From the sports editor: From birdies to books, Floriani finds new passion in life

The foundation that Brian Floriani started — called Bernie’s Books — has donated more than 15 million used books to needy children in the Chicago area. Submitted photos courtesy of Bernie’s Books

Brian Floriani had it made.

He may not have been a pro golfer but he was a golfing pro.

Working as an instructor for Golf Digest Schools, the Dover High grad split his time between Lake Tahoe and West Palm Beach.

And then one day he gave it all up.

Floriani started working as a reading specialist at a school in a low-income area of Chicago.

“I went from flying on private jets with my client,” said the 45-year-old, “to it’s 7:15 (a.m.) and it’s Chicago so the sun rarely shines here. And it’s cold, kids are coming in and you might see some trash ‘tumbleweeding’ across because we’re not really in a nice community.

“But it was home for me. I felt, this is where God really wanted me to be.”

The experience completely changed Floriani’s life.

A decade later, the foundation that Floriani started — called Bernie’s Book Bank — has donated more than 15 million new and used books to needy children in the Chicago area.

The charity is so well-known in the region, said Floriani, that school children get excited just when they see the organization’s logo.

Fittingly, that logo is based on a photo of his dad, Bernie Sr. It was the elder Floriani’s sudden death in 2005 that started his son on this totally unexpected journey.

Bernie Floriani was a tall, former college basketball star whose lifelong love of reading eventually brought him to Dover as an administrator in the Department of Public Instruction.

When he used to deliver books to classrooms himself, Brian Floriani said the children’s reaction was worth all the effort.

In a strange twist of fate, the elder Floriani died in his sleep at 58 on the same day Brian’s maternal grandmother passed away. Brian gave the eulogies at both funerals, which were about an hour apart.

The experience hit him hard.

“As I was writing and presenting and thinking about their eulogies, I realized I haven’t really talked about their success at all,” said Brian. “What I’ve been talking about is their significance.

“Then I started asking myself the question, ‘Man, if I were to die today, would anybody have anything to say about me — and would it be true and would it matter?’”

Those were the thoughts that led Floriani — the Delaware high school individual state champion in 1992 — to quit his cushy golf job and become a reading instructor.

Making only $9 an hour in a major city, he also worked three other jobs. At one point, Floriani was getting up at 2:30 a.m. to clean the offices at his wife’s work.

Still, Floriani really liked working with kids. It also made him realize there was this huge need for low-income children to own books.

Floriani knew there were lots of books out there — either with families whose children had outgrown them or companies that were simply throwing them away.

Floriani made it his life’s mission to get those books into the hands of the kids who so desperately needed them.

The next thing he knew, Floriani was pulling boxes of discarded books out of a dumpster. He started Bernie’s Book Bank out of his own garage with $5,000 on his credit card.

All Floriani said he had to do was look at his own father’s life to see the impact books could have.

Bernie Floriani grew up poor in western Pennsylvania, the son of a father who quit school when he was 12 and spent 50 years working in coal mines.

But Bernie ended up earning a Masters degree and working as a college professor.

“If he wasn’t able to read his way to a better life, my life would be very different,” said Brian. “What it meant to me was that well, darn, if we could solve this one problem for these children, they could have an opportunity just like him.

“In one generation, their life and the legacy of their family would be way different — way different. And that’s not just good for them, it’s good for all of us.”

With Brian driving it, Bernie’s Book Bank took off.

The non-profit organization is now housed in a large building with an annual budget of $4.5 million, and a staff of 37 that is bolstered by countless volunteers.

A couple years ago, the company hired a CEO. Floriani’s title is now Founder and Chief Advancement Officer.

More than anything, the former Dover High basketball player says he wants to be the guy with the ball in his hands and the game on the line. Floriani said he never forgets about the kids he’s trying to help.

The thousands of thank-you notes that Bernie’s Books receives help him remember.

When he used to deliver books to classrooms himself, Floriani said the children’s reaction was worth all the effort.

“When you go to these schools, you’d think that we were giving them ice cream cones,” he said. “They think we’re celebrities. If you want to know what it feels like to be Elvis, come in with me and you’ll see when we walk in that door. All they have to see is our logo and they go bananas.”

Brian Floriani made it his life’s mission to get books into the hands of the kids who so desperately needed them.

“I think it was very generous of you to think of children who don’t have books,” one child wrote. “I’m sure you have changed their lives just by giving them books. I received a bag of books myself and I love them.”

“P.S. if it wasn’t for you guys I would never know books,” wrote another child.

Golf is still part of Floriani’s life — only now it’s about the annual Bernie’s Birdies fundraising tournament. Of course, the golf course is also a great place to network with sponsors.

But now, Floriani says he isn’t thinking about only himself like he was as a teenager walking the fairways at Maple Dale Country Club.

“People are like, ‘Well isn’t it hard to ask somebody for a million dollars?’” said Floriani. “No, not when you’re thinking about the people who are relying on you. That’s like, ‘I want the ball.’ What’s the worst they can say to you? And I’ve already cultivated a relationship with them. I don’t just ask somebody for 50 grand or a million dollars or whatever not knowing them.

“But when I’m looking them in the eye, I see 360,000 children looking at me. And I see 10 million children in this country who need what we do.”

Odds & ends

• The Senior League Softball World Series gets started on Monday at Lower Sussex. In the tournament opener, Sussex County’s District III faces East champion Levittown, Pa. at 6 p.m.

The 10-team event continues through the championship game on Sunday, which is being televised on ESPN-2, on Aug. 4.

• In noting the obituary for former Holy Cross High basketball star Pat Savini last week, Delaware high school basketball historian Chuck Durante pointed out that he was part of a really good group of downstate players in 1976. That group included the state’s top six scorers that season: Purnell Ayers (Cape), Chris Dolley (Smyrna), Guy Ramsey (Dover Air), Ukee Washington (Dover), Savini (Holy Cross) and John Bishop (Cape).

Diamond DeShields, the daughter of Seaford High star athletes Tish Milligan and Delino DeShields, won the WNBA Skills Competition on Friday night. The event was held in connection with the WNBA All-Star Game.

“I think that it’s just been a common trend in my life, always playing up and playing with people bigger and older,” said DeShields, who is in her second season with the Chicago Sky. “But tonight was just a lot of fun… It was just fun.”

• It may still feel like summer, but both Delaware State and Delaware open preseason football practice this week. The Hens and Hornets square off in Newark in their season opener on Aug. 29.

Of course, in a world where most college football players stay together and work out on their own all summer, the start of camp isn’t what it used to be.

“It’s not like the old days … when they’d come back for the first day of camp and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what’d you do this summer?’” joked UD coach Danny Rocco. “We saw these guys last Thursday. It’s not quite the crescendo you had back in that era.”

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