You’ve noticed Frank Calabrese not only because he gets around town, but also because, for many years now, he’s had that curly, unshorn, white-haired mane that often grows unruly.
But not this week.
This week Calabrese got a haircut. He’s meeting Pope Francis today, after all, in New York City.
“I’m off the ground, I really am. It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” Calabrese said. “The archbishop of New York called me and invited me to meet with the pope and to visit in the same section during his address at the United Nations (today). There will be 170 world leaders in that room at that time.
“I’m honored. I’m humbled. And I am very, very excited,” he continued. “I have met presidents before, and as wonderful as those experiences were, I don’t think I have been more excited to meet someone. The pope epitomizes to me all that is good as far as human rights and humanity are concerned. He is worried about those who do not have. The Bible is filled with wisdom literature, and my favorite part of The Bible is when Jesus says, ‘What you do unto the least of me, you do unto me.’ I believe that represents Pope Francis.
“Pope Francis read his Bible. I have heard religious leaders from all over the world speak, and often I have come away believing that he or she needed to read their Bible. Well, I know Pope Francis has read his.”
Calabrese is a New Jersey native who discovered Wheeling after choosing to attend Bethany College in 1961. After completing his political science degree, he decided to make Wheeling his full-time home and he’s lived a life that’s included some prosperity but also anguishing battles against evil temptations.
“I have been homeless twice in my life because of the decisions that I have made in my life,” he explained. “I became addicted to drugs at one time, and I lost my life’s work because of that addiction. But there were strangers who came to me because they recognized what I was doing to myself. They finally convinced me that I was dying.
“After that I immediately quit doing the cocaine because I wanted to live. That was 29 years ago,” Calabrese continued. “I wanted to live, and my Wheeling family saved me. These strangers became my family because they found me, and they convinced me that I wanted to live.”
And live Calabrese has, and today he is 72 years old and is the owner of several companies that are centered on development, preservation, and recycling. He owns property in both Marshall and Ohio counties and enjoys finding what he refers to as “treasures from the past.”
“I have always relied a lot on sweat equity and the older work ethic in my life, and I have been fortunate that way,” Calabrese explained. “Plus, someone was always there for me, and that has meant a lot to me during my lifetime.
“And then I became a demolition contractor by default, and that’s when I started to acquire all of these marvelous and irreplaceable artifacts inside so many buildings which I started selling for pennies to the people that those items meant so much to,” he continued. “So I have collected those items and started one my companies, Americo Holdings & Management LLC, and I began to incorporate those items into what I do for a living.”
He is most proud of his properties in the Centre Market area of Wheeling. He owns a three-story structure on the north corner of 22nd and Market streets as well as three more along the primary stretch across from the north market house. Two of the properties are occupied by businesses and tenants, and two more are now in the renovation process.
“Those four buildings mean so much to me because of what we have been able to do in an effort to improve that area of our city,” Calabrese said. “What has happened in that area since has been a wonderful development for everyone who lives in this area.
“I give all of the credit to the other building owners; I really do, but once I made a lot of improvements to my buildings, you saw those other owners begin to do the same things on the inside and on the exteriors of their buildings,” he said. “And the market area has become what we have been so glad to see. It’s been a lot of fun, especially when you get to see the ripple effects and the benefits that such work has on the future of the district and the future of this city.”
Not all of his properties have won him acclaim, however, and Calabrese is well aware that the former Hazel-Atlas Factory in East Wheeling is now more of a liability to the Friendly City’s revitalization effort. Travelers entering Wheeling from the south along W.Va. Route 2 likely have looked to the right to see a large, red building with many, many windows missing.
What panes of glass remain in the former factory likely have been shattered by vandals.
“The people who have expressed concern over the appearance of that entrance to our city are absolutely correct, but the two buildings that will remain will have all the windows replaced, and it will be enclosed, of course,” Calabrese said. “I have disappointed myself with those projects so many times that now I do not want to say when that project will be complete, but it’s one that we work on every day.
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“To be quite candid with you, I am afraid to give a timeframe because, if I don’t meet it, then I’ve dropped the ball, but I can tell you that as long as I have breath and as long as I own the buildings, it will be completed,” he continued. “The process calls for the demolitions to take place first, and then the restorations will begin on the two remaining buildings.”
But he does have a plan, Calabrese insisted, and that is why he has joined forces with the Wheeling Young Preservationists and has staged tours of the structures in the past several months.
“Most of the factory will end up mostly demolished, but the two buildings that I will save will be repurposed for the future,” Calabrese explained. “The entire structure encompasses a total of three acres, so it’s not an easy project, but I believe that in the end it will have a great impact on what is taking place right now in Wheeling.
“There are poured-concrete buildings that are in excellent shape structurally,” Calabrese reported. “One has a new roof on it, and the other just needs to be patched, and once the other portions are there, there are a lot of possibilities for the property,” Calebrese said. “I feel I became a partner with the city of Wheeling the day I moved here, and that’s how I am looking at this project.
“Nothing moves along as quickly as people want it to, and I know that firsthand,” he said. “But I am determined to make this happen for the good of everyone involved with the city and this area.”
Calabrese, who also has an industrial park and boat dock in McMechen, plans to compose a book about the lessons he has learned since his college days at Bethany.
“I plan to call it, ‘Commerce to Consciousness,’ and it will speak to all things good and bad in business these days and apply those to the human condition,” he explained. “I’ve spoken with a writer about help with the wording because this is a very serious project to me. I do what I do for a living, but human rights are what my life is really all about.”
That’s part of the reason why Calabrese made the decision to launch a campaign for the seat representing Ward 5 on Wheeling’s City Council.
“Part of the reason why I have made the decision is personal. I’ll admit that,” he said. “I’ve been a political groupie all of my life, and I’ve had the chance to meet U.S. presidents, I’ve participated in some campaigns, but I’ve never been willing to serve myself. But I feel differently about that now.
“I once had a misplaced idea that the people did not know what was in their own best interests, but I have learned that it’s not true. I was wrong about that,” Calabrese continued. “I have come to realize that they do know what’s in their best interest, but they don’t know how to get that fulfilled.
“So I am running for city council in Wheeling not against the past and not against other people. We have had hardworking people here, and they have tried their best. I just think there’s much more to be done, and I have some ideas that I believe will help us all move forward.”
Communication is key, Calabrese insisted, and he said the residents of the fifth ward can expect to see him reaching out to his potential constituents in an open-book fashion.
“I have agreed to meeting with the ward’s constituents, of course, but I have a twist – I want to do it electronically,” he said. “That way if there is information to be shared with those who wish to participate, it can be shared this way on a daily basis if need be. I would want everyone to offer their legitimate observations as often as they wish to.
“If a meeting is called for, then we can meet as a neighborhood association,” he said. “It’s hard to schedule those regularly because people do not come to those often enough. But if they have a reason and the opportunity, then they will come to those meetings.”
The incumbent in Ward 5 is two-term councilman Don Atkinson, and he has yet to announce a re-election campaign. Whether or not Atkinson chooses to seek a third term is not Calabrese’s concern.
“No matter what, the people should expect an absolute commitment to transparency no matter who the other candidates may be because if I lie a half-an-inch, that makes me a liar,” he said. “I want the people to be able to ask me anything, and that’s why I have offered my story about addiction. I have no secrets.
“And the people can expect a constant flow of information electronically, and they can expect my focus to be on the people and their needs,” Calabrese added. “It’s funny how when you put your name on the ballot to run for office, you learn a lot very quickly because people come and tell you their concerns and their needs. I live the in the fifth ward where the residents are mostly, ‘Haves,’ but I’ve been hearing a lot of things about the people in the other wards. There is still a lot that needs to change; that’s for sure.”