Twentieth Annual President’s Dinner Raises Record Amount for Scholarships

Produced by: Office of Marketing and Communications

Honorees of the 2017 St. John's University President's Dinner
October 31, 2017

St. John’s University’s 20th Annual President’s Dinner raised a record $3,302,597 in scholarship funds that will directly benefit the University’s most deserving students—especially those with financial need.

Held in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton Midtown on Friday, October 27, the Dinner drew nearly 850 preregistered guests including benefactors, faculty, administrators, staff, students, alumni, and members of the St. John’s Board of Trustees and Board of Governors. Since its inception in 1998, St. John’s premier fundraising event has now raised nearly $37 million in total revenue while celebrating the University’s Catholic and Vincentian values.  

“Your presence here tonight demonstrates your commitment to help the next generation of St. John’s students,” said Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D., President of St. John’s. He thanked the donors for their generosity and added, “During the past three years, we have shown that, by working together under a shared vision of ensuring student success, we can achieve transformative results, including a record increase in our first-year student retention rates, the hiring of over 100 new faculty members, and significant renovations and technology upgrades in our academic facilities, classrooms, and laboratories.”

The President’s Dinner also serves as an opportunity for St. John’s to honor alumni and friends with the Spirit of Service Award. As in the past, this year’s honorees exemplify the University’s Vincentian values in their life and work. The honorees this year were:

  • Rev. Michael J. Carroll, C.M. ’09HON
    Former Provincial Superior,
    Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission;
    Former Vice Chair, St. John’s University Board of Trustees
  • John H. Hajjar, M.D., F.A.C.S. ’77C
    Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,
    The Sovereign Health System,
    Sharon F. Hajjar ’79SVC, ’86P
  • Frank L. Kurre ’84CBA
    Managing Partner–Northeast Region,
    Grant Thornton LLP;
    Member of St. John’s University Board of Governors
    Francesca M. Kurre
  • Synchrony Financial
    Accepting on behalf of Synchrony Financial was
    Margaret M. Keane ’81C, ’87MBA, President and Chief Executive Officer;
    Secretary and Member of St. John’s University Board of Trustees

In addition to celebrating the 20th anniversary, this year’s President’s Dinner also celebrated several other milestones, including the 400th anniversary of the Vincentian charism, marking St. Vincent de Paul’s call to his followers to dedicate themselves to those in need; the 50th anniversary of the President’s Society, the highest honor society for undergraduates at St. John’s; and the 30th anniversary of Student Government, Inc., which represents over 180 student organizations at the University.

David Gildea ’97CBA, Managing Director, Cowen and Company, and Public Address Announcer for Red Storm Athletics at Carnesecca Arena, served as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies. Among the dignitaries in attendance were the Most Rev. Nicholas DiMarzio, Ph.D., D.D., Bishop of Brooklyn; the Most Rev. John O. Barres, S.T.D., J.C.L., D.D., Bishop of Rockville Centre; the Most Rev. Robert J. Brennan ’84C, Auxiliary Bishop of Rockville Centre; the Very Rev. Stephen M. Grozio, C.M., Provincial of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission; Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M., past President of St. John’s; William L. Collins ’76C, ’12HON, Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees; and Peter P. D’Angelo, former Chair of the Board of Trustees. 

A Year to Remember

Mr. Gildea noted some of the University’s most recent achievements. Once again, St. John’s has enrolled the largest cohort of first-year students of any Catholic college or university in the country. Over 70 facilities projects were completed, including the renovation of the Marillac and St. Albert Hall auditoriums. A comprehensive renovation of The Peter J. Tobin College of Business facility was completed, and the building now features the Paul and Carol Evanson Career Services Center and the Lesley and William Collins Business Analytics Lab.

The College of Professional Studies academic and administrative facilities, located in St. Augustine Hall, also underwent a substantial renovation and now include five high-tech labs: the Homeland Security Simulation Lab (the first in the Northeast); the Cyber Security Lab; the Innovation Lab; the Computer Science Lab; and the Innovation and Design Enhancing the Arts (IDEA) Lab to prepare students for some of today's fastest-growing careers. St. John’s recently opened its Long Island Graduate Center in Hauppauge, NY, a conveniently located, state-of-the-art facility offering several new academic programs from The School of Education and St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with additional course offerings from the Tobin College and College of Professional Studies to be added soon.

It was noted that a sustained record increase in first-year student retention, reaching an average of 84 percent for the second consecutive year, marks a five-percentage point increase over a few years ago. And last year, the University provided nearly $237 million in institutional financial aid to roughly 90 percent of all undergraduate and graduate students.

A Passion for Service

Spirit of Service honorees described the impact the University’s values have had on their lives. “The Vincentian tradition is one of great charity, great love,” said Mr. Kurre. “It’s certainly something I’ve carried throughout my life.” Mrs. Kurre also shared that she and her husband are the proud parents of a St. John’s alumnus. “That’s very special to us,” she said, “because our son was able to have the values of the Vincentian Mission instilled in him.”

Ms. Keane, who accepted the award on behalf of Synchrony Financial, noted that she held three jobs while attending St. John’s. “I valued my education very highly,” she said, “so, I’m always sensitive to families that struggle and people who go that extra mile.” Ms. Keane helped create the Families That Work program at Synchrony Financial. “It’s about helping that family that’s on the edge—the one whose parents have multiple jobs, trying to figure out day care, housing, and paying their rent. We teach them financial literacy.”

Fr. Carroll, who recently finished his term as Provincial for the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission and Vice Chair of the St. John’s Board of Trustees, had served as Executive Vice President for Mission and Branch Campuses at the University. “This annual dinner is a celebration of sacrifice, of spirit, and of service,” he said. “It is a fitting metaphor for St. John’s University and a good reminder of all of the work that still needs to be done.”

Dr. Hajjar and his wife, Sharon, met as undergraduate students at St. John’s. “Sharon and I have been very fortunate since graduating from the University, which provided us with the ingredients for professional success,” he told the audience. Mrs. Hajjar added, “St. John’s changed our lives. Thanks to your support and generosity, you are making a Catholic education, and a St. John’s diploma, possible for so many students.”

Dinner Co-Chairs Antoinette O’Connor ’82CBA and Joseph O’Connor ’82CBA, ’16HON also met as students at St. John’s. Mr. O’Connor now serves as a Trustee of the University. “Tonight is a way to showcase and highlight everything St. John’s means to us,” he said. “To do this with fellow alumni is terrific, as is the sense of excitement that’s happened in the last few years. Dr. Gempesaw has presided over a rebirth—it’s miraculous what has happened.”

The outpouring of alumni generosity impressed Stephanie Evangelist, a Childhood Education major and President’s Society member in her senior year at the Staten Island campus. Speaking of St. John’s alumni, Stephanie remarked, “Their pride and nostalgia are the same whether they graduated in 1967 or 2017. It’s important that we honor them and everyone who donates their time, energy, and resources so University programs and scholarships can continue to help students like me.”

Elizabeth Simun-Janson ’12TCB, Committee Chair of the Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD) Alumni Association, stressed that the University became a home for her. “A night like this brings together the people who love St. John’s the most.”

Singling out the many students in attendance, Dr. Gempesaw said, “You are the reason we are a University. Hopefully, 10, 20, 30 years from now, someone from your group will be among our honorees—perhaps at the 50th anniversary of the President’s Dinner.”

Speaking to the entire audience, Dr. Gempesaw noted that St. John’s is among the nation’s top 20 most affordable large private universities because of the substantial financial aid the University provides to its students every year. “We cannot do this alone,” he said. “I cannot thank you enough for your generosity, love, and support for St. John’s.”