Giovanni Verrelli was a man of few words; but when he spoke, it mattered. He was an Italian-American immigrant, a husband, a craftsman, and a father. His quiet strength and skilled hands built a life for him and his family, giving his sons a new home in the land of opportunity. Sadly, Giovanni lost his life to pancreatic cancer in 2011. Today, Dino Verrelli, Project Purple’s CEO, has taken the opportunity his father gave him and is using it to help people who are suffering from the same disease that took his father.
Growing up with Giovanni
Giovanni always had a strong work ethic. In 1968, Giovanni and his wife, Paula, moved to the United States to start their family, where they settled in CT. The couple didn’t speak much English and had few friends in the US that they could rely on from the old country. Through his dedication and labor, Giovanni was able to provide for his family, despite the challenges that came with being an immigrant. However, his efforts weren’t without cost.
Dino remembers his childhood as being very independent. By eight, he was getting on the bus to school alone, along with getting his own key to the three-story multi-family home in Bridgeport. But, what Dino remembers most from his childhood was his father’s absence.
“My dad wasn’t the guy who taught me how to ride a bike. That was my mom,” said Dino, “My dad wasn’t the guy who came out and shot baskets with me, that was my mom because he was always working.”
However, Dino didn’t understand that his father’s life was anything but normal until college. Growing up, Dino was sandwiched into an immigrant community, surrounded by children who all had fathers who worked long hours and families who had enough money to be comfortable, but not enough to afford family vacations or premium appliances. It wasn’t until he left home that he began to realize not every father worked as hard as his to support their family. And this made Dino bitter.
“I feel like growing up, all the way through high school, we were in this bubble,” said Dino, “and I just assumed that every dad worked…I knew my dad loved me, he wasn’t very huggy, where my mom was more the hugger. My dad was just the worker.”
During his high school and college experiences, Dino observed how his fellow classmates had different relationships with their fathers. He began to see how their lifestyles changed the dynamic of the father-son relationship, and he longed for the type of paternal connection his teammates seemed to have with their fathers.
“Going through high school, [your world] opens up a bit and I became really resentful towards my dad, like ‘what the hell, he’s always working,” said Dino, “And then I went to college and that kind of blew my mind. I was like, ‘Woah, what your parent plays golf?’ And I knew, I wasn’t naive to that, I knew that was a reality beyond the bubble that I lived in. But going to college, I saw teammates and roommates have relationships with their dad that was very different to me.”
However, even in his resentment, Dino also began to appreciate Giovanni for who he was and the things his father had been able to give him.
“I think there was a lot more understanding of my dad, like strengths and weaknesses, and also seeing that from another perspective. For example, my roommate, his dad was there but he didn’t have all the qualities of my dad, so there were pluses and minuses. And I think going to college opened that up for me. I think it opened up my perspective of my dad and our relationship…”
Dino’s education also helped him learn that his humble beginnings didn’t stunt his success.
“During that time, I had friends at college,” said Dino, “I mean their parents were millionaires and I was like ‘Woah, I’m sitting in the same college as the millionaire’s kid and I’ve made it this far.’ And a large part of that was my mom and dad pushing me to do good in school and strive and have goals. I saw in college that ‘woah, I didn’t have Disney every year but I got to the same place as these people,’ and I appreciated my childhood.”
It was in college that Dino began to realize that, in his own way, Giovanni had done everything he could for his son. And this was the start of their new relationship, one that lasted until his death in 2011.
Rekindling a Relationship
After college, Dino moved back to Bridgeport and started a life of his own. He was dating his now wife and was beginning a promising career in the financial sector. Dino recounts how this period in his life when he began to reconnect with his father. When the couple finally tied the knot, Giovanni helped him quite literally, build a home for his new family.
“We redid our first house, like completely gutted it, and I learned so much,” said Dino. “It was three years with my dad. And that time, God, if I could go back, that was an awesome time, we did everything together– I mean everything. We put in a new bathroom. We took down walls. We put up ceilings. It just brought us closer together. And all that anger I had all those years just kind of went out the window and I realized just how talented my dad was. It would blow my mind, as I was working with him, like ‘oh my God, my dad is unbelievable!”’
While Dino and Giovanni were repairing their relationship one floor-board at a time, they were also preparing to welcome another Verrelli man into the family: Dino’s first son, Cole.
“It was really special to see my dad change into a grandfather,” said Dino. “He would just show up at our house and want to hang out with my kid. And we were still in that first house and doing work, so I just had this great appreciation. I always look back at those three and a half years, but it was probably some of the best memories, the best of times with my dad that were created during that time frame.”
As the family grew, so did Dino’s love and appreciation for Giovanni. Now that he understood what it meant to be a father, he began to see his own more clearly. But, in 2008, things changed again.
Dino and Giovanni’s Cancer Journey
By 2008, Dino had started his own business and had a happy and healthy family. He was thriving. However, in December of that year, things came crashing down. Giovanni was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Though Giovanni was able to get the Whipple procedure to remove the cancer, this was just the start of his journey.
“I think during the first round, we were like, ‘he’s good, he’s going to get through it,’ and we got through it. We had surgery and then when it came back, I don’t know, something just hit me and I was like, ‘he’s not going to live,’ and we have a very short time here.”
As Dino went through his father’s cancer journey, things began to pile up. Finally, Dino created Project Purple in the hopes of helping Giovanni, and other patients like him, get through this deadly disease. However, he knew, in the back of his mind, that he wasn’t going to be able to save his father.
“I remember there was a point where he came up to the house in late 2009, early 2010, and I remember it like it was yesterday. We were sitting outside on one of the stone walls and he was just checked out. It was in between both bouts but we knew something wasn’t right. He had been given this clean bill of health but he was never the same, mentally or physically.”
When the cancer came back in 2010, Dino didn’t want to leave anything unsaid.
“It’s like riding a roller coaster with cancer. I remember this one time I was like, ‘Hey, I have to have this conversation with my dad…’ I had this last conversation with my dad which was basically about how much he meant to me, and no he wasn’t a man of many words, and no, there were some moments where I hated him, but none of that mattered anymore.”
Toward the end of his life, Dino watched his father decay both mentally and physically. He knew his father was in pain, and that broke Dino’s heart more than anything else.
“I was happy he died,” Dino said, “and what I mean by that is he suffered. He suffered so much… You never want to see a loved one go through suffering and I just feel that at the end, he suffered way too much.”
Giovanni passed away on Labor Day Weekend in 2011. The day began like so many others, with Dino getting a call from his mother to come to the hospital; his dad was dying. He and his brother had gotten such calls many times before. He went to the hospital to be with his father and family as they waited for Giovanni to take his last breath, a process that could take all day.
“So we go down, we sit and we wait, just waiting for my dad to take his last breath. So around 6 or 7:30, I said to my brother, hey, let’s go to Dunkin’, these nurses have been really good to us, let’s get everyone coffee and donuts. I said, ‘Let’s just go, he’s not going to die.’ We get delayed at Dunkin. We come off the elevator, my dad was in the first room, and it was really calm. My mom and my aunt were saying prayers and I think the priest was there. We go down to the nurse’s station, thank the nurses, ‘like hey we brought donuts, bagels, coffee. And then my aunt comes running out…”
Giovanni passed away with his sons just feet away from the door.
The wake saw hundreds of people from Giovanni’s life whom he helped in one way or another. Dino remembers a fireman who came to pay his respects, a man Dino hadn’t seen since childhood, and remembered how his father had taught this man a new trade so that he could better support himself and his family.
“It hit me that I was so pissed when I was young that my dad was working,” said Dino, “but he was helping these people with their side hustles, to better themselves, similar to how people had helped him when he came to this country. So, not that I didn’t already know that, but I was just blown away at the wake because there were so many people that came in and shared stories about how meaningful my dad was to them.”
The story of the firefighter, and others his father touched, has inspired Dino to continue his work with Project Purple.
“You have these moments in life where you think you’re not doing the right thing,” said Dino. “You know this job is really hard and sometimes you question, ‘Am I doing the right thing here?’ just from a bigger picture standpoint. And then you have these moments like with this guy and you hear that story and it just hits you and you realize it was just meant to be. This has never been about me or my dad. This has been about helping other people.”
Dino and Giovanni
Giovanni has been gone for almost twelve years now, but the lessons he left for his son remain. Dino strives to use his experiences to try and better himself, to honor the memory of his father.
“I think going through what I went through has been a gift in a way, because being a parent now, you realize what’s really important because tomorrow is never guaranteed,” said Dino. “I have said this, I would give everything up to have my dad back. It sucks not having him at holidays or at graduations, there are moments like this that have been taken from us. But, I also feel like having this perspective and being able to be in people’s lives and help people like my dad is so powerful and the fact that him dying gave me that, is pretty powerful. That’s the power of my dad.”
Today, Project Purple carries the story of Giovanni, and so many other fathers who have passed due to pancreatic cancer.
Holidays can be a time of joy for many, but to those who have lost a loved one, they can be difficult. Especially on days like Father’s Day, or Mother’s Day, when that pain can be magnified by a parent’s absence. However, the loss of a loved one does not diminish their life, or the lives they touched, as Dino saw with his father. Though special moments with loved ones may have been taken from us, we can still carry them with us in everything we do.
Today, we hope to honor the lives of lost fathers by spreading awareness and stories about the amazing lives they have led.