Frank Vavala joined the Delaware National Guard in 1965, two years after his graduation from Salesianum School, and over the next half century, his rank rose, as did the scope of his public service. By the time he retired in 2017, Vavala had reached the rank of major general and was the state adjutant general for 18 years.
His list of honors is numerous, and his service outside the military is impressive as well, and for that, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Wilmington will honor him with the Msgr. Thomas J. Reese Award at its annual dinner on April 3. Msgr. Reese was a community activist and the longtime director of Catholic Social Services, the forerunner of Catholic Charities.
Vavala is still wondering why he was selected.
“I don’t want to say it’s embarrassing, but why would you select this guy,” he said recently. “It kind of underscores a commitment to serve the people of God. I’m not a self-promotion guy. It’s a great honor of the highest magnitude.”
He remembers Msgr. Reese, also a Wilmington native who graduated from Salesianum.
“He truly was committed to social justice. He was a champion of human rights, a friend of the oppressed. He did so much. He was a tremendous role model,” he said.
A self-professed “regular guy” from Elsmere, Vavala was a student at the University of Delaware when he enlisted as a private. He served in a multitude of assignments and leadership positions at various levels – platoon, company, battalion and brigade – before becoming a general officer.
Vavala was promoted to brigadier general in 1995 and major general in 2000. He was the highest-ranking member of the Delaware National Guard for 18 years, and before he retired, Gov. John Carney promoted him to general, the first Delaware guard member to achieve four-star rank.
His awards and decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Order of the First State, along with many others. Vavala said his success would not have been possible without the assistance of many others.
“I served with some tremendous men and women. I’ve just been truly blessed,” he said.
Taking care of the needy
The Vavala family settled in Elsmere after World War II, when his father left the military and was looking for a place to raise his family. Like many other Catholics in town, he attended Corpus Christi School, as did his wife, Jane. She attended the parish high school while he went to Salesianum.
The high school sweethearts have been married 51 years and have three children — Anne, Jane and Nicholas – and three grandchildren. They lived just outside of Newport and attended St. Anthony of Padua Parish. Vavala could not help but get involved with activities at the parish and its schools. His daughters went to Padua, where their father helped out Oblate Brother Mike Rosenello, a longtime staff member.
“I was one of his privates in his crew in the kitchen,” Vavala said.
There was also the Italian Festival and various boards and committees at St. Anthony’s.
“My wife used to say I should get a room in the rectory I was there so much,” he quipped. “A lot of what I did was centered around St. Anthony’s.”
A lot, but not all. Vavala is also a member of the Knights of Columbus, the Sons of the American Revolution and the Beau Biden Foundation, to name a few.
He remains active as a veterans advocacy specialist at Delaware Technical and Community College, where he ensures that veterans are getting the benefits to which they are entitled.
“(DelTech president) Mark Brainard invited me to breakfast one day and said, ‘I need you to come work at the school.’ It helps me to stay connected. Being in the military for that long, I was having withdrawal. It was a good transition because I still get to work with the military,” he said.
Vavala would prefer not to make a speech at the dinner, but he knows the work Catholic Charities does would not be possible without its benefactors. Therefore, if he can help the agency, he’ll talk, even about himself.
“It’s not about me. It’s about taking care of those in need.”
To purchase dinner tickets online, visit ccwilm.org/events