Seneca Falls’ annual celebration of Carnegie hero gathers community

Hero Fund President Eric Zahren, center, poses with Madalyn Justian and Shelley Farrell, great nieces of Carnegie Hero Antonio Varacalli, who is honored annually by the Seneca Falls, New York, community. Zahren attended the 2024 event and spoke on the importance of keeping alive the legacies of Carnegie heroes.

Every year the residents of Seneca Falls, New York, — a 6,000-person hamlet at the north end of Seneca Lake, the largest of the finger lakes — gather to celebrate an Italian immigrant who died more than a century ago after saving a 19-year-old woman who had jumped into the Cayuga-Seneca Canal in an attempt to take her own life.

Antonio Varacalli — somewhere between the ages of 17 and 20 depending on who’s asked — jumped into the canal, pulled the woman to safety, but then drowned. His rescue act is memorialized on a plaque on the Bridge Street Bridge.

On Saturday, April 14, a couple hundred people, including Hero Fund President Eric Zahren and his wife, Laura, and Varacalli’s great, great nieces, Shelley Farrell and Madalyn Justian, packed themselves into the Seneca Falls Community Center to celebrate Varacalli on the town’s official Antonio Varacalli Day, established in 2012.

The Antonio Varacalli Day program also includes presenting a Seneca Falls resident with the prestigious Antonio Varacalli Hero Award, a flower ceremony, and presenting the winners of a grade school essay contest answering the prompt: “How have you, or how might you, be a good citizen by making a difference in someone’s life?”

“It’s like a slice of Americana,” Zahren said. “It was so nice to see this tight-knit community come out to recognize Varacalli and pay homage to his sacrifice.”

Zahren read the Hero Fund’s official account of the rescue and then spoke about why it’s important to continue to recognize heroes such as Varacalli.

“I’m proud to represent the Carnegie Hero Fund which recognized the heroism, altruism, and selflessness sacrifice of Antonio Varacalli, an Italian immigrant hero of more than a century ago,” Zahren said. “More than $45 million has been given to date to more than 10,000 awardees or their survivors over the life of the fund. But it’s important to recognize that after 120 years the significance of the Hero Fund has always and will forever extend beyond those facts. It was intended by its founder to remember, extol, and applaud the heroes it has recognized so that their courage and selflessness could touch all of us and ultimately make a peaceful difference in the world.”

Haidee Oropallo, who is president of the town’s It’s A Wonderful Life Festival Committee, told a Finger Lakes Times reporter before the event that she was looking forward to gathering as a community.

“It is important that we pay tribute to their courage, compassion and unwavering dedication,” she said.

This year’s recipient of the Antonio Varacalli Hero Award was Paula Wenderlich Coffey, who told the Finger Lake Times that she was “shocked and humbled.”

Her father received the same award in 2018.

“I basically just try to help people who I come across in my life in any way that can make life a little better or easier,” she said.

Seneca Falls calls itself “the real Bedford Falls,” referencing the fictional upstate New York town in holiday classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s said that in 1945, Hollywood director Frank Capra, himself an Italian immigrant, stopped in Seneca Falls for a haircut while in the area visiting relatives. A year later It’s a Wonderful Life, was released. The movie’s pivotal scene is the rescue of a man who jumps from a steel-truss bridge.

In addition to the Varacalli rescue, other similarities—from architecture to street and family names—have the people of Seneca Falls believing that their town influenced Capra in the making of his film. Each December they hold an It’s a Wonderful Life celebration of the town’s connections to the beloved Christmas classic film.