Learn from Every Challenge Monopoli ’89 Tells Students

2014 04 Rutherford Rich Monopoli 3“I need a volunteer,” Rich Monopoli ’89 said to the assembled Upper School students during a recent Wednesday morning. “I need a guy to play me in 1989.”

Once a student, Gabe Hohmann ’14, was seated on the stage, Mr. Monopoli turned to him from the podium.

“You will experience great success over the next 25 years,” he said to Mr. Hohmann. “And you will experience great challenges.”

As an alumnus with many ties to Williston—his sister, Paula Monopoli, is class of 1976 and his niece, Alexandra Lewis, is a current senior—Mr. Monopoli was on campus to speak to students about the lasting legacy of the Williston experience.

After his own high school graduation, Mr. Monopoli built an impressive resume: he pursued structural engineering, receiving a bachelor’s from Carnegie Mellon University and a master’s from the University of California Irvine, and also earned an MBA in Finance, Accounting, and Real Estate from Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management. He became the vice president of development at Boston Properties, as well as a professional structural and civil engineer, and a chartered financial analyst. He was named to the board of directors of both Waltham West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and 128 Business Council and became the co-director of Lung Cancer Alliance New England.

As a spring rain pattered against the windows of the Philips Stevens Chapel, Mr. Monopoli told students he had one wish: that he could go back to 1989 and tell his senior self all the details about what was about to happen.

He wanted to describe the successes, like going to college and graduate school, meeting a girl, falling in love, getting married, and having a child. And he wanted to describe the challenges.

“The challenge part is this,” he said. “The day before you have your first baby, your wife Sara will be diagnosed with advanced stage, inoperable lung cancer.”

2014 04 Rutherford Rich Monopoli 4The audience gasped. Mr. Monopoli explained that the baby, Vivian, would start getting stronger and learning to crawl, even as Sara—who was 35, had never smoked, and had no previous symptoms—was getting weaker. Then, eight months after Vivian was born, Sara would pass away from lung cancer.

“So now, you are a single parent with an eight-month-old,” Mr. Monopoli said to his past self. “So what do you do? This is the hard part… How will you respond?”

Family and friends would rally to show their support—including visits by buddies from “Willy Prep Class of 1989”—and Mr. Monopoli would turn his experience into a cornerstone of future activism. He would join a grassroots organization called Lung Cancer Alliance and help start an annual awareness event called Shine a Light on Lung Cancer, which would become the flagship event in a global movement. He would also lobby congress for federal funding for lung cancer research, sharing Sara’s story all along the way.

And there would also be a new marriage, “to an amazing woman named Molly,” and a new baby, due the day of his speech at Williston.

“The point being you will survive life’s challenges and you will be better for it. Learn from every challenge,” Mr. Monopoli said. “Willy Prep is a special place with special people that will rally around you when you really need them. Stay connected to the school and give back with your time and treasure. Congratulations to Allie and the Class of 2014—and good luck, guys.”

Read Mr. Monopoli’s full speech here.

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