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By Tom Spalding, Communications Volunteer

After Mark Varnau was selected as one of the United Way of Central Indiana’s 100 heroic community “Game Changers” in 2018, Varnau spelled out his two life commandments: love God and love your neighbor.

It’s what drove the St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner, following his retirement as vice president of marketing for the old Hook’s Drugs chain, to take over operations of the Catholic church’s basement food pantry from parishioner Bob Kennie in January 1990.

“At the time, we only had maybe two clients a week for a little while,” Varnau recalls. “We could feed a family for three days.”

Back then, the St. Thomas Aquinas pantry, at 46th and Kenwood, had no convenient parking nor adequate freezer and refrigerator space. The pantry was also only accessible by outdoor steps that became treacherous in rainy and wintry conditions (or if a contributor spilled jars of spaghetti sauce on them.) Storage of items was where Varnau could find space in multiple locations around Marion County.

It’s those kinds of memories and stories that have surfaced this month as Varnau celebrates his 90th birthday. Varnau is now in his 35th year of contributing his talents to the food insecurity cause, still amazingly demonstrating his love for those in the community who are less fortunate.

TThe mark of Mark is clearly evident. The fundraiser generated more than $9,300.

“We weren’t surprised,” says Matt Hayes, current Pantry director. “Whatever he is connected to seems to flourish.”

Varnau was just 55 when his exit from the drugstore business led him to a second career as an unpaid food pantry director.

His availability coincided with the compassionate Kennie’s retirement just after the 1989 Christmas holidays. Varnau saw a church newsletter bulletin seeking a replacement and it fit.

His skills included continuing the feeding-the-poor legacy while also building a network of sources and other volunteers. Importantly, he saw opportunities to partner with other parishes in the north deanery, slowly taking the community pantry at St. Thomas Aquinas and merging into like-minded efforts being steered by parishioners at Christ the King and St. Joan of Arc, and then later Immaculate Heart of Mary and St. Luke the Evangelist.

Soon the needs of the hungry outpaced what the pantry could collect from those five churches alone, so the Pantry began to purchase from professional food suppliers such as Gleaners or other bulk providers, with additional labor from countless volunteers and produce from the region’s burgeoning gardens. He’d haul purchased or donated items in the flatbed of his 1999 Chevy truck.

Then came a dream to relocate to a safer, centralized location, which led to the purchase in 2011 of a standalone building (site of an original late 1940s era neighborhood gas station) at 42nd Street and Boulevard. (Bob White, John Juerling and Tom Quinn were also instrumental in that pursuit.)

Following a 15-month process of research, retrofitting, fundraising (thanks Ryan Brady), generosity (thanks to all, but especially to the Witchger family and Marian Inc. for years of behind-the-scenes support) and renovating, the food pantry reopened with a new name: Boulevard Place Food Pantry. (Attorney Brian Crist and Realtor Terry Rankin helped with navigating zoning issues and organizing the sale of the property to the Indianapolis chapter of St. Vincent de Paul Society.)

“God’s hand had to be in it,” Varnau told the Criterion in 2012. “People just thought the cause was great, and they were willing to help. I’ve wept many times because of the generosity of people.”

Varnau ensured the client shelves were full, regional vegetable gardens were connected, stockrooms were bolstered and records were meticulously kept. He also realized at age 80 the plate was so full it was time for a more mature approach that also could use younger hands.

Varnau turned over the director role to Cindy Brown in 2015, but as director emeritus he still had an active role during fundraising for the 2019-2021 renovation and expansion at the current site. Mark even helped pick out the revamped facility’s exterior orange and blue color schemes.

You’ll find the now 90-year-old Carmel resident doting on spouse Ann, keeping up with his six kids,12 grandkids and one grandchild. And his green thumb tends to be in his garden or the pantry’s. He’s still driving the ’99 Chevy (known affectionately as the ‘Monster’) around, often toting Pantry recyclables from St. Thomas Aquinas to a bin just feet away from where that pantry was located.

From its humble beginnings where two clients were serviced a week, Boulevard Place Food Pantry now serves between 300 to 400 weekly. It is the fifth largest of over 200 pantries in Marion County. In 2023, the pantry served more than 630,000 pounds of food to more than 16,000 clients.

“A labor of love,” Varnau says.

Sources for this piece included the Indianapolis Star, Criterion, United Way and an in-the-works biography from Pantry Secretary Bob White.