In one of our many conversations, Frank Biondi told me: “I was born on Jan. 1, 1933, the first baby born in Delaware in 1933. I didn’t get a damn thing. There were no prizes given for being the first baby of the year because it was in the middle of the Great Depression.”
In his childhood, Frank, who died on May 30, could never have conceived of the honors and awards that would be bestowed upon him. His achievements as an attorney, an advisor to governors and as a community servant would bring significant recognition, including the state’s highest honor, the Order of the First State, as well as the Pro Bono Publico Award from the state Supreme Court and, in 2016, the coveted Josiah Marvel Cup from the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.
He rightfully earned his place in Delaware history as the primary author of the landmark Financial Center Development Act in 1981, which would catapult banking and financial services into the state’s dominant economic driver. Over the years he became the ultimate practitioner of the Delaware Way, a staunch Democrat who skillfully worked both sides of the political aisle, transforming divergent views into consensus and earning the respect of all who knew him.
Frank’s success was rooted in his humble beginnings – growing up on Vandever Avenue on the edge of the Italian-American neighbor-hood known as the Eleventh Street Bridge Colony, the son of a seamstress and a railroad car brake repairman.
His mother instilled a love of learning – taking him to the Wilmington Library almost every Saturday – and the importance of a strong backbone, as when she went to City Hall and complained vehemently about how dynamiting at a quarry on the Brandywine was damaging homes in their neighborhood.
His grandfather taught Frank respect – commanding him to stand up to properly greet a black man who had stopped to chat outside his house. (This was in the late 1930s, when racial segregation was de rigeur in Delaware.)
From his neighbors, he learned the value of a good day’s work, as when he rode in the milkman’s horse-drawn cart making daily deliveries for Fraim’s Dairy. His uncles and cousins reinforced that message – helping repair and improve each other’s homes – and young Frank even helped them build a couple of homes for family members in the Villa Monterey neighborhood off Philadelphia Pike
Growing up in a blue-collar family of limited means helped Frank develop a resourcefulness that would serve him well throughout his life. Unable to attend the University of Delaware because he couldn’t afford to live on campus and had no car for commuting, he used a free train pass – a benefit from his father’s job – to commute to LaSalle College in Philadelphia. When he won a fellowship to study for a master’s degree in economics at Boston College, he asked the Boston relatives of one of his Vandever Avenue neighbors if he could board at their home for a year.
The strength, courage and moral values Frank learned in his early years would serve him well as an adult, most notably when he discovered in 1966 a stunning indiscretion by his mentor and employer, Joseph A.L. Errigo, one of the first Italian Americans admitted to the Delaware Bar. Under Errigo, Frank learned the basics of a general law practice, only to receive the shock of his life when he found that Errigo had been mishandling clients’ funds. Frank signed a warrant for his employer’s arrest – a decision all the more amazing because, at the time, Frank was doing double duty as Wilmington’s city solicitor and Errigo, as Wilmington’s public safety commissioner, was Frank’s boss in the public sector as well.
Following Errigo’s disbarment and conviction, Frank completed a momentous tenure as city solicitor, updating the city charter and other laws and helping guide Wilmington through the aftermath of the rioting that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Regarded over the years as “the Godfather” to the state Democratic Party, Frank would become an adviser to Govs. Sherman Tribbitt and Pete du Pont, working behind the scenes and on numerous boards and commissions, leading prominent newspaper columnists to accord him another appellation, dubbing him Delaware’s “prime minister.”
While his work in government, in shepherding landmark financial services legislation and in state and local politics rightfully enshrined Frank as one of the ablest practitioners of the Delaware Way, some of his most significant achievements took place within the nonprofit sector, most notably when he played the role of Robin alongside the Batman of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, the legendary Rev. Roberto Balducelli.
For half a century, Frank served as the parish’s legal counsel, working pro bono to help transform Balducelli’s dreams into reality.
When “Father Roberto” began building Padua Academy, the high school for girls, a few blocks from the church, the demolition of some old houses was one of the first obstacles he encountered. Frank recalls the pastor telling him, “My job is building things for children. Your job is the law, getting the [demolition] permits.”
A few years later, when Rev. Balducelli identified the need for affordable housing for senior citizens in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood, he called on Frank to navigate the state and federal bureaucracies, persuading the state to lease an old National Guard armory to the parish and securing federal funds to construct the 136-unit apartment building.
“I never had the guts to send him a bill,” Frank said.
Today it’s hard to envision a repeat of the Frank Biondi success story – climbing from humble beginnings on Wilmington’s East Side to the pinnacle of power in the nation’s most identifiable Corporate State but the reality of his rise demonstrates that the unlikely is indeed possible.
When Frank asked me to help write his memoirs, he said his goal was to show his grandchildren that it’s possible to succeed even if you’re not blessed with that proverbial silver spoon. I’m certain that Frank is looking down at us now, hoping and praying that more young people will develop the strength and courage to pave their own road to success.
Delaware journalist Larry Nagengast wrote the narrative of the recently published “Andiamo! The Memoirs of Frank Biondi.”