Allan Varni: World traveler, educator, dedicated volunteer

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Mr. Varni

Both at home and abroad, Allan Varni spent most of his life helping people. The positive-thinking, lifelong educator enriched the lives of countless at-risk kids. He traveled all over the world helping the less fortunate, experiences that led him to remind his fellow Rotary Club of Los Altos members, “Remember, we are the lucky ones.”

Mr. Varni, a longtime Los Altos resident, died unexpectedly in his sleep Aug. 6 at his beach house in Grover Beach. He was 74.

The San Francisco native attended Carlmont High School in Belmont. He earned a bachelor’s degree from San Jose State University, followed by a master’s degree in special education from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. He worked with emotionally challenged students for most of his career. Mr. Varni also created credentialed course curriculum for teachers’ continuing education, pushing educators to travel abroad and expand their global outlook.

Mr. Varni married Mary Lou Mateo in 1967 and they raised two boys. The Varni family moved to Los Altos in 1972. The Varnis celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary last month.

Community outreach

Active and engaged, Mr. Varni did not hesitate to get involved. His community outreach was frequent and varied.

In 1992, he participated in the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. After the event, he spent two weeks on a river boat in the Amazon to explore rain forest culture.

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Mr. Varni visits Liberia to help in a Rotary AIDS prevention program.

Locally, he took his family regularly to Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco to volunteer and support homeless outreach programs.

As a Los Altos Rotarian, Mr. Varni was active in the club’s mother-to-child AIDS transmission prevention program, traveling to Liberia with the Rotary team led by Rich Casey. He worked with Rotarians to provide supplies and rebuild a school in Haiti destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. He served as Los Altos Rotary president in 2019.

He was a key player in the planning and running of the Pacific Coast Dream Machines event, a major fundraiser for the Coastside Adult Day Health Center in Half Moon Bay. His avid participation in the event over the past 17 years stemmed in part from his love for cars, motorcycles and planes.

In the 1980s, Mr. Varni and business partner Jim Bronson created the Challenge Learning Center, which offered experiential education programs for at-risk and underserved youth. Mr. Varni served as CLC board secretary.

‘Warm, welcoming’

Mr. Varni co-founded in 1987 an eight-member men’s support group called The Men’s Group (later called The Friday Morning Men’s Group). Marked by strong friendships, its members meet regularly to this day.

With Mr. Varni in a prominent role, The Men’s Group participated in Christmas in April, a national nonprofit organization that runs community-building projects aimed at helping low-income families, veterans and seniors.

Friends and family spoke with admiration of Mr. Varni’s accomplishments and approach to life. They described a man who was open-minded and a problem solver, with a warm, welcoming and outgoing personality and love for world travel and adventure.

In Mr. Varni, Bob Pelikan found a kindred spirit, bonded by their love of vehicles and adventure.

“We were on the same page,” said Pelikan, a founding member of The Men’s Group and a friend of Mr. Varni’s the past 45 years. “I’d get a phone call from him, ‘Let’s go do this,’ and we’d go do it.”

Together, they fixed engines, repaired homes in East Palo Alto for Christmas in April, went on RV trips, participated in a motorcycle race in Mexico and rafted along the Colorado River.

“Allan always said ‘yes’ to life,” Pelikan said. “‘If someone passes a plate of cookies, take the cookie,’ was his motto. … Whether it was checking out a group you belonged to or going on a family trip together or going into business together or helping to organize and run a major fundraising event or going on a 2,000-mile motorcycle trip together, if it was at all possible, his response was, ‘I’m in.’”

Mr. Varni’s survivors include his wife, Mary Lou, sons Jason (Ericka) and Stephen (Keri), sister, Sylvia Souza, and two grandchildren.

A drive-by celebration of life, featuring a parade of classic vehicles, was held Saturday in Mr. Varni’s Los Altos neighborhood.

Donations may be made in Mr. Varni’s memory to an education fund set up through the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit

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