Top of the Class: Alumni leaders continue to serve in medicine, education and science

Originally published in Second Century Summer 2015.

Heralded as leaders and honored for their academic achievement and commitment to Lasallian and Vincentian values, valedictorians are also entrusted to inspire their fellow classmates with a final speech: the valedictory. From the Latin vale dicere, to say farewell, the speech marks the end of each student’s journey at SHC and the start of their lives as proud alumni. Valedictorians Filemon Dela Cruz ’94 and James Giovannoni ’81, and salutatorian Mary Kate Blaine ’96 credit SHC for creating the foundation upon which they built their careers as service-oriented leaders.

Even as the Class of 1994 Valedictorian and a De Paul Scholar with a rigorous honors and AP class schedule, Filemon Dela Cruz ’94 never viewed himself as a bright student. He simply did what he was supposed to do. “I was good at regurgitating information, but Ms. Heidkamp and Dr. Hogarty encouraged me to synthesize information and develop my own conclusions—this was the most important lesson I learned at SHC.”

When former Instructor of English Aileen Heidkamp asked sophomore Filemon to stay after class, he imagined the worst. “She had a reputation for being tough, so I was truly frightened.” To Filemon’s surprise, Heidkamp kept him after class to praise his well-written report on Watership Down. “It was the first time I thought: I might be good at something.” Filemon describes this as the most pivotal moment of his life, “I had never really believed in myself until then.”

In the early 1990s, SHC looked dramatically different than it does today. The new practice field on Gough and Eddy provided much-needed outdoor space for athletics and schoolwide activities. The Internet was a new idea yet to be implemented on campus. “I remember learning about the Internet in Senior Seminar and it being described as a place you could visit to access information you would normally obtain by going to the library or opening an encyclopedia,” Filemon remembers.

As a member of the cross country and track teams, Filemon practiced at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park. As the yearbook copy-editor, he spent much of his time in a small room behind the library, then on the first floor of the La Salle building. “We used Word Perfect on a blue DOS screen, and I remember being so excited when we got laser printers … a huge improvement from the dot matrix printers we had previously used. I have such fond memories of being a part of the yearbook staff.”

As a senior, Filemon garnered acceptances to a few prestigious colleges—including MIT—and ultimately selected Reed College, a small liberal arts college in Oregon strong in sciences. He studied biochemistry and molecular biology at Reed, which at the time, was not much bigger than SHC. Selecting Reed for his undergraduate studies is a decision Filemon stands by today, “Getting a solid liberal arts education really was the best thing I could possibly do.” When making this important selection, Filemon held the positive influence from Heidkamp and Hogarty in high regard. “I wanted to make them proud,” he shares.

"I can’t stress how important critical thinking and writing skills are in life. When I write manuscripts now, Dr. Hogarty comes to mind, and I remember his lessons on active rather than passive voice. Good writing contributes to my ability to obtain grants for research today."

Filemon’s education at Reed ultimately led to a job at Oregon Health & Science University in pediatric bone marrow transplant research. It was the perfect intersection of time and place—the late 1990s marked a new era of cancer therapeutics, and the OHSU was instrumental in developing a new drug that would transform treatments for leukemia patients. Through his work at OHSU and his interactions with families and children affected by cancer, Filemon’s path became clear. “There was one child I remember in particular whose diagnosis, if it had come to me today, would certainly worry me because the treatments for his type of cancer are still lacking.” It is for patients such as him that Filemon strives to be a translational researcher, someone whose work in the laboratory directly translates to the bedside.

Filemon Dela Cruz today.

Filemon Dela Cruz today.

Today, Filemon serves as an assistant professor of pediatric oncology at Columbia University Medical Center. While he has been interested in science his entire life, ultimately, he counts his SHC English teachers as the most influential in helping him develop his passion for medicine and leading him on his path. “I can’t stress how important critical thinking and writing skills are in life. When I write manuscripts now, Dr. Hogarty comes to mind, and I remember his lessons on active rather than passive voice. Good writing contributes to my ability to obtain grants for research today.”

Filemon leads a program at CUMC that uses the precision medicine model to uncover how connective tissue tumors respond to different treatments. “Because the same disease often behaves differently in different people, the treatment that works for one individual may not work for another.” The research involves removing a portion of a patient’s tumor and growing it many times over in order to uncover which treatments are most effective at eradicating the cancer.

“We are just beginning to tap into the potential of precision medicine in pediatric oncology. I’m working to expand this work locally and nationally through the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, MIT, UCSF and through the construction of a national consortium.”

In many ways, Filemon’s current work is a continuation of work he began as a student at SHC during a summer internship at the VA Hospital contributing to the Genome Project, a decade-long, multibillion-dollar project that mapped the entire gene sequence of human DNA. “With today’s technology, something like the Genome Project can be completed in a few weeks for a fraction of the original cost. Columbia is one of the few institutions with a strong precision medicine program, particularly for pediatrics and pediatric oncology. Every child that enters our hospital has access to technology that will soon be the standard of care.”

This summer, Filemon reconnected with Dr. Hogarty at the New York City Alumni Social and had the opportunity to express his gratitude for setting him on a path filled with intention, passion and purpose. Dr. Hogarty remembers, “I still remember walking virtually the entire Walkathon with Filemon his senior year. Though only September, Filemon already seemed at home in the world of ideas that is seminar class. I was totally impressed when we had our own seminar going around the Polo Fields track and through the park. I remember also talking to him about Reed during that morning, knowing what incredible potential he had. It is a joy to see that he is living out that potential. He has truly left SHC to serve.”

Jim Giovannoni ’81—Sacred Heart Class of 1981 Valedictorian

Jim Giovannoni ’81, graduation portrait.

Jim Giovannoni ’81, graduation portrait.

Jim Giovannini ’81 today

Jim Giovannini ’81 today


Current Occupation: Professor at Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Cornell University

College: University of California, Davis

Current Research: My laboratory focuses on fruit development and the biochemistry and genetics of ripening and associated nutritional chemistry. We develop knowledge related to these processes that translate to information breeders use to select for improved varieties.

Snapshot of high school life circa 1981

Groundbreaking Technology: VCRs

Everyday Tools: Payphones, typewriters

Campus Features: The “Red Square” designated smoking area for faculty and students, the new La Salle Academic Building.

Life-Changing Advice: A mentor once told me that “The future is in plants—they are our food, fiber and energy.”

Most Important SH Lesson: The supportive and rigorous academic environment promoted a sense of self-confidence, motivation and empathy that you take with you as you move on in life. These values are essential in successfully navigating life challenges and in being helpful to others.

Mary Kate Blaine ’96—SHC Class of 1996 Salutatorian

Mary Kate Blaine ’96, graduation portrait.

Mary Kate Blaine ’96, graduation portrait.

Mary Kate Blaine ’96 today.

Mary Kate Blaine ’96 today.

Current Occupation: Principal, Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, Washington, DC (first girls Catholic school in the original 13 colonies)

Degrees: BA American Studies (Fordham University), MA History & Education (Columbia University), EdM School Leadership (Columbia University)

Current Career Goal: I strive to model faith, vision and purpose for the 490 students entrusted to my care. As we prepare for our accreditation self-study, I hope to guide a collaborative conversation about how our spiritual and academic values align and are reflected in the classroom.

Snapshot of high school life circa 1996

Groundbreaking Technology: Email debuted on campus my senior year.

Campus Features: New library construction made for very noisy math classes on the fifth floor.

Most Important SHC Lesson: SHC developed in me a deep sense of responsibility to share my gifts with others. My parents often spoke of the importance of serving others, and the adults at SHC echoed that message through their words and actions each day. I carry that with me always! I also sometimes begin prayer with “Let us remember” as a way to acknowledge God’s presence and keep everything in perspective.

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