He was an astute businessman, an innovator, a manufacturer and a pioneer of sorts.
He was a golfer.
He was a husband and a father and a grandfather.
He was a giver, never a taker.
Above all, Gino Zavarella was a friend.
And, local golf, from the juniors to the seniors and amateurs to the professionals, lost one of its best friends when he passed away on March 10 at the age of 92. We lost a guy who was a professional at life and how it should be played. If you played golf, worked at golf, wrote about golf, watched golf or just liked to talk about golf, there was a great chance Zavarella would be in your corner. “Gino was a people person,” said Dominic Antenucci, former Executive Director of the Northern Ohio Professional Golfers Association and a life-long friend of Zavarella’s dating to the 1950s. “I can’t remember ever hearing him say anything negative about anyone. He treated everyone as if they were his friend. He loved doing business with you but first he wanted to be your friend.”
Zavarella grew up in what was a predominantly Italian neighborhood around East 144th and Kinsman in Cleveland. After starting a humble engraving business he became one of the country’s biggest wholesalers of jewelry, trophies and plaques. The company became known as Gino’s Wholesale Jewelers.
Through his love of golf he became a great friend to the NOPGA and practically all its members. “You know what?” former Beechmont and Glenmoor Head Golf Professional Bob Bourne asked rhetorically. “There will never be another Gino Zavarella.”
Zavarella’s story began in the 1950s with a jewelry store on Euclid Ave. in downtown Cleveland. It continued and grew when he moved to a larger building on Chagrin Blvd. in Woodmere Village. He eventually took ownership of an even larger building on Richmond Road on the border between Cleveland and Warrensville Heights. Gino invited the Northern Ohio PGA to move its section office to the Richmond Road location in 2002.
If you lived in Greater Cleveland or beyond and won a trophy of any kind — be it for Little League baseball, bowling, tennis, croquet, badminton or golf – or you were awarded a plaque as an Employee of the Month, in all likelihood it came from Gino’s. If you were looking for an executive gift or a promotional product, you needed to look no further than Gino’s. An object of art – even an engraved wine bottle? Call Gino. “I’m pretty sure Gino was the first guy to begin engraving people’s faces on the awards they were about to receive,” said Antenucci. “He was always a progressive thinker, an innovator.”
Zavarella was a generous and gracious host. He knew his way around a kitchen, a race track and a golf course. At one time his handicap was in single digits. It was said that he had a hard time not picking up a check. “We would do business and then go out to lunch and Gino would always want to pick up the check,” said Tom Fussaro, who had a long business relationship with Zavarella during his Hall of Fame career as Head Golf Professional at Madison and Shaker Heights Country Clubs. “It got to the point that I told him that if he didn’t let me pick up the check I wasn’t going to go with him. I never met a man as generous. He was a man’s man, genuine and good to his word.”
If Zavarella wasn’t taking special customers or friends to lunch he was inviting them to a sit down in a backroom of his showroom on Chagrin Blvd. “I always admired his love of golf and his generosity,” said NOPGA Hall-of-Famer Charlie Wood, who spent more than 40 years as Head Golf Professional at Mayfield Country Club, not far from Zavarella’s showroom. “I spent a lot of time in his little dining room. There was always someone cooking pasta or sauce and he’d always say, ‘Come on, sit down. Have something to eat.’ It was rare if I didn’t leave with a bottle of wine or two.”
Zavarella’s relationship with NOPGA members was legendary. He frequently failed to bill club professionals for the hardware he supplied for their member-guest, club championship or junior programs. It wasn’t accidental. “I’d ask him if he was ever going to bill me for one of our events and he’d just shrug and tell me not to worry about it,” Wood recalled. Joe Flogge, owner of Barberton Brookside Golf Club, is another long-time friend. “I don’t know if Gino ever got a trophy but he sure deserved one,” said Flogge, who fondly recalls the engraved bottle of wine he received from Zavarella when he was inducted into the NOPGA Hall of Fame. “He was a friend of golf and the friend of any golfer.”
Zavarella became one of four honorary members of the NOPGA in 1996. “There are only a few honorary members in there so that tells you how the section felt about him,” said Wood. “His induction was very deserving.”
An example of how far-reaching Zavarella’s innovativeness and entrepreneurship stretched was revealed many years ago. Fussaro suggested that Zavarella introduced the idea of companies awarding an Employee of the Month. Of course, Gino’s supplied the engraved plaque that each employee was to receive. The idea went nation-wide. “I wouldn’t dispute that,” said David Griffith, who in January succeeded Antenucci as the NOPGA Executive Director. “About 10 years ago we went to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando and Gino was with us. We walked into the Days Inn just down the street from the convention center and Gino saw this plaque on the wall identifying the hotel’s employee of the month. He lifted it up and turned it over. On the back was the “Gino’s” label that he attached to every item he produced.”
Zavarella will be missed by thousands and remembered by just as many. Guys like him don’t come around that often.
He will always be, Forever Gino.