Five Auburn High School graduates who went on to have successful careers will be inducted into the Auburn Alumni Hall of Distinction May 17.
The class of 2019: Julie Jordan DiPalma, John Liberatore, Michael Lynch, Brian McKeon and Tricia Purdy Messinger.
The Citizen profiled the inductees over the last few months. The articles can be found in this slideshow.
Legal eagle: Auburn schools alumna advocates as personal injury lawyer
The first person to tell Julie Jordan DiPalma she was being inducted into the Auburn Alumni Hall of Distinction was the same person who gave her news that stuck with her decades ago.
Jordan DiPalma, a personal injury lawyer, said she was informed of the honor by William Tenity, who picked her for the title role in the musical "Cinderella" when she was in sixth grade. She originally eyed a chorus role, but her mother, Sue Jordan, convinced her to go out for the lead. Snagging the spot at such a young age was monumental for her confidence at the time, she said.
With obvious excitement in her voice, Jordan DiPalma said hearing about two important achievements from the same person has been special. She will be placed in the hall's ranks by the Auburn Education Foundation in May. Jordan DiPalma, who has operated her own firm, The Law Offices of Jordan DiPalma PLLC, in the Monroe County town of Pittsford for around two years, said she was thrilled by the news.
One aspect of the induction the 1997 Auburn High School graduate is looking forward to is setting up contacts who can help her "be a resource to the foundation and the community." Her plans include getting involved with the foundation, creating a scholarship and mentoring Auburn students.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity to even be in a place to be able to give back to the community, because that's what I believe people should be striving to do," Jordan DiPalma said.
Jordan DiPalma, whose mother was a longtime Latin teacher in the district, praised the instructors she had, saying they encouraged her interest in music. That interest stayed with Jordan DiPalma after graduation, to the point that she almost majored in opera while she was at the University of Rochester from 1997 to 2001. She double majored in political science and health and society, before she opted to go into law.
She went to the Syracuse University College of Law from 2001 to 2004, when she worked for the firm Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP in Rochester until 2010. After that, she was at the firm Faraci Lange Attorneys in Rochester until 2017, when she started her own practice. She recently took over a practice in Palmyra from an attorney who has retired, and she said she has enjoyed operating in two communities.
Her previous experience included both advocating for people who received life-changing injuries and their families, along with defending corporations and other businesses, she said, but ultimately, "my heart is on the plaintiff side, always," she said.
Jordan DiPalma said her goal is use to use the justice system to help clients get compensated and receive closure.
Jordan DiPalma said she hopes upcoming Auburn graduates will "pause and be thankful" for their time there as they pursue their goals, and support Auburn students who come after them. She said she is grateful for the support of her husband, Jeff DiPalma, her children Josh DiPalma, 15, and Grace DiPalma, 7, and her mother.
Marianne Berman, who taught English in the Auburn district for decades, said she nominated Jordan DiPalma for the honor. Berman said her room at the former West Middle School building was right next to Sue Jordan's room, and said she has known Jordan DiPalma since she was in preschool. Berman said she believes Jordan DiPalma does not actively seek out the limelight and always "gives 100 percent" in everything she takes on.
"She does what she does as well as she does because that's who she is," Berman said.
Piano and purpose: Auburn alumnus now a Notre Dame professor, composer
As an Auburn High School student in the early 2000s, John Liberatore would use his study hall periods and lunch breaks to sneak into the auditorium and play its grand piano.
Because a grand piano isn't exactly subtle, people caught on to what he was doing, Liberatore said, and it eventually become a "sanctioned activity."
That same passion for music will lead Liberatore — now a composer and assistant professor of music theory and composition at Notre Dame — back to Auburn. He is one of five former students who will be inducted into the Auburn Alumni Hall of Distinction by the Auburn Education Foundation in May.
Liberatore, 34, who graduated from Auburn High in 2003, estimates he has written around 40 pieces professionally. His work has been performed in prestigious venues such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall, and in venues as far away as Asia and South America. His academic experience includes a bachelor's degree from Syracuse Universe and a doctorate in music composition from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. He began at Notre Dame in the fall of 2015.
Bonny Blair, co-chair of the Hall of Distinction event and chair of the foundation's resource development committee, praised Liberatore's career and abilities.
"What he has accomplished at his age is nothing short of astounding," Blair said.
Blair said the foundation's selection committee, which had seven members this year, tried to cover a range of ages and fields when picking honorees.
"Every single year we are blown away and so honored to celebrate the greatness that comes from having had an Auburn public schools education," Blair said. "I think it has extra meaning because you're being honored by your own hometown."
Liberatore said he was surprised and "incredibly humbled" by the honor when he heard in the fall that he would be receiving it.
Some of Liberatore's oldest memories involve music, he said, as his father plays folk guitar and his grandfather had taken piano lessons decades before. But they both played music by ear instead of sheet music. Liberatore remembers his grandfather playing the piano, which Liberatore recalled as "this mysterious thing."
"I wanted to crack the mystery of this," he said. While he didn't go all-in on it at first, "By the time I went to Auburn High School, I was already set on that path."
Liberatore admitted he's glad he was "a little naive" when he graduated about the trials that would come with pursuing music in the real world.
"There was no guarantee in music," he said. "I'm always reminded of how incredibly lucky I am. I've worked hard to be accomplished but at the same time, a lot of people have worked hard to be accomplished."
Tricia Purdy-Messinger's interest in politics dates back to when she dragged her father to m…
Liberatore said that while luck has been part of his success, it is critical for people to make the effort to position themselves to take advantage of those fortunate opportunities. He said it is important for one's eye to be trained on the next level of what they want to achieve. Liberatore noted that he had withstood hundreds of rejections before starting at Notre Dame.
Liberatore said his Auburn school career involved many fond memories, and also credited the quality of teachers he had. A memory he had that sticks out, he said, was when he performed a piece he wrote at a senior assembly. He suspects someone had underestimated how long the piece was supposed to be, because once he hit the climax of the piece, student ushers removed him from the stage. While he was furious at the time, in retrospect he believes that experience emphasized how monumental a force music was — and still is — in his life.
When talking about the advice he would give current Auburn students, Liberatore said it is important for them to relish the time they spend working toward their goals.
"The pursuit is not only worth it, but you can enjoy and live your life," he said.
Political passion: Auburn native dedicated to improving health care
Tricia Purdy-Messinger's interest in politics dates back to when she dragged her father to mayoral debates in Auburn.
At the debates, she found her middle-school-aged self fascinated with the topics of discussion. While she can't place his opponent, she remembers former Auburn Mayor Guy Cosentino was there because he won the 1992 election, and continued to be involved in her life.
After the election, Purdy-Messinger was in a production of "Anything Goes" at West Middle School. Cosentino not only attended, but also wrote her a letter congratulating her on her performance. Then, when Cosentino created a Mayor's Youth Commission, Purdy-Messinger joined.
"That was the beginning for me," Purdy-Messinger said of her interest in politics. "I've had many teachers that extend outside the classroom — and he was one."
Purdy-Messinger said her passion for politics intersected with her passion for health care to bring her to where she is today. For more than eight years, she's worked with UnitedHealth Group and in August became the company's senior vice president and head of external affairs. Purdy-Messinger works at the Washington, D.C., office of the global company.
At a May 17 ceremony, Purdy-Messinger will be one of five Auburn alumni honored by the Auburn Education Foundation for their academic, professional, personal and civic achievements by being inducted into the Auburn Alumni Hall of Distinction. Purdy-Messinger was nominated by her younger sister, Anne Marie Purdy.
"I think that Tricia deserves to be recognized for a whole host of things she puts forth in the world," Purdy said. She added that her family is very close to the Auburn community, and felt this was an opportunity to both recognize Purdy-Messinger and let that community know what she's been up to.
"Growing up with Tricia, she has always inspired me to be my best," Purdy said. "She's always been a role model to me."
Purdy-Messinger said her induction was a surprise, but an exciting one. As a 1996 graduate of Auburn High School, she attributes much of her success to her teachers in and out of the classroom.
It's not just college professors who've made a big impact, Purdy-Messinger said, it goes all the way back to kindergarten. She said she is still friends with both her her kindergarten and third-grade teachers. She's looking forward to reconnecting with the latter, Donna Riester, at the May ceremony.
Purdy-Messinger entered Loyola University in Baltimore as a pre-med student with an English minor. But she later realized that while her interest was in health care, perhaps it wasn't in medicine. She ended up graduating with an English major and a philosophy minor.
"I think that gave me a good foundation," she said.
Upon graduation, Purdy-Messinger moved to New York City and spent two years working for a law firm. But still feeling a "pull to politics," she said, she moved to the Washington area and became a health care lobbyist.
While Cosentino was one of her first teachers outside of the classroom, Purdy-Messinger said she feels "very lucky" to have had many people invested in her growth. In addition to her parents' support, she said William McKeon, a former New York State Democratic Party chair, was one of her mentors and life champions. When she moved to D.C., she said, McKeon wrote her letters.
Purdy-Messinger also credits her ophthalmologist since childhood, Dr. Charles Teitelbaum, as one of the most influential people in her life. Growing up, she was diagnosed with a chronic eye disease, and said she is lucky to have her vision today. Her experience as a patient of Teitelbaum's helped fuel her passion for being involved in health care. She said battling her eye disease and facing challenges as a child also helped teach her about resilience.
"Those people enabled me to overcome challenges and celebrate success," Purdy-Messinger said. "The choices we can make to overcome those things — that power resides in us."
In addition to her professional experience in health care, Purdy-Messinger finds further passion for her career in her experience as a mother: Her nearly 5-year-old son, the youngest of her three children, was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition known as Williams syndrome.
Now, her work involves leading federal and state advocacy, policy and political efforts, and social responsibility activities in support of UnitedHealth Group's mission to improve access to high-quality health care, reduce costs and simplify the consumer experience.
“When I reflect on what truly drives and motivates me, in small and in big ways ... it’s always been about impact. Making a positive difference," Purdy-Messinger said. "I'm very proud to be part of a company and a team so passionate, restless, mission-driven and focused on delivering a better health care experience every single day."
'In my DNA': Auburn native, longtime Biden aide, committed to public service
Growing up in Auburn, Brian McKeon was exposed to government and politics at a young age.
McKeon's father, William, chaired the New York State Democratic Party. The elder McKeon served as counsel to state legislative committees and was a state Board of Elections commissioner.
"Given my father's career in politics and law, it was probably a little bit in my DNA that I would gravitate toward the career I ended up doing," Brian McKeon said in an interview with The Citizen.
McKeon, a member of the Auburn Alumni Hall of Distinction Class of 2019, was surprised when he was informed by one of his brothers that he was nominated for induction. It was unexpected recognition of a long career in public service that was not only born out of his family's civic engagement, but experiences he had as a student in Auburn.
He recalled class trips to Washington that showed him a world outside of his hometown. His interest grew during his undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. Between his sophomore and junior years, he interned for longtime U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y..
"That was a terrific experience and led me to want to come back someday," he said.
After graduating from college, he applied for a job with then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden's office. Biden, who represented Delaware in the Senate before becoming vice president in 2009, has his own ties to Auburn. His late wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, was an Auburn native. Her parents owned Hunter Dinerant on Genesee Street.
McKeon wasn't aware of it at the time, but Biden's former father-in-law may have played a role in helping him get the job. Biden told McKeon years later that he received a call from Robert Hunter.
"It sounded like my father called Hunter and asked him to put in a good word for me, so Biden was quite aware of the Auburn connection," he said.
McKeon, who earned his law degree at Georgetown University Law Center, rose to upper level positions within Biden's Senate office. From 1988 to 1995, he served as a legislative assistant for foreign policy and defense. He left Biden's office to work as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar and was part of former President Bill Clinton's foreign policy staff during the 1996 campaign.
In 1997, McKeon returned to the Senate. He worked as chief counsel to the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He held that position until 2009, when Biden was sworn in as vice president.
For three years, McKeon was Biden's deputy national security adviser. He held national security posts in the White House, including chief of staff of the National Security Council, before becoming principal deputy undersecretary for policy at the Department of Defense — a position he held for three years, from 2014 to 2017.
During the final months of President Barack Obama's second term, he was the acting undersecretary at the Pentagon.
His interest in national security and foreign policy began in college. He spent a semester abroad in London and took classes on international affairs and British politics. That interest continued when he had an internship out of college at a human rights group that focused on Latin America.
"I just found it very interesting and exciting," he said. "I just got lucky. I ended up getting some really great jobs, both in the Senate and the executive branch, with different sets of experiences."
McKeon is now the senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, D.C. He described the center as a combination of an academic institute and think tank. There are several former Obama-Biden officials who are affiliated with the center and share their expertise on various foreign policy issues, whether it's through writing essays or delivering speeches.
On the academic side, the center holds events in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania.
"It's an outpost for Penn to try to connect the academic community with the policy community (in Washington) and also to bring the policy community to Penn through the vice president and myself and other colleagues who've had long careers in the field," he explained.
When he returns to Auburn in May, he's eager to participate in the engagement activities required of inductees. There's a day planned for McKeon and other members of the 2019 class to meet with students.
His advice for students entering public service or any field: Find something you enjoy.
"It's tough to get up every day and do something you don't enjoy, whether it's public service or not," he said. "I think that's one of the important things."
Auburn to academia: Alumnus now a college professor, scientist
Auburn native Michael Lynch didn't travel on an airplane until he was around 23, but now he's in the air every month.
Lynch said his parents were "terrified of big cities," so his family rarely left Auburn while he was growing up. Now an author, professor and director of the Center for Mechanisms of Evolution at Arizona State University, he travels nationally and internationally to give talks and attend other events. He said he's thrilled to have made contacts across the globe and encountered different cultures along the way.
Lynch is one of five former Auburn Enlarged City School District students who will be inducted into the Auburn Alumni Hall of Distinction by the Auburn Education Foundation May 17. Lynch, who graduated from East High School in 1969, was surprised by the acknowledgement, as he said he doesn't have any family members who live in Auburn anymore.
"It was just quite interesting that somebody from Auburn would have any idea who I was any longer, and it's somewhat of an honor that goes all the way back to your high school roots," he said.
Lynch has been keenly interested in biology for as long as he can remember, he said. Though his career was focused on ecology on first, and he has tackled subjects such as cell biology and genetics, he said he now primarily focuses on understanding the process of evolution and how it occurs.
The math teachers Lynch had at Auburn schools helped spark his interest in the subject, Lynch said. While he didn't realize the overlap between biology and math at the time, a lot of the work he does now deals with mathematical theory.
Lynch received a bachelor's degree in biology from St. Bonaventure University in 1973 and a doctorate in ecology and behavioral biology from the University of Minnesota in 1977. His career before he joined Arizona State included teaching subjects like biology, physics and computer science at institutions such as Indiana University and the University of Oregon. He has written or co-written four books and over 250 papers, and has held positions with various scientific groups over the years, including president of the Genetics Society of America from 2013 to 2016 and president of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.
When Lynch talked about his advice for current Auburn graduates, he said he believes they should follow their interests.
"Not everybody ever develops a passion for something," he said. "But if you've got one, there's a lot of opportunities out there for someone who's got enough ambition to follow their interest."
Maureen Coleman, an Auburn High School Class of 1998 graduate and an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, nominated Lynch for the Hall of Distinction honor. Coleman said in an email that she had read his work in the past and decided to look him up in 2012 after he gave a research seminar in Chicago. She said she was shocked to find that Lynch also hailed from Auburn.
Coleman said she nominated Lynch because "he is an influential and successful scientist," adding that she hopes showcasing someone from Auburn who is involved in science will encourage current students to pursue such careers.
"He is at the forefront of science, combining cell biology and evolution, and his books and articles have been very influential. He truly stands out among the top biologists in the world — and I am thrilled that we share a hometown!" Coleman said.