LAUREL — Frank Calio wore several hats during his lifetime — including one that spanned more than 50 years in Delaware politics — and was known for never being afraid to speak what was on his mind.
The first Sussex Countian appointed as state election commissioner — a post the Democrat took in 2001 — died peacefully at his Laurel home Tuesday. He was 83.
Mr. Calio, who retired in 2007, had been suffering from health problems in recent years and posted on his Facebook page Oct. 9, “It’s been four years this month I have been on dialysis. Today I have disconnected myself. I’m on my own. Bye to my FB friends.”
“For a long time, he was a very active advocate for the Democratic Party. He was a true and true, no doubt about it Democrat. He rose as high as the State Election Commissioner for one term,” said Laurel Mayor John Shwed. “He had very significant contributions to our community, our state and in some ways, he had an impact on the nation.
“I know he had a call from President Biden last week. The reason the president called, again he (Frank) was such an advocate for the Democratic Party, but more personally he helped Joe Biden when he was 29 years old get elected the first time to the United States Senate. So, Joe never forgot that. Of course, if he didn’t make it to be the senator the first time, he might not have made it to the White House.”
Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford, had been an acquaintance of Mr. Calio’s for many years.
“He was my friend for decades,” he said. “When I had a newspaper back in 1984, he started writing for me when I started the Seaford and Laurel Star newspapers.
“He’s quite a fixture. We didn’t agree politically, but we certainly did agree on what we wanted to see as outcomes, as far as what was best for the community. He will be greatly missed. There’s no question about it.”
He added, “(Mr. Calio) was the type of person who worked hard and wasn’t afraid to express his opinions, and agree with him or not agree with him, you could still be his friend.”
Mr. Calio routinely wrote columns about a wide variety of topics for newspapers throughout Delaware.
“Of course, he was a prolific political writer. He wasn’t afraid to take a stand, what he thought about certain issues," Mayor Shwed said. "He was well known. I would say he was respected by all, even the people of opposing views.”
Prior to his position as election commissioner, Mr. Calio served as director of the Sussex County Airport and Industrial Park, a position that evolved into a role as director of economic development for Sussex County — all of which he did while teaching journalism at Delaware Technical Community College in Georgetown.
That director’s job enabled him to market Sussex County to potential businesses and create more jobs by relocating companies to lower Delaware.
William Pfaff is the current director of economic development for Sussex County, and he also had a relationship with Mr. Calio that went back several years.
“I knew him very well,” Mr. Pfaff said. “Actually, I would say my career started because of Frank. He was on the interviewing team when I applied for the job at the Division of Small Business Development Center at the University of Delaware. We used to joke that I’ve gone full circle.
“Frank was a prince of a man. He (completed his life) his way, and that takes a lot of courage, and I respect him for that. He contributed statewide. He was the type of guy where everybody knew Frank. ... He was like a good neighbor and well-respected. While some people might not have liked his opinions, he was well-respected up and down the state.”
Laurel resident Bob Wheatley, a businessman and longtime Sussex County planning and zoning commissioner, admired Mr. Calio for his caring about other people.
“He was probably the most consistent advocate for the disadvantaged, underprivileged groups of people that I’ve ever known,” Mr. Wheatley said. “He consistently tried to make things better, supported programs that supported that. He supported the library. He was on the hospital board. Of course, he was involved in politics all his life.
“But the politics aside, it was all motivated by the fact that he was a man who just cared deeply about other people. He cared deeply for his fellow man, especially those who needed a hand. That’s the way that I will always remember him.”
Mr. Wheatley continued, “That, and the fact that he was always very good to me, personally. He was a great source of guidance and advice and perspective. He was one of those people who could tell you how things got to be the way they are. And whether it was county government or state government or local politics or what, he could give you the back story. I always appreciated that about Frank.”
Mayor Shwed said Mr. Calio "really did love his Laurel community."
"He always had a big interest in trying to help the community, which is a good town to become an even better small town. He served on the town council for a couple years. He did a good job there," said Mayr Shwed. "He also was the person that helped develop the Sussex County airport. He helped the Boys and Girls Club get started in Laurel. He kind of took that under his wing for a while. I think he made a great contribution to our community and our state."
Mr. Calio had a rather remarkable life story, a fact not lost on the more than 150 who wrote tributes on his Facebook page Thursday.
“My Dear Friend: (I know you can still hear me),” wrote Jill Queen. “I heard of your passing this morning. You and your family were some of the very first people I met in Laurel in a very little shoe store … long ago. … So warm and welcoming. I knew I was here forever.
“I am so sad for myself not to see you on earth, but I will wait until I see you in Heaven. This decision was so important and vital to you and your family. It shows such faith, strength and courage. And the response shows an overall picture of your wonderful life, your amazing family, and all the prayers and praise for your tremendous service to your community. You will be missed by all!”
Sherrie Givens wrote, “The only way to begin, live and end is on our own terms. Prayers for peace, comfort, rest. Everyone knows your name. But only you know your story. Rest well.”
Starting at age 8, Mr. Calio worked with his father in a Laurel shoe business until he bought it in 1969, after which he added a retail outlet for women’s apparel. Years later, he sold his store’s inventory and rented out the retail space.
Mr. Calio, a Laurel High School alumnus, would also write letters to the editor for his father, which started him on a journalism path.
As a member of a bowling league, he started covering bowling news, earning 5 cents for every inch of copy. This led to an offer of a job with the Delaware State News as sports editor, which he turned down.
He often credited his father — an immigrant from Sicily who instilled in him the importance about being patriotic — for molding his political background.
Mr. Calio’s first position in politics was at age 18, when he served as secretary of the Western Sussex Democrat Club.
His political activities also included a stint as chief reading clerk in the Delaware House of Representatives, administrative assistant for Delaware’s secretary of public safety, eight years on Laurel Town Council and Sussex County chairman of the Democratic Party, before retiring as election commissioner in 2007.
Throughout his multifaceted career, Mr. Calio always balanced multiple jobs and took risks.
“(Newspaper editor) Wright Robinson gave me this advice,” he said to The Seaford Star back in 2006. “You never know how deep the water is until you jump in it. I have enjoyed life and had hard times and good times.
“Every defeat has been a lesson in learning. I saw opportunity and took it, and each thing has helped open doors to the next thing.”
Dale Dukes, another Laurel businessman and former County Council member and president, said he will always remember Mr. Calio’s strong work ethic.
“When I first met Frank, he was still in high school,” Mr. Dukes said. “His dad ran the shoe store, and Frank was in there a lot of nights but especially on Saturday night. When all the kids were going to the movies and doing things, Frank was in there working in the shoe store, shining shoes. And he could really put a spit shine on your shoes.
“Frank has always been a close friend — a good friend of mine and always supported me. He didn’t always agree with me, and he would soon tell me if he didn’t. But we respected each other. I had my opinion. He had his opinion about different issues, but it never broke up our friendship. And this was one good thing I could say about Frank: You might not like his opinion sometimes, or he might not like yours, but it would not destroy a friendship. He will be missed.”
Dave Bonar, former Dover councilman and retired public advocate, echoed many of the sentiments about Mr. Calio and called him "one of the most dedicated champions of Laurel, Sussex County and Delaware you could ever want to meet."
"It made no difference whether you saw him at a civic function, an economic development meeting or in Legislative Hall, he always greeted you with a huge smile and the firm handshake of a shoemaker, from whence he came. His word was one you could trust, which is an example we should all try to follow. Whether you were a neighbor in Laurel, a friend in the community, a senator or president of the United States, if you were a friend of Frank’s it was until his last breath," Mr. Bonar said.