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My Journey: Citizen of the Year Joe Serico

Haddonfield Citizen of the Year Joe Serico was the guest speaker at the Rotary Club’s weekly meeting on February 17, 2021. He shared these prepared remarks with Haddonfield[dot]Today.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman of Rotary. Thank you very much for extending me an invitation to speak with you today.

I am exceedingly grateful to the Haddonfield Lions Club for recognizing me with this prestigious award as Haddonfield’s Citizen of the Year. This award has been bestowed on an amazing group of local citizens, many of whom I have known personally. I am humbled to be included in such exemplary company. I am not so certain that I am deserving in this pandemic year, when there are so many worthy health care workers, caregivers, and others who put their lives on the line daily. I am very appreciative nonetheless.

When [Rotarian] Cheryl [Laney] approached me about speaking today, I was flattered by the invitation but a bit perplexed as to what my focus might be. In our conversation, Cheryl asked me what people, places, and events encouraged my involvement in community activities.

As a boy growing up in the New York City borough of the Bronx, I never gave much thought to the Little League and CYO coaches who surrounded me, the volunteer ladies and men who worked alongside me at the hospital, and the many adults who gave freely of their time and treasure to support church or synagogue activities in our neighborhood. More obvious to me was the dynamic that ruled city life: local government officials were professional politicians paid for their services and aspiring to higher office. There were no local garden clubs that I could recall, as the Parks Department oversaw all the green spaces. What I knew growing up and in my first two teaching positions was nothing like what I would experience beginning in 1987.

It was in coming to work in Haddonfield that I experienced the exceptional commitment citizens can make to a community. In my first year at Haddonfield Memorial High School, it was evident that parents played a unique role supporting the schools. Sure, some schools have booster clubs and parents have some limited involvement in supporting teams that their children play on, but HMHS was different. At the High School, parents undertook major events like the Senior Fashion Show, the After-Graduation Party, Teacher Appreciation Luncheon, back-to-school breakfasts, and the hosting annual back-to-school nights. Beyond this very substantial commitment, parents were equally willing to become partners in school decision-making. They served on multiple school committees on scholarships, curriculum review, school advisory councils, teacher recruitment, and strategic planning. Equally committed were the selfless men and women who served on the Board of Education, most of whom had children in the schools. They undertook tasks like negotiating contracts, overseeing personnel decisions, and making decisions about facilities — decisions that put them squarely in the public eye. They devoted enormous amounts of time and energy assisting in overseeing the operation of the schools.

These volunteer women and men were nothing short of inspiring in their effort and commitment to support the school. I had never been exposed to anything like that. When they accepted a seat at the table, they were willing to commit many hours and do the heavy lifting that such work required. To this day I remain very grateful to PTA Presidents Jeanne Runne, Linda Giudice, Nancy Wills, and Julie Vick, who were role models for what engagement in the community could look like.

That commitment to volunteerism was everywhere you looked. HMHS students were also deeply involved in service activities. Organizations like the National Honor Society, Interact, and perhaps a dozen other clubs had a focus on community service when I arrived at HMHS. Today that number is even larger than when I left the High School nineteen years ago.

If I needed further evidence that service was a deeply ingrained in the culture of this community, I needed to look no further than the civic leaders who I deeply admired: Bill Reynolds, Gene Kain, Tish Colombi, and Jack Tarditi. The town was blessed with role models that a neophyte leader could look to. My very first encounter with our current mayor, Neal Rochford, occurred when we worked together at a children’s venue on a very frosty First Night.

Haddonfield provided both the environment and the opportunity for me to get involved in three key organizations that led to my increased engagement in the community: the Haddonfield Educational Trust, the Haddonfield Alumni Society, and the HMHS Beautification Committee.

As Assistant Superintendent and later a community member, I have been fortunate to serve for several years as one of the members of the Haddonfield Educational Trust board. The Trust has the responsibility for managing the Haddonfield Memorial High School Scholarship Fund and distributing established scholarships to graduating seniors. The Trust has supported several School District projects in the past few years, including the Turf Field project, playground renovations at both Central and Elizabeth Haddon schools, the “Lights, Camera, Action” project, and the HMHS Beautification Project in 2018 and 2019. The HET board has supported these major initiatives through individual donations and their annual Golf Tournament. In addition, the HET has annually sponsored and supported Teacher Innovation Grants to promote excellence in teaching and learning in the Haddonfield Public Schools. The HET has also tended to some short-term needs of the schools like supplying head-sets for teachers to assist with virtual learning and to support school clubs in going to national competitions. It has been a pleasure to serve alongside dedicated fellow volunteers like recent presidents Sarah Tambussi and Dave Larkin, and current president Adam Puff.

When the Haddonfield Educational Trust needed a liaison to the Alumni Society, I was happy to serve in that position. In large measure this propelled me into a much larger role working with the alumni community. The Haddonfield Alumni Society — especially Tom Baird and Wayne Hunter — allowed me to take on more responsibility in the organization.

Finally, Maureen Eyles, a BOE member at the time and an alumna, initiated a committee to improve the exterior spaces at the High School. Maureen asked me if I would serve as the chairperson of the committee. It was Maureen’s vision that saw the possibility of a collaboration among the Haddonfield Educational Trust, the Alumni Society, and the Beautification Committee.

Much of the work of the Beautification Committee has been completed. I discovered that a person with little background in development was going to find raising $200,000 quite a challenge. So, this effort became a series of projects, large and small, that evolved continuously over two years. Fortunately, there were extraordinary folks who contributed throughout the process to different phases of the project. Maureen Eyles and Joanne Connor joined with David Hunter to publicize our early efforts. Some individuals like Gwen Hotaling, who did a pop-up art show, and Jamie Grookett, who organized a fifth grade service project at Elizabeth Haddon School, made their mark. Other larger organizations stepped up, including the Haddonfield Educational Trust, which agreed to pledge up to $25,000 of the proceeds from their golf tournament for two successive years. Golf chairpersons Chrissy Nelson Del Duca and Jack Tarditi were a dynamic duo who relentlessly worked to achieve these financial targets.

Another fundraising project emerged from a conversation some months before the project started. Alumnus Brad Spence, highly acclaimed chef/partner at Amis Trattoria, expressed an interest in doing an alumni event. Brad has been no stranger to supporting the schools, serving as the driving force in the highly successful Central School Spaghetti Dinners. Brad suggested a pig roast. I could not say “yes” fast enough and proposed that we do this event in support of the Beautification Project. Brad was all in. He sourced the pig, roasted it, made all the accompaniments, and served it. Other alumni stepped forward to help make this event a success. Dan Smith, vice president of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, set up the bar and made specialty cocktails. Drew Perry and Brian Needham of Double Nickle Brewery contributed the beer; the Albericos — Carolina, Michael, and Tom — supplied the wine; Christy Bowman provided a sound system and Doug Legnola the music; and Lisa and Chris Wolschina opened their home as the venue. For two successive years, the pig roast raised some $36,000, which the HAS contributed directly to the Beautification Project.

Much of that alumni contribution can now be seen in the Legacy Walk that resides in the newly reconstructed stadium plaza. The Alumni Society purchased brick pavers for all of the 108 Lifetime Achievement Award winners and the 200 or so members of the Athletic Hall of Fame.

The Legacy Walk also commemorates several other team championships achieved by boys’ and girls’ basketball, tennis, cross country and football, as well as numerous alumni and community members. This is an ongoing effort. Families, alumni, and future Hall of Fame members and Lifetime Achievement Award winners will continue to be recognized on the Legacy Walk. The beautiful designs for nearly all these outdoor spaces were rendered by landscape architect, Lynn Raus, a Haddonfield parent. She was at my side from the beginning of this project through today. I owe her the largest debt of gratitude for her exceptional vision and for giving so much of herself to this project.

The Board of Education provided the impetus for another project by giving the committee permission to honor cross-country and track coaches Nick and Maureen Baker for their exceptional achievements over forty-plus years at HMHS. A committee of track alumni — Tom Brennan, Colin Baker, Tom Herdelin, and coach Dave Stewart — worked tirelessly to reach out to track and field athletes from many decades, and they came through in a major way to support the efforts to have the HMHS track named for the Bakers. Many bought benches, trees, and pavers that expressed their appreciation for the Bakers and their dedication to the program. In the spring of 2019, we had an alumni barbecue and officially named the facility the Baker Track.

I was not surprised that the community and especially the alumni community would support the beautification efforts. In fact, alumni giving is one of our town’s best-kept secrets. On Senior Awards Night, the Alumni Society and the classes of 1953, 1956, 1963, 1971, and 1982 all offer scholarships supporting students in continuing their academic careers. In addition, numerous individual alums or their families have established trusts or make gifts that are directed to scholarships. Alums were responsible for more than $150,000 of scholarship awards for the 2020-21 academic year, and an additional $300,000 of awards to be spread over the remaining three years of college. This is an extraordinary achievement which reflects the exceptional generosity and goodwill of our alumni. The alumni and community support for the Beautification Project has been exceptional, with gifts ranging from $25 to $25,000.

As you might expect, the pandemic has put quite a crimp in the kinds of activities that the HAS has thrived on for several years. Our annual Happy Hours scheduled in spring and late fall had to be cancelled, as was the HET Golf Tournament and Pig Roast. Several reunion classes had to postpone or cancel their events in anniversary years like the 25th, 35th, 50th, etc. The trustees of the HAS began to think of some ways that we might reconnect with the alumni community despite our inability to meet safely face-to-face. We created some interactive Zoom events like beer and wine tastings. Modeled after the Master Class website, the trustees proposed and instituted an Alumni Master Class where our talented and highly successful graduates created short classes to share their expertise, demonstrate their skills, or talk about their experience in their given field. To date they have been well received. Upcoming on February 19: Dave Guggino, a New York-based dancer and choreographer will lead a session entitled, “No Judgment, Just Move”. Dave promises to show us a move or two that are certain to embarrass our children. On February 27, Ben Axler, founder and CIO of the Spruce Capital Management hedge fund will present on “The GameStop Drama and Investing in Today’s Market.”

I suppose that it would be gratifying enough just to see the sketched designs for gardens or a stadium plaza come to fruition and improve the HMHS campus spaces. I am especially grateful that I am able to give back in some small measure to the place where I enjoyed a work life that was so personally fulfilling for me. I recognized in coming to Haddonfield that I enjoyed the gifts of a wonderful student body, a talented and caring faculty, supportive parents, and a community that highly values education. What I could not appreciate when I arrived was how deep and meaningful the connections to students, parents, and faculty would become. For me, one of the great joys in working with each of the three organizations was reconnecting with these talented, accomplished, and caring adults who are so willing to support the schools.

While the work on the Beautification Project is nearly finished, we will continue to add to the Legacy Walk and accept gifts toward the Sarah Tarditi Gallagher Garden that will take shape between the A and C buildings. The BOE has decided to expand on the Gallagher Garden to more fully utilize that space and to build an outdoor classroom.

As we go forward, one project worthy of further consideration sits squarely in front of the High School. Some time ago, David Hunter met me at the flagpole and suggested that it might be a good idea to include the restoration of the base of the flagpole in the Beautification Project. Unfortunately, the base has deteriorated significantly in recent years. While I really liked David’s idea, frankly I was a bit too timid to consider adding another piece to the project. Now, I would like to get it off the back burner. So, in the next several months, you may hear a bit more about that project. Keep us in mind if it is something you feel you can support.

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today and to share this story. I appreciate your time and all that Rotary does for the community.

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