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Frankie Russo. The Torrington legend left us better than he found us.

POSTED February 18, 2019
BY Timothy W. Gaffney
Twitter: @TimothyGaffney


Torrington Loses One of the Last Great Ones

TORRINGTON: I don’t think the headline to this story can be overstated.

Francis Russo Sr, or “Frankie” to those of us lucky enough to get to know him, passed away peacefully in New Jersey on Sunday, February 10 and the world will smile a little less without the magic of this fine gentleman.

Everyone has a Frankie Russo story and, in the spaces, below, many who were fortunate enough to know him are paying tribute, as will I.

I first met Mr. Russo at the very first Varsity Alumni Club dinner I attended at the Riverton Inn close to 20-years ago when I was free-lancing for the Torrington Register Citizen and got the assignment to cover the event which I knew nothing about.

To say that it was an impressive get together would be an understatement and to say equally that I felt overwhelmed would fall into that same understated category.

I was seated at the head table, next to Paul Denza, Andy Pace, Frankie Russo and other members of the VAC committee and in front of us in a gorgeous room at the Inn where the student/athletes who were that year’s recipients of the Scholarships that would be handed out.

As was tradition, the VAC members wanted to make sure the young folks who were getting the funding to help further their education were up to speed on what was happening in the world around them, not just in the halls of Torrington High School.

So, Andy Pace, another tremendous man who we lost a few years ago, would stand up and challenge the kids to a series of questions that they either had to individually answer or could do so as a group if instructed to do so by the head table.

Now, these were no softball questions and the answers were not to be lobbed back to the table either. Mr. Pace meant business and Mr. Russo was there to make sure they had put some thought into their answers or face the challenge of why they thought that way.

Terror would overcome some of the kids as they understood they had just low-balled the answer and had to figure out a way out quickly.

It was all done a bit of fun, but these gentlemen wanted to make sure they were dealing with critical thinkers, just like they had been growing up playing sports and loving everything about Torrington and THS.

The legendary School Boy Invitational Basketball Tournament was created by the VAC and attracted players and college scouts from around New England. Afterwards, everyone would pile into Dick’s Restaurant for a meal and more laughter.

Since that first dinner at the Riverton Inn, I have attended many a Varsity Alumni Club Dinner and have always felt like I was in the presence of some of the best people I would ever have the privilege to know.    

So, we may have lost a great one in Frankie Russo, but we were fortunate enough to have known him and what we owe him is to carry on the great works that he started so many years ago.

Tradition only dies when we forget so what do you say we just don’t lose track of the message Frankie Russo spoke loudly every moment he was on this earth and that was to celebrate and support the youth in Torrington. The place he loved to talk about.   

Mario Longobucco (Current VAC President)

“One by one, we are losing these legends of Torrington. If Andy Pace was the brains of the Varsity Alumni Club, then Frankie was the engine. His endless energy has left an impact on Torrington Athletics that is still felt today. I know I speak for the rest of the officers in the Varsity Alumni Club when I say we are proud to carry on the legacy that these great men created.”

Tony Turina (VAC Board Member)

What made Frankie special to me is that he was that one person we meet in life that you can always say, "He was one of a kind.  There is only one Frankie Russo".

His commitment to the Torrington Athletic Community along with all the grammar school aged kids for the past 55 years never wavered.  His dedication and love for all the student athletes at Torrington High School will be forever remembered for decades to come. I absolutely loved the man and will forever have that smile or tear in my eye when fondly thinking about him.

Memories: I have known Frankie since I was a 6th grader in 1962.  Frankie, along with many other notable individuals, brought the Varsity Alumni Basketball League back for the past.

I fell in love with basketball being around so many talented, wonderful people.  Fast-forward to 1968, I was presented the First Annual Varsity Alumni Scholarship. It was for $300.  Whenever and wherever we would meet, Frankie would always remind me and those in attendance of my receipt of the scholarship check.  Looking back, I think I received that check for 'future services to be rendered" lol.  In 1973, I was selected president of the VAC, winning the election 2 votes to zero.  I received my votes from Frankie and Andy Pace. In November of that year, the club would have their annual Thanksgiving Dinner/Dance and that, coincidentally, was the same night of my first date with my wife-to-be, JoAnn.  That night, Frankie announced to the crowd that my presence in the club now ensured that they will have 'young blood' running the club for decades to come. To this day, he would always remind me of the introduction that evening and, 47 years later, I'm still here. I'm sure he is smiling proudly from heaven!

Paul O’Heron (VAC Board Member)

Over the seven plus decades of its existence, The Varsity Alumni Club is an organization that has been built on the hard work of many dedicated individuals.  Without a doubt the one irreplaceable member, the man who piloted the club to its greatest successes, was Frank Russo.  I know this because over the years, whenever I asked the elders of the club (Andy Pace, Lou Zanderigo, Sonny Toce and others) how the club became so successful they all would answer with the same single word, Frank.  His leadership, energy and enthusiasm for the city of Torrington, its youth and its athletes, was second to none.  He was a tireless advocate for the club and its mission.  I first got involved with the VAC in my early twenties.  At the time the club was well established and was running the Varsity Alumni Basketball League for the city’s youth from fifth to eighth grade.  I remember Frank telling me when I started that there were only two rules for the league:

  1. Every child had to play at least one quarter of the game.
  2. NO KID WILL HAVE TO PAY TO PLAY.

They did run a candy sale to fund the league however and they asked every player to sell one box.  Players could sell more than one of course and the club had a contest with prizes for the kids that sold the most.  I can still see Frank with the kids gathered around him, getting them pumped up to sell the extra boxes.  He was a great salesman with a huge heart.  Of course, Frank was the one who secured the majority of the donations for the contest.  I remember him asking me to help him deliver a bike to a sixth grader at the top of Highland Avenue.  As you can imagine there were a lot of smiles that afternoon.

Frank put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces.  If you had one conversation with him, you remembered it forever.  He will be missed.

Mark Reichenberg (VAC Board member)

Frankie was like a second father to me. My father passed away when I was 15 years old and I was an only child.  He kept his eye on me, making sure that I did the right things.

He was my Little League coach and encouraged me to play Babe Ruth baseball. When I went to college (Central Ct. State) he got me summer time jobs working for the Park and Rec. and I ended up playing softball for the Varsity Alumni Club for about 10 years.

Of course, Frankie was the coach. During this time period I helped him with the Varsity Alumni Softball Tourneys and sold tickets at the SIT. I remember when Frankie brought about 150 Varsity Alumni players to Central for a basketball game.

He would seek me out to see if I needed anything. Later on, in life he found me a part time job when I was looking for one. He asked me to become involved with the Varsity Alumni Club which became a no brainer.

I owe this man a lot. He was a neighbor, father figure, coach and most importantly friend.

He will be missed.

Park and Rec Commissioner in the 70's

Fountain in Coe Park (Frankie’s Fountain or Russo's Rock Pile)

There was no director, so Frankie ran the department for months.

Torrington Varsity Alumni Club

Supported

- Basketball league for boys and girls

- Fundraising for Club

-SIT basketball tourney

-Softball tourney

-Clam bakes

-Scholarships

Athletic accomplishments

- 3 sport letter winner at THS, baseball, basketball football

- Beat out Jimmy Piersall for All-NVL Centerfielder

- Longest interception return for a touchdown at THS (99 yards)

The Obituary for Francis Russo Sr.

Francis Russo Sr., better known to his friends and loved ones as “Frankie,” was born in Torrington, Connecticut on September 6th, 1929 to John and Margaret Russo.  He was a dedicated and loving husband, father, brother, uncle, cousin, grandfather and friend. 

Frankie was happily married for 67 years to his wife, Betty Russo.  He took pride in his family, including his son Frank Jr., daughter-in-law Robin, grandchildren Ryan and Casey, his sister Doris, many nieces and nephews, and amazing friends.

Frankie graduated in 1947 from THS and was an outstanding 3-sport athlete, who truly loved Torrington and helped to start the Varsity Alumni Club. Best known for his generous heart, his ability to communicate with everyone that he met, pushing agendas forward that benefited the youth, while challenging others “to do the right thing”. Frankie died peacefully at St. Clare’s Hospital in Dover, N.J. on Sunday, February 10th surrounded by loved ones.

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