gen. William Westmoreland, who would go on to be the commander of U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.
As he prepared to graduate from Braden’s, he considered going to West Point but was uncertain he could handle it, so the colonel who ran Braden’s advised him to try Valley Forge Military Academy first. There, he became good friends with another cadet whose father was an administrator at Goldey Beacom Business College in Delaware. His inclination toward business led him to visit the school, and he ended up earning a degree there.
After college, Varone went to work for Continental American Life Insurance for about 10 years before moving to Nationwide Insurance, where focused mostly on property and casualty insurance. A few years ago, he shifted into a financial advisor position at Nationwide, helping many of his longtime clients navigate life insurance and fixed-index annuities that will provide benefits income for the rest of their lives.
“It’s like, ‘Frank, you did a good job for me all these years, we want to stick with you,’ ” he said. “We made it through the infancy stage, when you first get started, and then the go-go years, when you really get things spinning. Then you get to the slow-go years. That’s where I am right now, and I think so is most of my client base.”
As a member of Society Da Vinci, he has helped to organize the group’s Vendemmia Wine and Food Festival since its inception 14 years ago.
“All the revenue we generate, we put back into the community to enhance Italian culture,” he said. “We get a lot of requests for grants. We’ve been averaging over $25,000 or $30,000 per year.”
There are big changes to the event this year, Varone said. The two main culinary and wine events put on by the society — Primavera in April and Vendemmia in October — will be combined.
“Instead of having it outside with vendors, it will be in the Hilton, in October. It will be limited to about 350 people, and it’s going to be an upscale event with entertainment, wines and food,” he said.
Varone enjoys traveling with his wife, Connie, a retired director of business operations at Delaware Technical Community College. They’re headed to Morocco in September, then to South Africa in October.
The couple married in 2014, after a courtship that traced, and re-traced, many miles in Wilmington. Before Varone asked formally asked her out, the pair would walk together along the Brandywine Creek after attending daily Mass at St. Ann’s.
“For a little over two years, we’d walk every day,” he said.
Varone, who has three grown children from a previous marriage, decided to finally ask Connie to dinner. She accepted, and they were engaged within a year. He picked the date of their wedding, Jan. 11.
“I said, look, if we pick 1-11, I’ll never forget our anniversary.”