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Giving Stories

Explore giving stories at Manhattan, and learn how donors have made an extraordinary impact.

Mary Ann Avella

Thanks to the John V. Avella scholarship fund, deserving chemical engineering students have the chance to pursue their educational goals. Listen to Mary Ann Avella's heartfelt commitment to carry on her brother's legacy.

  • Michael ’58 and Aimee Kakos
    Michael Kakos

    For Michael Kakos, one of the most quoted exchanges in cinema history proved remarkably prophetic. In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” an aimless young man, just out of college, receives an older neighbor’s career advice. “Plastics,” says the would-be mentor. “There’s a great future in plastics.” 

    “It was quite a clever line,” Michael recalls. “The industry for engineering plastics was about to explode. Cars, machinery, appliances, airplanes—the demand for plastic parts began to outpace metal and glass. The uses are still expanding.” Michael, and later his wife, Aimee, were witnesses to—and participants in —that growth. 

    After receiving his degree in chemistry from Manhattan College in 1958, Michael was awarded a fellowship to Niagara University, where he earned his M.S. in chemistry. Later, he received an M.S. in industrial engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology. He began his career in materials research, first in metals and then in ceramics. Foreshadowing the famous movie line, several friends urged him to switch industries. Michael joined their company, Celanese Plastics, and started his ascent from the labs—where he earned a number of patents—to management positions in sales and international marketing. 

    In 1975, Celanese named Michael the director of European marketing in London. After 11 years in that position, he recalls, “I observed something that piqued my interest.” Larger American plastic producers focused on customers that made higher-volume purchases, bypassing the smaller British “molders” that used those materials to fashion parts for the automotive, telecommunications and appliance industries. “It was a market they weren’t exploiting,” says Michael. Leaving Celanese, he went to DuPont and General Electric in Europe with a proposal: “I told them to sell to me, and I would take care of selling to 80 percent of their molders in the U.K.” 

    Founded in 1987, Michael’s company, Resin Express, achieved remarkable success. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. When he and Aimee married in 1989, she joined Resin Express, rising to company director. “The two of us ran the business,” says Michael. “She was in charge of personnel, payroll, training—and was an excellent sounding board for new ideas.” As the company flourished and its reputation grew, a new opportunity arose—Michael and Aimee sold Resin Express in 1997 to a Belgian plastics distribution firm eager to enter the U.K. market. 

    Today, Michael and Aimee divide their time between London and Florida. They also continue to make a difference as dedicated philanthropists. At Manhattan College, they have funded major initiatives including the Michael ’58 and Aimee Rusinko Kakos Study Abroad Scholarship, the Michael J. and Aimee Rusinko Kakos Endowed Scholarship for Cardinal Hayes High School graduates, the Kakos’ Center for Scientific Computing, the Michael J. and Aimee Rusinko Kakos Endowed Chair in Science, and a named site in the Raymond W. Kelly ’63 Student Commons. 

    Among many other organizations they support is The Pennsylvania State University, Aimee’s alma mater. “Aimee and I have so much to be grateful for,” notes Michael, whose brother Barry is a 1968 graduate of the O’Malley School of Business. “I know my life would have been quite different if not for Manhattan. I gained the knowledge and skills to make use of the opportunities that came my way.”

    For Michael, “giving back by supporting the College—and new generations of Jaspers—is the right thing to do. It feels good to help students who, one day, will make the world a better place.”

  • Mark Pfaff ’80
    Michael Kakos

    After earning his Manhattan College degree in 1980, Mark Pfaff immediately began his dream job—teaching social studies and coaching at a central New Jersey high school. “I loved it,” says Mark. “Even when I was a kid, I knew teaching was what I wanted to do.”

    He was sitting in his classroom one day when he received a letter simply addressed to the basketball coach. “It was from the New York Life Insurance Company,” he recalls, “asking if anyone I had coached was interested in changing careers.” Something about training for financial services sales intrigued him. “I’d never thought about it before,” says Mark. “I was curious enough to look into it.”

    His decision led to a distinguished, 30-year career in the top executive ranks of the New York Life Insurance Company. Beginning as a sales agent, Mark rose to management within three years, leading general offices in New York City and Vermont. The promotions continued—to senior vice president of the Northeast Zone in 2004; membership on the company’s Executive Committee in 2007; and executive vice president in 2009. When he retired in 2015, Mark was executive vice president in charge of the company’s Insurance and Agency Operation. 

    “I loved my job, I loved the company, and I loved the people I worked with,” says Mark. “What I realized over the years was how well teaching, and the values I encountered at Manhattan, prepared me for New York Life.” To manage, he says, “you have to coach, to motivate others.” Equally important is the ethical approach to solving problems that is central to a Manhattan College education. “The same values were paramount at New York Life,” he says. “When difficult issues came up, the deciding factor always focused on doing the right thing.” Reflecting the company’s emphasis on ethics, Mark notes, Manhattan awarded its 2005 De La Salle Medal to Sy Sternberg, who retired as chairman and CEO of New York Life in 2008.

    Like many Manhattan students, Mark and his siblings were the first in his family to attend college. His father, a World War II veteran, was a mechanic from Brooklyn; his mother was from the Bronx. Mark grew up in Pearl River, a middle-class suburb of New York City. “My parents were hard workers,” he says. “They managed to send all five of their kids to college.”

    Mark saved money by spending two years at Westchester Community College before transferring to Manhattan. At the Riverdale campus, he played wide receiver on the club football team. “It was a great program,” he recalls. “People sometimes ask me why I never joined a fraternity. I always tell them that the team was my fraternity. We all played together, raised money for expenses—we still see each other.”

    Today, Mark and his wife, Claudia, live in Colchester, VT, where they raised their three children. Mark makes time to coach and teach classes at his local high school. “I wanted to get back into it while I’m still young and healthy enough,” he says. Mark also continues to “give back” to his alma mater. In fall 2018, he returned to the Riverdale campus to deliver a lecture on leadership for students in the O’Malley School of Business. He and Claudia also generously support a wide variety of initiatives at the College, including the third-floor renovation of De La Salle Hall; the Donald R. Broderick Memorial Scholarship Dinner; and the Annual Fund.

    “No one makes it alone,” says Mark. “Along the way, there are people and institutions—like Manhattan College—that help us get where we are. Claudia and I have been very fortunate, and we believe in showing our gratitude to the places that have had an impact on our lives. If you can help others in the process, that’s even better.”

  • Thomas D. O’Malley ’63, ’15 HON
    Thomas D. O'Malley

    Thomas D. O’Malley, former chairman of Manhattan’s Board of Trustees, launched a new era for the School of Business this past year when he made a $25 million gift to increase scholarships, support innovative teaching and research, and expand experiential learning opportunities for students. It is the largest gift in the College’s history.

    At a formal ceremony on Tuesday, September 25, the school received its new name — the Thomas D. O’Malley ’63 School of Business. Tom and his wife, Mary Alice, are the College’s most generous donors. Among other contributions, they made the leadership gift to build the O’Malley Library and donated $10 million to help support construction of the Raymond W. Kelly ’63 Student Commons.

    “Mary Alice and I are pleased to continue our support for Manhattan College,” Tom says. “It provides a top-quality education in a dynamic and open environment while at the same time maintaining its Catholic identity. A very substantial portion of the student body supports Lasallian traditions of service to those less fortunate by volunteering in local, national and international support programs.” The College, Tom adds, offers the advantages of a diverse student body; tolerant, respectful discussion; and support for the nation’s military including a strong ROTC and services for student veterans.

    “The O’Malley gift takes our School of Business to a whole new level,” says Brennan O’Donnell, Ph.D., president of Manhattan College. “It allows us to expand and deepen our curriculum and research, encourage innovative pedagogy, and strengthen our support for experiential learning. We are extremely grateful to Tom, Mary Alice and their family for their steadfast generosity in supporting students, faculty and programs. We are proud to be home to the O’Malley School of Business.”

  • Cornelius J. Higgins ’62, Ph.D.
    image of cornelius higgins and wife

    Faculty, staff and alumni gathered on April 26 as Manhattan broke ground for its new Patricia and Cornelius J. Higgins ’62 Engineering and Science Center. Addressing guests, Cornelius (Neil) Higgins, Ph.D., described its features: “state-of-the-art” labs, “space for student and faculty research” and other high-tech resources.

    But the center’s true value, Neil emphasizes, lies in a longstanding truth about the College itself. “Excellence in executing Manhattan’s Catholic Lasallian mission,” he says, “is not primarily dependent on facilities. The programs, the caring environment, the dedication of the leadership, faculty and staff are keys to a great education.”

    That education, says Neil, a trustee emeritus, shaped his life. In gratitude, he and his wife, Patricia, made a $5 million leadership gift to support the center. “God has blessed us,” he says. “We felt it was time to give back.”

    “We’re both the first generation in our families to go to college,” observes Patricia, an educator and health professional with a Ph.D. in the health sciences. “We needed to do this.”

    Neil earned his civil engineering degree at Manhattan in 1962. He joined the Air Force as a civil engineering officer. After completing his service —including a year in Vietnam — he held positions in the defense analysis industry and academia. He and a fellow veteran formed Applied Research Associates, Inc., where Neil served as principal and chief executive officer until retiring in 2010. He holds an M.S. from the Air Force Institute of Technology; a Ph.D. and MBA from the University of New Mexico; and an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College.

    Neil served on Manhattan’s Board of Trustees from 2003 to 2018. In addition to the Higgins Center, he has supported initiatives including the Fund for Manhattan, De La Salle Medal Dinner and Raymond W. Kelly ’63 Student Commons. “Manhattan is an essential element in whatever success I’ve had,” he says. “We want it to continue providing opportunities for future generations.”

  • Stacey A. Guardino ’90
    headshot

    Hard work, a gift for understanding processes and internal controls, and the will to reach beyond her “comfort zone” propelled Stacey Guardino to become a partner at a Big Four public accounting firm. “My parents instilled a strong work ethic,” she says. “My sister and I were expected to always do our best, in school and in life.”

    Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, Stacey attended Bishop Kearney High School. A guidance counselor suggested she apply to Manhattan College. Recruitment visits by Br. David Van Hollebeke, FSC, an admission counselor at Manhattan, boosted her interest. Ultimately, two factors convinced her: a campus visit and a Presidential Scholarship. “Being there,” she says, “I could see it was a welcoming place. And the scholarship was very important — my sister, Alison, is two years younger, so our parents would be helping us both with tuition.” Alison is a 1992 Manhattan graduate.

    At the College, Stacey applied her interest in numbers as an accounting major with minors in management and mathematics. The supportive environment encouraged her to excel beyond the classroom. “I tend to be an introvert,” she says. “I knew I was going to have to change to succeed.” Elected to Student Government, she rose to speaker of the Legislature and was a member of the Senate. She also served for two years as treasurer for the New York District of Circle K International, a service organization; co-chaired the Spring Fest Committee; and was a resident assistant in her senior year.

    Today, Stacey is a partner at KPMG LLP in its Risk Consulting practice in New York City. She specializes in internal audit, internal controls, risk management and corporate governance for financial institutions. Stacey also makes time to serve her alma mater as a member of the Mentor Advisory Board and the Financial Services Advisory Council. In addition, she has contributed to the Raymond W. Kelly ’63 Student Commons, as well as the Dr. James Suarez Endowed Chair in the O’Malley School of Business. “There are many ways to give back,” she notes. “What counts is doing whatever we can.”

  • Michael P. Cesa ’68, M.D.
    image of michael cesa and wife

    For Michael (Mike) P. Cesa, catching up with former classmates at Reunion Weekend in June meant a good deal more than celebrating the 50th Anniversary of his Manhattan College graduation. “It was like coming home,” he says. “As much as any college can be part of a family, Manhattan is part of mine.”

    Three generations of Mike’s family have attended Manhattan. His father, John, graduated in 1937. Two of Mike’s children did as well — Gregory ’99 and Thomas ’96, who met his wife, Sharon (Chisolm) ’96, at the College. Mike’s niece, Jeanine Perrelli ’19, is a senior. Her brothers also are Jaspers: Michael ’10 and Matthew ’14. “It’s part of the Cesa heritage,” Mike says. Now that he and his wife, Barbara, have nine grandchildren, “another generation’s in the wings.”

    Mike retired in 2015 after nearly 40 years at North Suffolk Cardiology, where he was a founding partner and chief executive officer. It is the largest such practice on Long Island’s North Shore. He also has served as a staff member at several New York-area hospitals: SUNY Downstate Medical Center; Stony Brook University School of Medicine; John T. Mather Hospital; St. Charles Hospital; and St. Catherine’s of Siena. Two of his children followed him into medicine — Christopher, a Holy Cross alumnus, is a physician at North Suffolk; Meredith, a Fordham graduate, is an emergency-room nurse at Northwell Health/LIJ. 

    Growing up in the Belmont section of the Bronx, Mike attended local Catholic schools, including nearby Fordham Prep. Although accepted to the university, he chose Manhattan: “my dad may have had a little something to do with that,” he says. A “day hop,” or commuter, Mike was active in campus life — as sophomore class secretary, editor of the freshman and sophomore journals, social life commissioner, a Jasper Football Club board member and executive vice president of Student Government. He went on to earn his M.D. degree at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in 1972.

    Mike and Barbara are dedicated benefactors of the College, enhancing student life by supporting the Raymond W. Kelly ’63 Student Commons, the Annual Fund and other significant initiatives. “These are tough times for small private colleges,” Mike observes. “But they offer the kind of academic experience that you really don’t find at larger institutions. Alumni generosity is important if Manhattan is to continue providing the kind of education that meant so much to me and my classmates.”

Explore Impact Stories

Hear from students who have benefitted from the generous gifts of Manhattan donors. Explore Student Impact Stories.