John Toppino calls him “Grandpa.” Richard Toppino calls him, “Dad.” But to most of Key West, he’s “Mr. Frank” — businessman, family man, philanthropist — and he turns 100 on Thursday, June 15.
The community is on a first-name basis with the man whose last name — Toppino — is emblazoned in red and yellow on about 350 cement trucks and other pieces of heavy equipment from Key West to the 18-Mile Stretch.
Frank Toppino’s father, Charley, started Charley Toppino & Sons in the 1920s. Frank is the second of those five sons.
“The sons were Phillip, then me (Frank), Edward, George and Paul,” Mr. Frank said on a recent Monday morning at his Key Haven home — a meeting that had to be postponed once due to the centenarian’s Pilates class. Yes, Pilates. At 100.
“I’m not surprised,” John Toppino said, chuckling. “He has a much more robust social schedule than I.”
Frank Toppino remains on the board of the Key West Housing Authority after more than 30 years. He’s been a member of the Key West Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame since his induction in January 1994. And a bronze plaque honors him at the entrance to Poinciana Gardens assisted-living facility on Duck Avenue. Most recently, Key West officials on June 8 issued a proclamation declaring June 15 “Frank Peter Toppino Day.”
He still attends 9:30 Mass every Sunday morning at The Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea, where he volunteers as an usher. A statue of the Blessed Virgin, draped in rosary beads, sits prominently on his kitchen counter, under the oil painting of his father. The portrait of his mother, Orsolina, is in the dining room.
In 1933, when Frank Toppino was 10, the Toppino family and their business moved to Homestead. By the time Frank was 14, he was driving a truck from Homestead to Marathon, delivering drinking water to the contractors who were building bridges over the Overseas Railroad via ducts after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 had washed away the train tracks. By the 1940s, the family and business had relocated to Key West, where ever since they’ve played an integral role in building the Florida Keys — its roads, sidewalks, bridges, ballfields, schools, government buildings and homes.
“Mr. Frank enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1941 and spent 15 months in China,” states the city proclamation. “He was honorably discharged as staff sergeant in 1945. Back in Key West, he married Betty Rose in 1947 and they had three children, Daniel, Ramona and Richard.”
Richard is now president of Charley Toppino & Sons, and credits his father with instilling an irrepressible work ethic — along with empathy and generosity — in his family’s lives.
“My father has been a great role model my whole life,” Richard said. “He taught us, you get up every day and go to work, even if you’re not feeling great. He showed people how leaders are supposed to be, and he was always a fair leader. I remember one time, I was working in a hot ditch on some project and started feeling a little resentful — until I turned and looked, and saw my dad 10 feet to my right in the same ditch.
“I’ve been very lucky to have learned from my dad,” Richard said.
It was the exact thing Frank had said earlier in the week about his own father, Charley.
“I was lucky growing up,” Frank said. “My dad started the business, and every time he would learn something, I was there beside him to learn it as well.”
His sense of humor and mischief are still remarkably sharp.
“How do you feel, Mr, Frank?”
“With my hands.”
And as a parting gift for nearly every guest who leaves his house, Toppino reaches into his 6-foot-tall wine fridge and selects a bottle or two — or three.
“No one leaves here without wine,” he said, leaning conspiratorially closer. “And I don’t buy cheap stuff.”
His grandson, John, laughed and nodded at the shared anecdote.
“He doesn’t let anyone leave without a bottle of wine. And he’s not lying. He doesn’t buy cheap stuff.”
As the family was preparing for the 100th birthday celebration, John Toppino recalled his childhood with “the most generous grandfather.”
“He bought us all Shetland ponies one Christmas in North Carolina,” John Toppino said. “And he got me my first go-kart, which I proceeded to crash into a palm tree two minutes later.”
“But if there’s one thing my grandfather impressed upon us, it was that if an 80-year-old man — and this was 20 years ago — could be outside working, then certainly we young guys could do it.”
Mary Maxwell, a longtime friend of Frank Toppino, shared stories of his quiet generosity toward struggling families who needed work and a few bucks to tide them over.
Maxwell, a retired Key West High School teacher, recalled arriving a few minutes late to a Sunrise Rotary meeting when her car wouldn’t start.
“Frank gently chided me, as he was always very punctual, so I explained that my battery was dead and at the end of the meeting he offered me a ride to school.”
Frank offered to jumpstart Maxwell’s car after he dropped her at work, but instead bought and installed a new battery for her. Another time, a fellow teacher struggled with a flooded driveway due to heavy rains.
“He jokingly asked Frank about a special teacher discount — and then never got a bill for the driveway work,” Maxwell said.
“Frank remains a most generous man and our southernmost family continues to be blessed by his astute knowledge and concern for working Conchs.”