Farewell, Dr. Varsalona

Dr. Jack Varsalona retired last month, ending his distinguished career as President of Wilmington University. We explore his life, career successes, and hopes for the future.

It was the last time Dr. Jack Varsalona would take the stage as President at a Wilmington University graduation. There he stood this past May, presenting diplomas and holding back tears, realizing perhaps more lucidly that this chapter of his life was ending.

He had always been emotional at commencement exercises. It didn’t matter that Dr. Varsalona had conferred more than 38,000 degrees since taking the helm in 2005. Each graduate had a story. Several were the first in their families to earn college degrees. Many studied while holding down full-time jobs and raising children. Others came to learn new skills to advance in their fields. Some were 25; others 65. Dr. Varsalona understood students who overcame obstacles because he overcame a few himself.

Colleagues attribute the University’s collaborative culture to the former President’s sense of fairness, and his business acumen for its considerable growth. Yet it takes more than business acumen to succeed in higher education, particularly at a unique institution like Wilmington University, where students come first. It takes humanity, empathy, and a genuine belief that every man and woman who works hard, no matter who may have undervalued them before, deserves a chance.

Dr. Varsalona’s benevolence was cultivated early on, long before he first came to then Wilmington College as an adjunct in 1983. “He’s so sincere in his sympathy toward other people,” says former Wilmington University Board of Trustees Chairman Irénée du Pont Jr., a board member since 1973. “He’s gracious, modest, responsive, firm and above all, thorough. He learned the principles of business and ethics in his early childhood.”

Those principles would shape the leader he became.

Humble Beginnings

Born in 1948 to James and Rose Varsalona, Jack Varsalona grew up in a row home in a blue-collar Italian neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey. James, an accountant, was born in Italy; Rose was born in the United States a year after her parents emigrated from Italy. Dr. Varsalona had no siblings but did have 12 cousins, and they gathered at family homes every week.

It was a nice way to grow up, he says, speaking of his close-knit family, as well as an era when neighbors were neighborly and the bonds of loyalty and trust strong.

He’s still in touch with classmates from St. James Elementary — about 30 of the 45-member class showed up at a recent reunion — and from Notre Dame High School, where he made All-State in football, was senior class president and graduated as salutatorian (the student who usually has the second highest rank in a graduating class and delivers the salutatory address at commencement).

At the time, most young men from blue-collar neighborhoods finished high school, then found jobs to help support their families. The Varsalonas were different. James and his brother-in-law, John, served in World War II: James in the Philippines and John in Europe. Both attended college on the GI Bill. They learned the hard way that education was a privilege. So the young Jack Varsalona didn’t have a choice: He was going to college.

The slightly rebellious teenager could’ve veered off the road to academia. One summer during college, he took a well-paying job driving a bulldozer. “I told my father I didn’t know if I wanted to go back to college because it was paying so well,” he says. “And I showed up to work that Monday and they wouldn’t let me on the bulldozer.”

That was thanks to James, who was involved in all aspects of his son’s life — including construction sites. Both he and Rose were ardent supporters of their son until their passing 15 years ago — just eight months apart. They wanted him to attend college away from the distractions of Trenton, and because Dr. Varsalona was an outstanding football player (defensive lineman), he chose to attend the University of Delaware.

That’s where he met his longtime friend and fellow New Jerseyite, Joe Purzycki — an equally exceptional scholarship player (defensive back, and later, captain) — while they were signing up for freshman classes.

“Guys in the ’60s from New Jersey wore black leather jackets,” says Purzycki. “So I see this guy with a black leather jacket, and I walk up to him and say, ‘Hey, where are you from?’ He said he was from Trenton and we became fast friends. Jack was very gregarious from the first time I met him.”

They became roommates, then eventually pledged Theta Chi fraternity. All the frat brothers agreed that Dr. Varsalona should run for fraternity president, but he assumed the higher office of interfraternity council president instead, in his senior year. UD’s interfraternity council governed 10 fraternities and eight sororities, all of which were highly competitive.

“When people are young and headstrong,” says Purzycki, “some solve problems through a show of bravado. But Jack was the conciliator. He could take any two groups, sit them down, and get them to come together.”

Purzycki adds that while Dr. Varsalona suffered a severe shoulder injury that cost him his football career, he continued to support the 1969 Blue Hens and remained close with then head football coach Harold R. “Tubby” Raymond. As interfraternity council president, Dr. Varsalona also was asked to teach math and job skills to UD’s cafeteria staff and fell in love with teaching. He earned three degrees at UD: a bachelor’s in History; a master’s in Education; and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership.

Purzycki became a widely respected head football coach at Delaware State University, then pursued a career in banking, ending as COO and vice chairman of Barclaycard US. Dr. Varsalona stayed with his alma mater at first, serving as its director of Development. Then in 1981, he became special assistant to Delaware Gov. Pierre (Pete) S. du Pont IV, serving as a liaison for the Delaware Education Commission, the National Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, and the National Governor’s Association’s Education Committee. He continued with the state for six more years, aiding various departments and finishing as executive assistant to the State Superintendent of Schools.

When the time came to contemplate new career opportunities, Dr. Varalsona considered several prestigious job offers. None were as altruistic as the one he accepted.

The WilmU Years

Dr. Varsalona had taught courses as an adjunct since 1983, and accepted the full-time post on April 1.

In 1987, then Wilmington College President Dr. Audrey Doberstein recruited Dr. Varsalona for the position of vice president for Academic Affairs. He had taught courses as an adjunct since 1983, but met with Dr. Doberstein to accept the full-time post on April 1 — “April Fool’s Day,” he says, with a laugh. (His formal hire date was April 6, 1987.)

His high profile work in both the public and private sectors had appealed to Dr. Doberstein, but that wasn’t the main reason she hired him. “It was really because he had such a great reputation as an adjunct,” she says. “We got rave reviews about his teaching. His work as education liaison for Pete du Pont was certainly a factor, but when I met him, I could tell immediately that he had all the qualities we needed to fit into our culture.”

It was a caring culture; one that supported an underserved population: working adults who needed flexible schedules and affordable tuition. While many universities today target this demographic, it was a revolutionary concept at the time. Dr. Doberstein cared about all students and believed in giving opportunities to all students, says Dr. Varsalona. “That’s really what attracted me to the job. I learned everything about higher education from her.”

“That’s very flattering,” says Dr. Doberstein. “But Jack is incredibly smart (he is a member of Mensa) and a great communicator. He understands what people need to be inspired and work toward goals. He gets people thinking about what’s important.”

Wilmington College was a traditional school for its first 10 years. “But it was Audrey who saw the need to serve working adults,” says Dr. Varsalona. “She wanted an Education degree, and I told her I wanted to make that happen. So the following September, we had our first master’s program in School Leadership.” (Many academic programs followed.)

The two worked and brainstormed together in the same office for six years, a period both call “very collegial.” Dr. Varsalona was promoted to executive vice president and provost in 1991. When Dr. Doberstein retired 14 years later, he assumed the presidency.

His work enhanced student services and created an active educational community that supported excellence both inside and outside the classroom. Under his leadership, enrollment grew from 10,222 in 2005 to more than 21,000 in 2017; locations increased from four to 11, expanding to New Jersey and Maryland; 118 online programs were developed, making WilmU a regional pioneer in distance learning; and in 2007, to better reflect its strong strategic plan and evolving nature, Wilmington College became Wilmington University.

According to Delaware Gov. John Carney, “Jack has enabled so many Delawareans to advance in their careers because his focus has primarily been on working students. One of the biggest challenges we face in Delaware is developing a workforce that will enable our businesses to be competitive in the future so that we can attract good businesses. That’s the important role Wilmington University provides for Delaware.”

Carney’s predecessor, Jack Markell, agrees. “It’s difficult to think about Wilmington University without thinking about Jack Varsalona,” he says. “And it’s difficult to think about education in Delaware without thinking of him.”

“It’s difficult to think about Wilmington University without thinking about Jack Varsalona,” he says. “And it’s difficult to think about education in Delaware without thinking of him.”

U.S. Senator Chris Coons calls Dr. Varsalona the sort of “value-centered leader who patiently and persistently leads others to value diversity and inclusion, to reach for a higher level of education in our community, and to make a lasting difference.”

The Heart of the Matter

Dr. Varsalona celebrates with scholarship recipients at the first Green & White Scholarhip Ball in 2008.

Dr. Varsalona’s vision spurred monumental success for Wilmington University, though he credits its staff and faculty. “They know how to work together,” he says. “They come up with solutions that improve the lives of students, and they’re so focused on our mission.” His statewide counterparts consider him one of Delaware’s influential leaders in education. Dr. Mark Brainard, president of Delaware Technical Community College and a WilmU alumnus, says Dr. Varsalona has succeeded by being informational and “always placing value on relationships.” Goldey-Beacom College President Dr. Gary Wirt calls him “a master at helping to meet the needs of working students in a way they can afford and schedule.” Another WilmU alumnus, Dr. Fred Keating, president of Rowan College at Gloucester County, says Dr. Varsalona possesses one of the most significant leadership traits: “the desire and ability to nurture future leaders.”

U. S. Sen. Tom Carper has worked with Dr. Varsalona for years, joining forces to serve the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware. (Dr. Varsalona worked with many community organizations for decades and earned multiple service awards.) “So many kids don’t have good role models or they live in unsafe communities, and he’s been a very generous supporter,” says Carper. “He’s got a good mind, a good heart and a great sense of humor.”

Dr. Varsalona’s longtime WilmU colleagues — those who’ve worked with him throughout his entire tenure — think it was his emotional intelligence that influenced the University’s collaborative culture. When they saw limitations, he saw opportunities. Both Dana L. Abbott-Painter, an employee since 1983, and Deborah Morris, since 1987, say he’s always recognized employees’ accomplishments instead of touting his own. Mark Paris (1981) commends him for the University’s growth and for caring about “all those who made the University what it is.”

Alice Corning (1983) first met Dr. Varsalona at WilmU’s Dover Air Force Base site when he was an adjunct. “Nothing ever bothered him,” she says, “even when we played musical classrooms at the last minute.” As time progressed and he became President, Corning adds, Dr. Varsalona visited classes throughout the state. “He takes care of everyone the same way he’d want to be taken care of.”

His successor, Dr. LaVerne Harmon, who became President of Wilmington University this month, says that Dr. Varsalona took advantage of every opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students. “He empowered colleagues to do their best, and he was secure enough within himself to let others shine,” she says. “I admire his courage, sensitivity and intelligence, and the way he led by example. When he made a tough decision, it’s because, as he always said,  ‘It’s the right thing to do.’”

And So We Say Farewell

Dr. Varsalona wants to be remembered, simply, as someone who cared about people. He’s had a happy and fulfilling career at Wilmington University. “There was never a time I dreaded coming to work,” he says. “When times were tense, I’d go sit in classrooms. (He visited more than 350 classes a year.) The students kept me grounded because all the things that go on here support that classroom experience.”

He calls his WilmU colleagues “the kindest people I’ve ever known,” so saying goodbye as their President was hard. He’s an unselfish person. And unselfish people don’t view retirement as sad endings for themselves, but rather new beginnings for others.

“It’s like a Broadway play,” says Dr. Varsalona. “It continues, and the cast changes. I wasn’t in the original cast, and I won’t be part of the final cast.”

For a Broadway show to enjoy a long run, it has to have had a great director. The Honorable Joseph J. Farnan Jr., the chairman of Wilmington University’s Board of Trustees, gives Dr. Varsalona a standing ovation, calling him inspirational. “He has real vision in the education world,” says Judge Farnan.  “He was inclusive. He shared that vision, took input, and inspired others to work as a team and execute the goals of the University.”

That’s not unlike the frat days when the diplomatic college senior built teams within disparate groups. “He never changed,” says Purzycki. “Jack was the person you could trust. He was a loyal friend who would always stand behind you.”

Rowan’s Dr. Keating, whose Gloucester County college partners with WilmU, believes that leaders inspire cultures. “Jack’s style and personality permeated the University,” he says. “He built an institution with credible and quality people; one that’s accessible and affordable. In today’s world, those are probably the two greatest demands. You put all that in a blender, turn it on, and you’ve got Wilmington University. And you had in Jack a leader who positioned it to withstand the slings and arrows of the future.”

There is someone who might feel Dr. Varsalona’s absence even more profoundly than the legions of others he’s inspired. Donna Quinn, executive assistant to the President and secretary to the Board of Trustees, has been by Dr. Varsalona’s side since 1987, when she first served as his secretary. “I have witnessed first-hand his level of caring and compassion for faculty, staff and students,” she says. “He is so genuine and has such a big heart. I’m reminded of his level of humility at every graduation ceremony when he advises the graduates: ‘Whatever you do, please don’t forget where you came from. Because that’s who you are.’ He never forgot where he came from. And that’s a quality that places him above the rest.” WU

 

– Dr. Maria Hess