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Celebrating Service, President’s Dinner Raises $2.1 Million in Scholarship Support

Friday, October 30, 2015

In an enthusiastic display of support for St. John’s and the young men and women it serves, the University’s 18th Annual President’s Dinner drew 860 alumni, friends, faculty, students, and administrators on October 29, raising $2.1 million in scholarship funds while honoring those who embrace the Vincentian mission of service.

Since its launch in 1998, the President’s Dinner has generated more than $28 million in support from alumni and friends. Proceeds strengthen the University’s General Scholarship Fund.

The event was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria New York, its traditional venue. Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D., president of St. John’s, served as host. Addressing the guests, he thanked “all those who worked so hard to make this dinner a big success”—including alumni chairs and cochairs, the Board of Trustees, Board of Governors, and friends.

Dr. Gempesaw updated supporters on this year’s recruitment achievements. “I am very pleased,” he said, “to share with you that St. John’s enrolled one of its largest freshman classes this year: an 18 percent increase in enrollment from previous years—along with a record high school GPA—thus giving our University the distinction of enrolling the largest freshman cohort among all Catholic universities in the United States.”

The President’s Dinner is the University’s premier fundraising event, providing financial assistance in the form of scholarships to St. John’s most deserving students. Not surprisingly, an initiative of this magnitude requires extensive collaboration on a variety of levels to ensure its success year after year.

“Tonight is the fulfilment of a tremendous effort on the part of associate vice president Jeanne Umland and the incredible team that spends the bulk of nearly every year planning and executing this exceptional gala,” noted Edward M. Kull ’05MBA, acting vice president, Division of Institutional Advancement. “The amount raised tonight will have a significant impact on the lives of so many students, many of whom would be unable to realize their dream of a St. John’s education without this much needed scholarship assistance. What makes it even more impressive is that even though our Division has had fewer resources than in previous years, the determination, commitment and professionalism of our staff has, once again, made it all come together. That’s really an outstanding example of the University’s Vincentian mission of making a difference for others in action.”

This year’s program also featured a video with highlights from Dr. Gempesaw’s first “State of the University” Address in September. The video outlined the president’s strategic priorities for St. John’s: ensure student success; recognize and retain the best faculty, staff, and administrators; enhance our teaching and learning environment; and expand global and community partnerships.

Congratulating recipients of the Spirit of Service Awards—an annual dinner presentation—Dr. Gempesaw noted that “each . . . has followed the legacy of St. Vincent de Paul.” The honorees were Anissa Mitrano ’89SVC, ’91Ed and James J. Shannon ’87CBA, senior partner and chief operating officer, Indus Capital Partners, LLC; Lesley H. ’83SVC and William L. Collins ’76C, ’12HON, chief executive officer, Brencourt Capital Management; and Rev. Pedro Pablo Opeka, C.M., founder, Akamasoa Association.

Making a Difference

Antoinette ’82CBA and Joseph O’Connor ’82CBA served as the dinner cochairs. Addressing the guests, Joseph O’Connor offered special thanks to the previous cochairs, Lesley and William Collins, for their 10 years of leadership. “Like each of tonight’s honorees,” he said, “Lesley and Bill have carried the Vincentian spirit in their hearts for their entire lives. They have transformed that spirit into actions that have made a real difference for so many, especially the students of St. John’s.”

Dignitaries included Most Rev. Nicholas DiMarzio, bishop of Brooklyn, and Very Rev. Michael J. Carroll, C.M. ’09HON, provincial superior, Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission, and vice chair of St. John’s Board of Trustees. Bruce Beck ’09HON, lead sports anchor at WNBC-TV New York, served as the master of ceremonies for the eighth consecutive year.

Rev. Bernard M. Tracey, C.M. ’70C, executive vice president for mission, offered the invocation. Sarah Giordano ’18C led the guests in singing “God Bless America” and St. John’s “Alma Mater." The presentation of the Spirit of Service Awards included biographical videos about the recipients, created by A&E Networks.

Congratulating their fellow honorees, Anissa Mitrano and James Shannon expressed gratitude to the University as well as friends and family. James Shannon recounted his reaction when Dr. Gempesaw originally asked if he and Anissa would accept the award. “I went home and told Anissa,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Why us, we didn’t do anything.’ When I thought about it, she was right—we haven’t done anything other than what we feel that we are responsible for doing.”

Lesley and William Collins also expressed a belief in service as a joyful responsibility modeled by family and friends. Lesley Collins offered special thanks to the late Pamela Shea-Byrnes, D.Min. ’86SVC, ’90G, who was vice president for university ministry. Her commitment to serving others, Lesley said, was a constant inspiration.

William Collins followed by explaining that his support for St. John’s was a way of “giving back” to a University that had changed his life. “Like many of you,” he told the guests, “I was the first in my family to go to college.” At St. John’s, he said, he received a half scholarship, without which he would have been unable to attend.

Rev. Opeka described his efforts to serve those in need in Madagascar. As the founder of the Akamasoa Association, he has led efforts to help local residents to build homes and earn a living. Accepting the honor “on behalf of all the young people of Akamasoa,” he thanked the University not only for the award but for the example of Vincentian service it offers.

“We have heard the words of Jesus,” he said, “who tells us that there is no greater love than giving one’s life for one’s friends. He goes on to say that you are my friends if you follow ‘my commandment of love.’”

Moving the University Forward

Serving others was a theme that resonated with dinner guests. According to Rev. John Kettelberger, C.M., university chaplain, the event was an opportunity not only to “share a wonderful sense of fellowship with the University community,” but to be “inspired by our honorees, and to consider the many ways that we, too, can help transform lives.”

“It’s an important way to give something back, to the University and to current and even future generations of students,” noted Chuck Piluso ’76SVC, ’78G, ’86MBA, president of Data Storage Corporation. Mr. Piluso, a member of the Board of Governors, served as e-journal cochair with his wife, Joanne Panzarella-Piluso ’77C, ’85MBA, an adjunct professor at Molloy College.

Teresa A. Mason ’79SVC, managing partner for client development at BahnMulter LLP and a member of the University’s Board of Trustees, agreed that “giving back” is an important incentive for supporting the President’s Dinner. “Walking into the room at the Waldorf and seeing so many members of the St. John’s community—including students—is a very emotional experience for me,” she said. “Those students are our future, and they deserve our support.”

According to Charles S. Moore ’11MBA, a financial advisor at Northwestern Mutual and the dinner’s G.O.L.D. (Graduates of the Last Decade) chair, supporting the dinner helps to ensure that future students will enjoy a quality education. “I greatly benefited from being able to study at the Rome campus,” he said. “I would hope that other students can also be prepared for success in that manner.”

Ultimately, the dinner offers a way to help the University “to move forward,” said Suzanne Halpin ’78SVC, ’86MBA, ’13HON, executive vice president of Rubenstein Communications, Inc., and a St. John’s board member. “I think of this event in two ways,” she said. “First, it’s a way for the St. John’s family to provide scholarship support for those in need. Second, in terms of our location—St. John’s is such a New York institution, and this event draws upon the talents and participation of so many alumni who are educational, cultural, and business leaders in this city, all on behalf of our students.”

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