Phil Variano Tribute


A truly fitting tribute to Phil Variano would be titled “balance” — and not just because of his surprising physical flexibility (he’ll happily oblige impromptu requests to assume the crow yoga pose). His students, players, and colleagues extol his ability to blend humor and heart. “He made it fun but also pushed you to compete,” recalls one of his squash players. “More than just funny, though,” explains one of his peers, “I think about his fundamental decency, his resolve, and his humanity.”

Balance does more than just facilitate a killer squash serve or keep a seemingly infinite supply of The Call of the Wild copies stacked on an office shelf (ask Phil about both of those). Balance enables a man to endure for 41 years as both a leader and a friend, someone who wields inspiration and impact with equal deft. 

This man’s attention to detail and operational talent enabled many of Hackley’s most critical functions to run seamlessly — among them the Academic Committee, the campus master plan that brought Saperstein Hall and the Johnson Center to life, the restoration of Goodhue, the procedures that enabled Hackley to reopen in the middle of a pandemic, the COVID-19 Commencement for the Class of 2020, and interim gigs running the Lower, Middle, and entire School. Phil is responsible for hiring the most talented faculty of the past quarter-century and has driven everything from the minibus to the long-term vision of the campus.

But none of these accolades sufficiently conveys the spirit of Phil: the friendly face that greets parents and students at morning drop-off; the warmth that carries through the phone line with a snowy update from “our beloved Hilltop;” the institutional cheerleader who playfully leered at Mrs. Hackley in honor of her birthday and gladly shook a leg for an alumni TikTok video; the incorrigible satirist who marched through the halls in a yellow hazmat suit during the Upper School’s 2008 norovirus outbreak; the softball coach who removed the wolf cutout from the outfield and stuck its head out his car window while he drove down Benedict Avenue; the early 1980s bus driver for Hackley Day Camp who kept a carton of eggs on board to throw at vehicles that did not heed his stop signal.

Phil brings his whole self to his work without making the focus about himself. He naturally excelled at the recruiting function because he absorbed the talents of Hackley legends like Dan Di Virgilio, Ron DelMoro, and Walter Johnson and had the intuition to probe for those attributes in potential educators.

When those teachers — who attest to surprise at receiving an offer after they gleaned no feedback from Phil’s poker face during the interview — joined the faculty, they relished his presence as a discreet confidant. Through the simple act of listening thoughtfully, Phil earned a reputation as someone in whom his colleagues could place complete trust. As one of his closest collaborators observed, “he’s an inspiring combination of head, heart, and backbone.”

Off campus, Phil is no less generous, approachable, and omnipresent. His family enjoys the same wit, wisdom, and dependability that he offers to his students, players, and colleagues. From lugging furniture up (and then back down) New York City apartment staircases to teaching the rules of the road to pioneering Taco Tuesdays long before they were widely fashionable to making countless airport runs, Phil did so earnestly — and often while tunefully belting out the greatest hits of Elvis Costello, The Strokes, and Tame Impala. He took his children to hip concerts in the city (usually on school nights), helped them traverse cross-country moves, and served as the go-to counselor they relied on to talk them through any challenge. It was never too early in the morning, late at night, or far away for him to lend his reassuring hand. Whether over the phone or live in his fauna-festooned office in Minot Savage, Phil never failed to demonstrate his availability, commitment, and love for his children. 

One alumnus of Phil’s early classroom and squash court days argues that Phil belongs on Hackley’s Mount Rushmore for the impact he had on that graduate and so many others under his tutelage. It’s fitting, then, that Phil’s gargoyle is perched above the Middle School arch where his smile and character can greet every student arriving on the Hilltop — and inspire them to balance humor and heart as he does.

-- With thanks to Francesca Delia ’13, Mort Dukehart H ’15, Margie McNaughton Ford ’85, Charlie Gallop ’14, Andy King, Jeniffer Moroney, and Scott Roberts ’88