Message from alumnus to new graduates: Be proud, be giving.

John Bienkowski with his wife Donna

John Bienkowski ’68 has some advice for members of the Class of 2017 as they join the ranks of Saint Leo University’s 80,000-plus alumni.

His first piece of advice: Be proud to be graduates … and now alumni of an institution that is really on its way up.

He gave this same set of instructions to the Class of 1968 when he was asked to offer parting words of wisdom to his fellow seniors.

Fifty years later, he still stands by every word.

“Over the decades we’ve witnessed so many alumni achieving unheard-of goals, earning multiple doctorates, starting multimillion dollar companies. There is so much evidence that Saint Leo prepares us well.”

If John wears his alumni status like a badge of honor, it’s because he realizes that the man who graduated as senior class president of Saint Leo College in 1968 was also the boy who wasn’t supposed to be there. Just getting to college, he says, can be a battle hard won.

Compared to his peers at Union High School in Union, NJ, John Bienkowski wasn’t a standout. His grades were unremarkable, and poor standardized test scores further diminished his prospects.

“I watched my mother cry after we met with my guidance counselor to talk about my future,” John recalls. “She thought her son was going to be a failure.”

They didn’t even bother to ask for a college recommendation.

“I saw what it did to her and that was a turning point for me. I was definitely ready to succeed. I didn’t know if I was going to fail or not, but I knew I needed to give myself a shot at not failing.”

Saint Leo saw something in John that the guidance counselor had missed, and the university proved to be the game-changer John needed.

At Saint Leo, John discovered a rigorous academic environment he describes as “everything I hoped to receive.” He forged lasting friendships with his Sigma Beta brothers and found a surrogate family among Saint Leo’s staff and faculty, particularly then-president Father Stephen Herrmann and his vice president for Development and Public Relations, Allan Powers.

“Together we shared so many conversations, not about school, but about growing up. Had I gone somewhere else, I’m not sure there would have been anyone around who I could go to like that.”

John Bienkowski

John’s Saint Leo senior photo

When Father Stephen presented John with a special commendation at the 1968 spring commencement ceremony, John would again watch his mother cry—this time with joy.

“My parents were laborers. One worked days, one worked nights. They couldn’t even afford to visit Saint Leo until I graduated,” John explains. “So that was a special moment for them and for me.”

That special moment sparked a growing awareness of not only the tremendous sacrifice his parents had made on his behalf but also the value of what he had been given.

Following a stint in the armed services, John landed a highly sought-after job with New Jersey Bell, then a part of AT&T, and found himself in stiff competition with graduates from Penn State, Seton Hall, and other schools. Like many of his fellow Saint Leo alumni who were entering the workforce, he was apprehensive, wondering how he would stack up against the “bigger names.”

“Once we saw that we were holding our own or doing better, we began to more fully appreciate how Saint Leo prepared us.”

John’s second piece of advice for new grads? Giving back starts today. And it’s easier and more enjoyable than you think.

“Every time you do something good, every time you accomplish something, step back and ask yourself, ‘did Saint Leo contribute to this?’”

In addition to regular annual giving, John’s own stewardship includes past participation in the Alumni Association Board of Directors, a current seat on the President’s Council, and membership in the Horgan Society, which honors donors who make a gift to Saint Leo through a will or other estate plan. He also has taken an active role in helping university staff plan the 50th reunion celebration for the Class of 1968.

“Money isn’t the only means of supporting the university. You’re automatically a member of the Alumni Association as soon as you graduate, so look for a local chapter or help start one. Be a guest speaker, serve on a committee, or just keep the social scene alive by attending an event,” he says.

“Bottom line, there’s so much we can do if it’s in our heart to do so.”

Join John in keeping Saint Leo great by making a gift today. Every donation, no matter how big or small, makes a difference. You can also explore the many ways to get involved in the Saint Leo community. 


More donor stories »