Fidelity to St. John’s Catholic and Vincentian mission and the continued success of St. John’s students and alumni were on proud display for more than 800 guests at the 22nd annual President’s Dinner—the University’s premier fundraising event in support of student scholarships—held in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton Midtown on Friday, November 1.
The 2019 dinner raised more than $3.4 million—including $210,800 in spontaneous giving at the event itself. All funds raised at the dinner go directly to support scholarships for deserving students, especially to those most in need.
The annual President’s Dinner serves a dual purpose as it also honors the men, women, and organizations best exemplifying the University’s Vincentian mission. They serve as role models to the many students looking to incorporate these values into their lives in a meaningful and consequential way.
In a spirited ballroom decorated in St. John’s red, Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw, Ph.D., President of St. John’s, emphasized the importance of service and scholarship.
“Our honorees exemplify the legacy of St. Vincent de Paul through their generosity, compassion, and service to those most in need,” Dr. Gempesaw said.
As he thanked the many generous donors in attendance, the President highlighted the presence of several students who benefit from the scholarship support made possible by the Dinner. “Their passion for learning and serving others inspires all of us to support the President’s Dinner every year.”
Brian T. Shea ’83CBA, ’16HON, and his wife Patricia ’83C, served as Co-Chairs for the Dinner. Addressing the honorees, Mr. Shea—a member of the St. John’s Board of Trustees—said, “This Dinner is a manifestation of the gratitude shared by those of us who have benefited from a St. John’s education, and the generosity and solidarity of the entire St. John’s community.”
At the Dinner, St. John’s presents the Spirit of Service Award to alumni and friends who embody the University’s Catholic and Vincentian values in their life and work. This year’s honorees were:
Susan Hendrick ’87C
Gregory S. Hendrick ’87C
Chief Executive Officer
Mark P. Kritzman ’73CBA
Founding Partner and Chief Executive Officer
Windham Capital Management, LLC
Joan Lacagnina ’88CBA
Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. L.P.
Virginia Nash Vetter ’90SVC (posthumously)
Richard C. Vetter, Sr. (posthumously)
Rahel Solomon ’10TCB, CNBC Correspondent/Reporter, served as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies. Ms. Solomon, who most recently held the position of co-anchor of Eyewitness News This Morning and Eyewitness News at Noon at CBS 3 in Philadelphia, is the first alumna to be Master of Ceremonies for the President’s Dinner. Before the program, Rahel noted that some of her fondest memories came from her time at St. John’s.
“For me to come back and speak at such a prestigious event is really special,” she said.
Among the dignitaries in attendance were the Most Rev. Nicholas DiMarzio, Ph.D., D.D., Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY; the Very Rev. Stephen M. Grozio, C.M., Provincial Superior of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians) and Vice Chair of the St. John’s Board of Trustees; and William J. Janetschek ’84CBA, ’17HON, Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees. Many current and former members of the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors were in attendance, including Board Chair Emeritus Peter P. D’Angelo ’78MBA, ’06HON and current Trustee Margaret “Peg” D’Angelo, as well as Board Chair Emeritus William L. Collins ’76C, ’12HON and his wife, Lesley.
There was much good news to share, and Ms. Solomon noted several of the previous year’s highlights, not the least of which was recognition of the extraordinary gift commitment of $10 million made by Lesley H. (’83SVC) and William L. Collins ’76C, ’12HON, and the renaming of the College of Professional Studies as The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies. This generous gift provides scholarships for students through the University’s Partners for Student Success initiative, and also established a Distinguished Chair position in the College now held by Dean Katia Passerini.
Ms. Solomon noted that this year St. John’s celebrates the 20th anniversary of the opening of its first residence halls, which ushered in a new era, transforming the University into a global campus. In that time, more than 33,000 students, including Ms. Solomon, called St. John’s home. “I was a resident student at both the Queens, NY, campus, and the first Manhattan, NY, campus, at 101 Murray Street, and I count those years as some of the best of my life,” she stated.
Stories of Service
Mr. Hendrick acknowledged a lifelong connection to St. John’s. Both his father and stepmother taught at the University, and he and his wife Susan met at St. John’s as students. “Throughout our lives, Sue and I have learned the importance of giving back: with our time, our connections, and financial support.” Mr. Hendrick used the occasion to announce the establishment of the Robert M. Hendrick Scholarship for Analytics at The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies, which he said honors both his and his wife’s love of mathematics, and the passion his father had for the school at which he worked nearly his entire career.
Mr. Kritzman told the audience that several of his family members work at prestigious universities throughout the country. “However, St. John’s outranks them all in one important metric: how they move people up the ladder,” he said, sparking enthusiastic applause. “This is a cause we can get behind, and I think with the leadership St. John’s has—including Dr. Gempesaw and all of the deans—I have so much optimism for this school.”
During her remarks, Ms. Lacagnina noted that approximately 70 percent of all college students are encumbered by student loan debt, and 21 percent of those students work more than one job to pay back that debt. “But here is where St. John’s gets it right: In 2018, St. John’s granted $269 million in scholarships to our students. That is why what we raise here tonight is so important. These students depend on scholarships to accomplish their goals.”
Alumnus Douglas Vetter, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees at St. John’s, accepted the Spirit of Service Award on behalf of his late parents, and stressed how proud this honor would have made them. “Our parents loved this University—its Catholic mission, the exceptional education it provides, and the values it instills,” he recalled. To honor their love for St. John’s and their commitment to Catholic education, the Vetter family has established three scholarships in their parents’ memory, including one benefiting the children of police officers.
Reflecting on the importance of an event like the President’s Dinner, Fr. Grozio said that the people who are honored, as well as the alumni in attendance, have received great blessings from their St. John’s experience, “and they want to give back.” He added, “They want to give to a wonderful project: the education of our young people. We see how well-formed our graduates are. They learned not only the tools for success in their professions, but to use those tools with love and compassion for others, especially the poor.”
Bishop DiMarzio said he was “forever thankful” for the presence of St. John’s within the Diocese of Brooklyn. “I do not think you could have a better partner and a better asset than St. John’s. A night like this makes it possible for the University to continue all of its good works.”
Several current students attending the President’s Dinner were personally invited by Dr. Gempesaw, and benefit from the kind of generosity on display at the event and the inspirational biographies of fellow Johnnies.
Pharmacy major Kenneth Austria is a recipient of the Presidential Scholarship, so he was keenly aware of the importance of the President’s Dinner. “The Pharmacy program is extremely challenging, and I am not sure how successful I could be working for six years and knowing how much debt I might be in when I’m finished were it not for scholarship assistance provided by the University. I feel so blessed.”
Blanche Palaisi, also a Pharmacy major, noted that her scholarship cemented her decision to attend St. John’s. “I would not be here without it. It is that simple,” she stressed.
The President’s Dinner brings together generations of the St. John’s family celebrating everything they have achieved, and everything they can achieve, explained Radiologic Sciences major Matthew Ventura. “What an incredible community,” he said. “Everyone honored here tonight is a role model.”
Biology major Nakaya Henry was moved by the St. John’s stories shared by the honorees. “Their experiences inspired them to give back. Hopefully, someday I can do the same.”
The evening concluded with a powerful set of songs performed by guest singer Tiffany Hendrix, recent graduate Kayla Knight ’19CPS, and current doctoral student Remy Martin ’16P, ’18GEd. A rousing rendition of alma mater brought the crowd to its feet and an energizing evening to a close.