A sold-out audience of alumni, family and friends was on hand Saturday, April 2, at the Lafayette Park Hotel to honor five exemplary Gaels at the annual Alumni awards Dinner.
De La Salle Award: Bill McLeod '64
When you talk to Bill McLeod, you get the distinct feeling that the world is going to be just fine after all. He possesses a calmness and optimism that must have come in handy during his 24 years as Saint Mary's dean of students and vice president of student affairs.
The most rewarding part of the job was guiding and mentoring students, McLeod says. "You just have to hold them accountable for what they do. and sometimes you have to make hard decisions. You really hope they don't make mistakes that are too severe, but it's all part of growing up."
McLeod decided early on to go into education, inspired by the Christian Brothers who taught him at San Joaquin High School in Fresno and at Saint Mary's, where he earned his bachelor's degree in history in 1964. After graduating from college, he returned to his old high school to teach and became vice principal a year later.
"I've been with the Brothers a long time," McLeod says. "A major reason I went into education was to assist young men and women in their formative years, as the Brothers helped me as a young man."
In 1969 McLeod was named superintendant of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Fresno, making him the youngest layperson in the nation to occupy such a post. It wasn't an easy job, McLeod says. during his three years in that post he had to close 12 schools.
Then former Saint Mary's President Brother Mel Aanderson asked McLeod to come to Saint Mary's in 1972, and he's been with the College for 39 years, taking on new roles, as needed, including vice president for administration, chief financial officer, and most recently as a major gifts officer, raising millions of dollars for the College. He also has dedicated time to serving as the president of the West Coast conference executive committee and has been a trustee of the East Bay Scholarship Fund since 1994.
This year, after 47 years in education and having touched the lives of thousands of students and alumni, McLeod has retired. He says receiving the De La Salle award — named in honor of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, the founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools and the patron saint of teachers — is the honor of a lifetime.
Alumna of the Year: Rena Fischer '99
When Rena Fischer came to Saint Mary's, she knew exactly how her career would play out. Her goal was to work in the audit department for one of the "Big Six" accounting firms. By the beginning of her senior year, she already had a job offer in hand from accounting powerhouse KPMG, and she went to work for the company right after receiving her B.S. in economics.
But her life took an unanticipated turn less than a year later when she got an offer from a fledgling dot.com company called PayPal. Her friends urged caution; after all, this was in the midst of the dotbomb era. Only her father thought it might work out, she recalls. His advice? "You're young. Does the business model make sense? If it does, what have you got to lose?"
She left KPMG and jumped in feet first. "Don't be afraid to take risks out there," she says. "The one thing I didn't have was the fear of failure."
Her risky decision turned out to be very wise. PayPal went on to capture the market for online payment. More than the financial rewards, though, Fischer views her PayPal experience as a once-in-alifetime opportunity for professional growth. "The learning curve was straight up," she says. "We were creating something that didn't exist."
When PayPal was acquired by eBay a few years later for $1.5 billion, Fischer went to work for eBay, first in San Jose and then in Berne, Switzerland, as the company's global cash manager. Most recently, she served as director of operations for Clarium Capital Management, a global macro hedge fund.
Fischer says her Saint Mary's education prepared her to seize great opportunities when they come along. "The college imparts the ability to think critically," she says. nevertheless, her best memories of Saint Mary's are the friendships she made. "I met my girlfriends at Saint Mary's. When I became a regent, I met the person who became my dearest friend," she says. "It's a relationship school. and all the people who've attended make the school."
"You need to understand what you have from Saint Mary's and then give that back," she says. "It has to come full circle."
Fischer has given hundreds of hours to Saint Mary's. She serves on the Board of Regents, the President's Athletic Council and the Sesquicentennial Planning Committee. she is also co-chair of the Women in Philanthropy Committee, which put together the "40 Years/One Night Gaela" in November to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first undergraduate women to enroll at Saint Mary's. The event raised more than $30,000 for the Sister Clare Wagstaffe Endowed Scholarship to benefit female students at SMC. "It was inspiring," Fischer says.
She also volunteers for St. Francis Catholic High School in Sacramento, which she attended, and the Selamta Family Project, a community modeling project for creating sustainable families in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The value of service was one of the most important lessons instilled at Saint Mary's, Fischer says.
As she put it when she accepted her "Alumna of the Year" award: "In the classroom, I was given the opportunity to learn and develop academically; outside of the classroom through my experiences at Saint Mary's, I learned how to develop altruistically. In simple terms, I learned how to serve others."
Meritorious Service Award: Victoria "Tori" Verber-Salazar
Victoria "Tori" Verber-Salazar lives the Saint Mary's College mission of service to community. Since 1987 Tori has worked in the San Joaquin County District Attorney's office to prosecute gang-related homicides, but through her volunteerism she strives to keep young people out of gangs and make better lives for themselves. She co-founded Girls in Transition, to help female gang members get out of gangs and back into society. Verber-Salazar also counsels female inmates on how to survive and thrive after release and uses video of inmates serving life sentences for gangrelated homicide to show fifth grade through high school students the reality of life behind bars. She also dedicates herself to helping kids who are homeless or living in shelters.Verber-Salazar also counsels female inmates on how to survive and thrive after release and uses video of inmates serving life sentences for gang-related homicide to show fifth grade through high school students the reality of life behind bars. She also dedicates herself to helping kids who are homeless or living in shelters.
G.O.L.D. (Gael Of the Last Decade) Awards: Gregory Teshara and Joe Buenavista
As a recent graduate of Saint Mary's, Gregory Teshara — who majored in economics and business and recieved the De La Salle Award in 2002 — has already amassed a record of dedicated service to the College, staying closely connected to the school and his peers. Greg joined the Alumni Board in 2004-05 and became its president in 2007, leading successful efforts to increase fundraising, chapter outreach and board participation. Following a path he began as a student, when he and his peers began an endowment that would eliminate the required student body fee, Greg continues to raise funds for SMC, this year celebrating a decade of President's Club membership, while contributing in numerous other ways to the College's fundraising outreach efforts.
In the seven years since Joe Buenavista received his Saint Mary's MBA, he has dedicated himself to refining the mission of the Graduate Business Alumni chapter, which he and two peers resurrected in 2004. He has focused intently on increasing the achievements and contributions of this alumni group and integrating it with the overall alumni community. he was likewise influential in the establishment of a Graduate Business Alumni Outreach directorship. Joe has served as the chair of the graduate business alumni golf tournament for several years, including the upcoming August 15, 2011 event. A proud undergraduate alumnus of the U.S. Naval Academy, Joe has demonstrated the same sense of loyalty and service to Saint Mary's College.