President’s Dinner Raises $2.3 Million for Scholarship Funds, While Honoring Leaders in Service
Chatting with other guests at the Waldorf Astoria New York, Kristen Greto ’16CPS, ’18MBA took a moment to look out at the hotel’s Grand Ballroom. “This is an amazing event,” said the St. John’s student. “The turnout shows how much the University cares about all of its students—including me.”
Kristen joined more than 825 other members of the St. John’s community at the Waldorf for the University’s 19th Annual President’s Dinner on Thursday, October 27. The event raised $2.3 million for student scholarships.
Supporting aid for students has been the Dinner’s aim since its inception in 1998. Over the past two decades, it has raised more than $30 million in scholarship funds. Each year, the University also presents its Spirit of Service Award to notable friends and alumni who embrace the Vincentian value of making the world a better place.
This year’s honorees received their awards in a ceremony preceding the dinner. Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D., President of St. John’s, then personally thanked the guests. In addition, a special video featured highlights from Dr. Gempesaw’s second State of the University Address. Originally presented in September, the address reviewed the year’s progress and focused on “Sustaining Change for a Better Future.”
Working Together for Student Success
“During the past two years,” Dr. Gempesaw told the guests, “we have shown that by working together under a shared vision of ensuring student success, we can achieve transformative results at St. John’s. We will continue to strive to achieve even greater heights of academic excellence, while we deepen our commitment to our Catholic and Vincentian Mission.”
Dr. Gempesaw also asked every student in attendance to stand and be recognized, to a steady round of applause from the guests.
“It is truly an honor to serve as your President,” Dr. Gempesaw continued. Thanking the President’s Dinner committee, major donors, and alumni for their support, he went on to congratulate the evening’s award recipients. “Through their generosity, compassion, and service to those who are most in need,” he said, “they exemplify the legacy of St. Vincent de Paul.”
Bruce Beck ’09HON, lead sports anchor at WNBC-TV New York, served as Master of Ceremonies. Invited 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.
Celebrating a Year’s Achievements
More than 3,248 new freshmen enrolled this fall at St. John’s. “It’s the largest entering freshman cohort among all Catholic universities and colleges in the nation,” said Mr. Beck. The Staten Island campus enrolled 244 new freshmen—“a 53 percent increase over last year, and the highest in more than six years. The number of freshmen enrollment from Catholic high schools jumped by 23 percent.”
When students come to St. John’s, Mr. Beck noted, they flourish. For example, the freshman retention rate for the fall 2015 class rose to 84 percent, a five percent increase from two years ago. Students continue to dedicate their time to excellence and helping others. Last year, Mr. Beck noted, 5,900 students—and more than 200 faculty—participated in Academic Service-Learning at home and abroad.
Mr. Beck also reported on the University’s continued efforts to support academic excellence. “The University hired 38 new faculty members this school year and welcomed three new deans,” he said. The new deans are Katia Passerini, Ph.D., the College of Professional Studies; Norean R. Sharpe, Ph.D., The Peter J. Tobin College of Business; and Valeda F. Dent, Ph.D., University Libraries.
No wonder, he said, that graduates remain loyal long after Commencement. For example, more than 1,480 graduates and their families attended the first Grand Alumni Homecoming Weekend. In addition, alumni and friends contributed more than $20.6 million last year.
The Spirit of Service
As in past years, St. John’s presented the Spirit of Service Award to individuals and organizations that have made an indelible impact on the lives of others. This year’s honorees exemplify this tradition: Br. Alfred J. Smith, C.M., Founder and Operational Director, Inn Dwelling; and Eileen (’80CBA) and Joseph A. Tarantino ’80CBA, President and Chief Executive Officer, Protiviti, Inc.
In addition, St. John’s presented the honor posthumously to Valerie, Ph.D. (’49CBA) and Gerard A. Sodano ’49CBA. Jane Lawrence, niece of the Sodanos, accepted the award on their behalf. For the first time, the honor also went to a corporation—UnitedHealthcare. Accepting on behalf of the company was Jeffrey D. Alter ’84CBA, ’88MBA, CEO, UnitedHealthcare–Commercial Group.
“As an alum of St. John’s, this award means so much more,” said Mr. Alter. “I believe our values are very aligned–our organizational values and the values that St. John’s instills in all its students.”
Recounting his reaction to when he was asked if he would accept the award, Br. Smith said, “It really took me by surprise. My whole life has been about serving the community under St. Vincent de Paul, and this gives me a great feeling of satisfaction.”
Remembering the philanthropic work of her aunt and uncle, Ms. Lawrence said, “They held the belief that no matter how humble one’s beginning might be, with support and encouragement everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed. They believed it was their responsibility to help others achieve their goals—through their words and their deeds.”
Award recipients Joe and Eileen Tarantino said they owe a lot to St. John’s University. “We met there on the first day of classes as freshmen back in 1976,” Mrs. Tarantino said. “We dated for seven years before we got married.” Mr. Tarantino recalled that, like many St. John’s students, he came from humble beginnings. “It was a terrific value for the tuition of about $2,000 a year at that time—to get an education and a spouse.”
"The President's Dinner ultimately is a celebration of our students' success,” said Joseph O’Connor ’82CBA. He and his wife, Antoinette ’82CBA, served as the dinner cochairs for the second consecutive year. “We come together as proud and loyal alumni to stand in solidarity as supporters of all current and future St. John's students.”
A similar sentiment was shared by Rev. Bernard M. Tracey, C.M., Executive Vice President for Mission and Interim Vice President for Advancement and University Relations. “The stories of the honorees here tonight are very similar to the stories of many of our current students,” he said. “That is the story of hardworking middle-class families who were given an opportunity to succeed by St. John’s. The President’s Dinner celebrates that and more and highlights the generosity of those who help to provide the scholarships so many of our students need and an opportunity for their lives to be changed so they may one day follow in the footsteps of the people here tonight.”
“The President’s Dinner is all about giving back to the St. John's community,” said student volunteer Sarah Gunther ’16CPS, ’18MS. She said she would not have been able to attend St. John’s without the financial aid she received as both an undergraduate and graduate student.
Kevin F. Reed ’75C, retired Managing Director, Citigroup Asset Management, Board of Governors member, and 2014 recipient of the Spirit of Service Award, considers the President’s Dinner a highlight of the Vincentian Mission. “St. John’s not only gives students a great education, it teaches them values that will carry them through life,” he said.
Kenneth Ciszak ’16TCB, ’17MBA, a recipient of financial aid as an undergraduate and graduate student, summed up the evening. “Tonight really shows how much our alumni and benefactors do for students,” he said. “It really sets a precedent of supporting the University that I hope to follow in the future.”