Tom Varano’s father broke his back while serving his country. He lived a hard life, racking up four ex-wives in the process. But no matter how much of a failure he saw himself as, Tom always saw his father as his hero. No matter how tight the budget, his dad prioritized a life of passion for Tom. Nothing, says Tom, was too daunting for his father to support.
It was his father who introduced Tom to his first camera. It didn’t matter that times were tight. He’d found the camera on QVC, and surprised 14-year-old Tom with it one day. “Son,” he said, “See what you can do with this camera.”
Tom spent that summer studying photography, learning about his camera, and falling in love with the art of it all.
Photography wasn’t the only experience or pursuit his father opened up for Tom. There were flying lessons, scuba classes, and basketball practices. All his life, says Tom, his father poured everything he had into his son, encouraging him to try different things and supporting whatever it was Tom was passionate about. But out of all the things Tom was introduced to, photography was what grabbed him.
Tom was confident with a camera in his hands. He also knew his way around a computer. When he turned to his father for advice on a college pursuit, his dad suggested computer science. It made sense to pursue this promising career path, and Tom gave it a shot.
He lasted two weeks.
What had been interesting on a high school level was positively uninteresting on a college level. A cubicle was no place for him and punching in computer code was not feeding his soul. He called his father.
“Dad, I want to make a change. I want to study photography. I love photography. I have a passion for it.”
Just like he’d always done, Tom’s father backed his son. “Let’s make the change,” he said.
Any qualms may have had about shifting his career path were no match for his growing passion. With every lesson in lighting, equipment, posing, and photo appreciation Tom felt his love for the art grow. He knew what he wanted to do with his life.
Within a few short years Tom Varano was living his dream.
His father helped convert their home into a studio and office for Tom’s photography business. His high school sweetheart became his wife and they were blissfully broke together, eagerly gazing into their future.
The newlyweds immersed themselves in nature, with the Adirondack mountains for a playground. They also immersed themselves in their faith, regularly attending church and giving thanks for their blessings.
Most of the time their meager finances didn’t weigh on Tom. He knew it was a temporary point in their life and his blessings far outweighed his worries. But sitting in church one Wednesday evening, Tom felt his frustration taking a firm grasp. As the collection basket wound its way from pew to pew and hand to hand, all Tom could focus on was his empty pockets and his inability to give back.
He bowed his head. His eye fell on his ring finger bearing his prized possession, a gold nugget ring given to him by an aunt on his 12th birthday. Quietly, stealthily, Tom slipped that ring off his finger and placed it in the collection basket. He said nothing about it to his wife or his friend beside him. He felt no remorse or loss. He felt only blessed.
“You can never out-give God,” he says.
Three days later Tom donned a tuxedo and showed up at one of his first professional events as a wedding photographer. He wasn’t thinking about anything other than his wish to make everyone he photographed feel beautiful and joyful. He was in his element and his emotion translated into his art. People smiled when he did. They threw their arms up and felt the moment when he guided them to do so. So lost was Tom in his work that he didn’t notice the man approaching behind him.
A tap on his shoulder introduced Tom to the man who would change his life.
“You love what you do, don’t you said the man.”
The conversation lasted just a few minutes. The man introduced himself as Lee, and his wife Sue. He told Tom how impressed he was by his obvious passion, and that he felt he simply had to invest in him. They swapped business cards and Tom returned to work mildly befuddled by the conversation.
Unable to locate Lee at the event’s end, Tom was left with unanswered questions about this mystery man. The mystery was partially answered and partially deepened just two days later.
“Hi Tom it’s Lee. Do you remember me from the wedding?” came the voice on the other end of the phone.
The conversation went from unusual to incredible as Lee explained he had no interest in owning a part of Tom’s business. Rather, he wanted a piece of the passion Tom exuded. Lee managed 29 billion dollars in a mutual funds company. He was financially flourishing but suffering a deficit in passion. He was insistent on investing in Tom himself. “Come to Manhattan and I’ll explain it all to you,” said Lee.
Tom laughs as he recalls his disbelief, thinking Lee had to simply be a crazy man luring him to a gruesome death. He laughs even harder remembering how his old-school Italian father screamed at him to “Go see the guy!”
A few days later Tom and a buddy flew to the Big Apple, courtesy of Lee.
One wonderment after another ensued that day. From the flight, to the majestic city skyline, to the enormous glass building and the view from Lee’s 40th-floor office, Tom was bombarded with awe. Lee only added to it.
He was a massive man, remembers Tom. His handshake seemed to shake Tom’s whole body. But more massive than his physical presence was his giving heart.
By the time Tom left Lee’s office, Lee had resolved $60,000 of debt Tom carried.
He’d also written almost $50,000 in checks to help Tom launch his business and buy a reliable vehicle. Tom’s worry that he could not accept this generosity or repay it were met with Lee assuring Tom it wasn’t about the money; He simply expected Tom to help someone else out one day.
It was a life-changing day for Tom not just because of the new financial lease he’d been given, but the spiritual lift and new determination to live up to the faith and support he’d been given from his father, his wife, and now Lee.
For the next 20 years, Tom threw himself into a life of purpose and passion. For four years, every month, Lee flew Tom to New York city so they could have lunch together. The loss Tom felt upon the death of his benefactor, mentor, and friend, lingers, but the gratitude for his presence in Tom’s life out-powers the pain of his loss. Tom and his wife had two beautiful daughters. He ran a successful photography business. He created a community outreach basketball program and ran it faithfully every Sunday night. He reached into the life of an 8-year-old boy who would one day reappear in Tom’s life, in a miraculous manner. And then he took his passion to stages across this country.
His story of discovering his talent for speed painting is both funny and inspiring. He laughs as he recalls his disastrous first attempt and the extraordinary lengths he went to, to create his own painting pit as he taught himself the art. He becomes emotional when he shares the moment he performed again for his wife and daughters, with a beautiful success, and he absolutely beams when he talks about his joy in taking his work across this country.
He tells his audiences;
[click_to_tweet tweet=”“The most important thing for all of us is just finding something we want to pour our lives in and then just do it with everything we have.” – Tom Varano” quote=”“The most important thing for all of us is just finding something we want to pour our lives in and then just do it with everything we have.” – Tom Varano” theme=”style5″]
Tom’s father poured everything he had into his son. Lee poured his generosity, inspiration, and insight into the young photographer with unmatched passion. And Tom pours everything into his family and his calling to use art as a medium to inspire and impact others.
Three days after Tom sat in church and offered up the very last thing he owned and cherished, a miracle appeared in his life in the form of Lee. Seven years later the pastor of that church returned his ring.
A decade after Tom reached into the life of an 8 year old boy, that boy was the EMT who first responded to the scene of his daughter’s car accident.
Everyone he paints – all the famous heroes and inspirations like MLK, Mother Theresa, or the soldiers who give their lives in service, went all in on their passion and purpose. Their lives immeasurably impacted others, and Tom’s message and passion do as well.
Dream big, he tells his audiences. Choose to go after that dream. He did – and you can too.