An atmosphere rife with joy, celebration, and gratitude infused the 25th Annual St. John’s University President’s Dinner, an event that celebrated past milestones as it looked toward a bright future.
Held on Thursday, October 27, in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton Midtown, the evening marked the silver anniversary of the University’s premier fundraising event. The dinner saw more than $3.36 million raised that will directly benefit the University’s most deserving students. In the last 25 years, this event has raised nearly $50 million for student scholarships. More than 700 preregistered guests attended the event.
The ballroom, resplendent in St. John’s red and white, allowed past and future generations to connect over their common heritage. Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., President of St. John’s, told the gathering,
“Every time I meet a St. John’s student, I thank God that I’m here, and I thank God for you and your generosity.” He added, “All of you are not giving back, you’re paying forward.”
Fr. Shanley noted a truism that those who attend college make more money in life. “As a Catholic institution, that can never be how we sell St. John’s.” He added that the deeper challenge that everyone faces when they attend college is finding the meaning of their life—and there is more to that meaning than money. “I know you all know that because you gave back, and you’re here. You wanted to make an impact in the world, and eventually, give back.”
The men and women who best exemplify the University’s Vincentian mission were honored at the event with the Spirit of Service Award. These individuals serve as role models as they incorporate these values into their lives in a meaningful way. The dinner affords a unique opportunity for students to interact with the honorees, who serve as the gold standard of St. John’s graduates: people who have never forgotten alma mater while rising to the top of their professions.
Many previous Spirit of Service Award winners were also on hand at the anniversary gala, which gave current students the opportunity to meet St. John’s alumni who model gratitude and loyalty to alma mater for future generations.
Fr. Shanley posed the question, “What does it mean to lead a meaningful life?” He stressed that the evening’s honorees had found a sense of purpose and made a difference in the world in service to other people. “At the heart of tonight is storytelling, and we heard the stories of four St. John’s graduates who lived lives of purpose, meaning, value, and impact.”
This year’s honorees were
Nickolas Davatzes ’62C, ’64G, ’95HON (posthumously)
President and Chief Executive Officer, Arts and Entertainment Networks
Robert E. Evanson ’58CBA
Retired President, McGraw Hill Education, and former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment
Anita Gomez-Palacio ’65Ed, ’89PD
Retired Executive Director of Operations, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, and Member, St. John’s University Board of Trustees
Rev. Bernard M. Tracey, C.M. ’70C
Former Executive Vice President for Mission, St. John’s University
Accepting the award on behalf of his father, Geody Davatzes said he firmly believes that Mr. Davatzes would have expressed gratitude that he lived a life that reflected the Vincentian charism—one that enabled him to help those less fortunate in innumerable ways.
Echoing those sentiments, Mr. Evanson said that his time at St. John’s helped mold him into the man he is today. “I enjoy being able to provide these scholarships and especially enjoy meeting the students” who benefit from them, he stressed. He added that he looks back fondly on his time at St. John’s as he studied and worked full time.
Armando Palacio, accepting the award on behalf of his mother, noted she attended St. John’s because of a scholarship granted by her father’s union. Reading her remarks, he said, “Fast forward to completing my bachelor’s degree in Education at St. John’s, a career in education, and two graduate degrees from Columbia Teachers College, and then heading back to St. John’s for a further degree. Here I am serving the school I love.”
Fr. Tracey, visibly moved, shared, “I value this honor, particularly because service is at the heart of being Vincentian and the University.”
“At St. John’s, students, faculty, alumni, administrators, and staff respond to the call of Vincentian service dealing with people challenged by housing, food, job insecurity, and other needs,” Fr. Tracey continued. “They also assess and make recommendations regarding the systems that force people to live on the peripheries and exclude them from achieving their God-given potential. Their service extends beyond New York City and the United States to include many nations throughout the world. They create a ‘thin space’ to experience God with the people they are serving.”
James Shannon ’87CBA and his wife, Anissa ’89SVC, ’91Ed, served as Cochairs for the dinner. Mr. Shannon said of the honorees, “Tonight, we thank our Spirit of Service honorees who have carried the Vincentian spirit in their hearts. They have transformed that spirit into actions that have made a real difference, and they have done so selflessly.” Mr. Shannon noted that each honoree now had an endowed scholarship in their name at St. John’s.
Gloria Pazmino ’10CPS, CNN Newsource National Correspondent, served as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies. During her remarks, Ms. Pazmino spoke of the many great achievements the University enjoyed as campuses returned to full and vibrant life following the COVID-19 pandemic, not the least of which was the groundbreaking and construction of St. Vincent Health Sciences Center, which will eventually house the new Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.
This state-of-the-art, 70,000-square-foot building will feature simulation spaces, labs, faculty spaces, and classrooms with a capacity for 300 nursing students and 75 physician assistant students per year. “Establishing a nursing program is one step in a major and long-term investment in the health sciences taking place at St. John’s,” she said.
Ms. Pazmino also noted first-year student enrollment was approaching prepandemic numbers, with nearly 3,000 new students attending the University in the fall semester, as well as record-breaking fundraising numbers that totaled nearly $29 million in the last year.
Among the dignitaries in attendance were the Very Rev. Stephen M. Grozio, C.M., Provincial Superior of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission; Most Rev. Robert J. Brennan, Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Most Rev. Christopher Cardone, O.P., Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Honiara, Solomon Islands; and William J. Janetschek ’84CBA, ’17HON, Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees.
Student speaker Celeste Daniel, a Master of Science candidate in the Global Management and Entrepreneurship program, and a native of Trinidad and Tobago, told the gathering she felt immediately at home as soon as she stepped foot on the Queens, NY, campus. “As I sat among future leaders, I felt inspired, motivated, and eager to learn and make new friends,” she recalled.
Midway through her St. John’s journey Celeste lost her beloved father to gun violence. She reflected that from that moment on, she would dedicate her St. John’s journey to him. “From there onward I truly felt your ongoing support to making my dreams a reality. I was determined to make sure your generous contribution would not only impact my life but allow me to impact the lives of others, too.”
Business major Sofia Ortega said, “What’s important for me about tonight is just being in a room with so many diverse and different people who are all connected by the fact they love St. John’s. Seeing that passion for our school is really inspiring. It makes me want to stay connected.”
Sean George, a Pharmacy major, stressed that he saw value in meeting and listening to so many alumni, administrators, and staff who breathe life into the institution on a daily basis. “These are the people who put together the amazing experience that we have.”
Ivan Fernandez, also a Pharmacy major, noted that the President’s Dinner gives students a glimpse into the human capital that is the engine that drives St. John’s. “We’re seeing firsthand the donors and employees who live the Vincentian values that St. John’s represents.”