In the southern-most region of Italy, down as far as the toe of the “boot”, sits the beautiful province of Calibria. Ancient churches and villages lie in the shadows of ruins, echoing a past that speaks of the peaceful lives of fishermen and farmers. Mountains loom over the shoreline and beaches. This idyllic setting is where Nick Varacalli’s story begins. He wasn’t born in Calibria, but his parents were. Rocco and Threesa Oloffo Varacalli’s immigration to America, and their decision to settle in Southern Illinois, meant that Nick would be born here on July 17, 1932, and grow up here, right in the middle of our Italian-American community. And this year, 2010, Nick has been chosen to be the Grand Marshall for the HerrinFesta Italiana Parade on Saturday morning, May 29. “I can’t describe the honor they have bestowed on me.” His humility is part of his charm, and as Nick and his family lead the parade down Park Avenue, he will see just how much he is loved and appreciated by Herrinites, young and old.
As Nick likes to say, he was born “under a bush” – that is his colorful description of his birthplace, Bush, Illinois. But he soon became a familiar sight in neighboring Herrin, and Herrin is where he considers home. He has served Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church since his boyhood, where he was baptized, confirmed, and served as an altar boy. He later became a lector, reading the General Intercessions at Eucharist celebrations and special liturgies. Early on, feeling the call of the priesthood, Nick attended St. Henry’s seminary in Belleville. He never became a priest, but instead came back to finish his secondary education at Herrin High School.
His childhood was a happy one, but one that was also fraught with hardship. He and his sisters, Grace and Gloria, knew hard work from an early age. Nick not only worked in the strip mines, feeding the mules, he could also be found working at Marlow’s Theater, Moroni’s Drug Store, Rector Brothers Clothing Store, and as clean-up boy for his godfather Sam Russo at the Green Lantern, a well-known Herrin night club. He contracted tuberculosis at the age of fifteen, and would spend three years in a sanitorium in St. Louis. He remembers that it was a miracle he survived. “In those days, when you got TB you were supposed to die.”
The 1930’s and 40’s, Nick’s childhood years, were tumultuous times for Italian-Americans in Herrin, Illinois. Not only were the Italians themselves divided, – Northern Italians and Southern Italians lived in separate parts of town – but the Ku Klux Klan sought them out for one of the very things as natural to them as breathing – wine making. Many of the Italian patriarchs were sent to prison for “bootlegging” during Prohibition, and Nick’s father Rocco was no exception. Despite the many disadvantages he endured – he could not speak a word of English until he started school – Nick still remembers his childhood fondly.
On January 26, 1957, he married Stella Mae Jones, in Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. They raised a fine family of four children – Rocco, Nick Jr., Cindy, and Lori Ann. Stella died in 2004, after forty-seven years of marriage to Nick. He remembers the day he buried her, when over 250 people crowded in at her graveside service to be with him and their children, a testimony to the love his friends and neighbors feel for him.
Nick attended Southern Illinois University, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Technical Engineering. Because of work and his many civic duties, he was unable to finish his dissertation, but received an ABD (All But Dissertation). A Civil Defense worker in 1951, he was there during the aftermath of the West Frankfort mine explosion that killed 119 people. Olin Matheson (now General Dynamics) hired Mr. Varacalli, starting him as a draftsman, and he retired from there as Lead Engineer. He attended the launching of a missile at Area 51 in Nevada, and a space shuttle at Cape Canaveral (Now Cape Kennedy) in Florida. He taught drafting at John A. Logan College, and coached basketball at St. Mary’s (OLMC).
To really know Nicholas Joseph Varacalli, one needs only look to his years of community service. The list of civic organizations Nick has belonged to is a long one. Following is a representation of the organizations privileged to have him on their roll: Knights of Columbus (he was a five-term Grand Knight), VFW, Fin and Feather, Elks, American Legion, Eagles, Buccaneers, Redman Lodge, CC Club, Pigeon Inn, Rome Club. He was instrumental in the planning, coordinating, and cooking for the very first Mayor’s Thanksgiving Dinner, an annual charitable event started by the late Mayor Ed Quaglia in 1988, and he has been a fixture there every November since. He delighted a generation of Herrin children as Ole Saint Nick every Christmas when he dressed as Santa for the Elks and the VFW. He was a familiar figure in the Keystone Cops, a national event sponsored by the Elks, to benefit disabled children; and he still serves as flag carrier for the military funeral detail that appears by request at veteran funerals in Herrin. He is easy to spot, even from behind – he is the one with the silvery pony- tail cascading down his back.
Nick is a familiar and beloved fixture in his hometown. The Herrin VFW makes certain they always have his favorite wine on hand – Livingstone Red Rose. Jim Gentile, Executive Director of HerrinFesta, who has known “Nicky” his entire life, says that he has a very gentle and warm heart, and is a man full of passion, who enjoys putting smiles on people’s faces. Smiling himself, Jim says, “When the love of his life, Stella, passed away, Nicky asked that instead of money being spent on flowers, he would rather her many friends and loved ones take someone they love to lunch. That’s just the kind of man Nicky is.” Always humble, Nick says, “I never did one thing for Herrin. They did everything for me – not just me, all of us. Herrin has been a good town for everybody. I’m proud to be from here.”