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Distinguished alumni honored at Gilbert

WINSTED — The Gilbert School has no shortage of distinguished alumni, and the Winsted secondary school honored five of them at a special homecoming ceremony Saturday, Oct. 10.

Among those receiving an award this year was 1995 Gilbert School graduate United States Air Force Maj. Timothy McCann. McCann, a decorated graduate of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, was named the 2009 recipient of the Young Alumni Achievement Award.

The award is given each year to a graduate who serves as a role model for young people after achieving outstanding personal or professional success in the community, business or entrepreneurship.

“After 15 years it’s been quite a journey,” McCann, who graduated as the class of 1995’s salutatorian, told dozens of audience members who attended the ceremony in the school’s auditorium Saturday morning. “It’s distinctly been an honor and pleasure to come back to Gilbert to receive this award.”

McCann has piloted combat, humanitarian and medical missions in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in numerous other countries. He was also recognized by Gov. M. Jodi Rell for his military service and professional achievements.

“It is my hope that you will continue to succeed as one of Connecticut’s most inspirational members of the United States Air Force,” Rell stated in an Oct. 8 open letter to McCann (see sidebar, Page A1). “Your exceptional drive for success is a true testament to your dedication, commitment and tireless efforts to raise the standards of excellence not only in Connecticut, but around the world as well.”

Longtime Winsted resident John Grappo was also among those honored. Grappo, who served in the state General Assembly for two decades and finished his political career as the state tax commissioner, received the Gilbert Heritage Award.

The award was created to honor those who have distinguished themselves within the history of the school, “bringing honor and pride to all alumni and representing the traditions and heritage” of the school.

Grappo, who attended St. Anthony’s School for his primary education, was slated to graduate from Gilbert in 1940. But he was forced to delay his education at 16 to work and then to serve his country as a solider in World War II. Because of this, the former state majority leader never officially graduated from Gilbert.

During last weekend’s ceremony, school officials granted Grappo an honorary diploma to acknowledge his many years of public service, both at the state and local levels.

“My dilemma now is: Where do I go to college?” he said, generating laughs from many members of the audience.

Dr. Joan Centrella, the valedictorian of the class of 1971, was named the recipient of the Distinguished Professional Achievement Award. Centrella is  a graduate of the University of Massachusetts. She received her doctorate in astronomy from Cambridge University in England. She is a chief astrophysicists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Over the last three years, the Gilbert graduate has been awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for groundbreaking work in the simulation of gravitational wave signals from merging black holes, and the John C. Lindsay Memorial Award for Space Science by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the center’s highest honor for outstanding contributions in space science.

During her acceptance speech, Centrella said the education she received as a Gilbert School student laid a solid groundwork that she could build on as a college student, helping her to reach both professional and scientific goals.

The late William T. Riiska Sr. received this year’s W.L. Gilbert Award for Outstanding Community Service. The honor is handed out annually to a graduate or community member who has displayed “exceptional service to the betterment of life” within the community or “to humanity in general.”

“Being a graduate of Gilbert was always a sense of great pride to him,” said Riiska’s son, William O. Riiska.

Riiska, who graduated in 1941 and taught at Northwestern Regional High School for more than 30 years after returning home from World War II, served as Winsted’s mayor and town clerk, as well as in several other public service and political positions throughout his lifetime.

“He certainly left us a lot to remember,” William O. Riiska said. Margaret Riiska, herself a Gilbert School graduate, accepted the award on behalf of her late husband.

The final award of the evening, Outstanding Achievement in Athletics, was given to longtime Gilbert School physical education teacher and volleyball coach Mary Ellen Vaccari.

Although she never played the sport competitively, Vaccari — who graduated from Gilbert in 1972 — began coaching the school’s volleyball team in 1976. During her 13-year tenure, the team won two state championships, numerous league titles and had a 150-53 record. She was also named coach of the year by the Connecticut High School Coaches Association in 1986.

“She turned us into an awesome volleyball team,” Lisa Brochu, a former Gilbert School volleyball player and the first winner of the award, said as she presented the award to her mentor.

Dear Major McCann:

It is my sincere pleasure to extend greetings and congratulations to you as you are honored to receive the prestigious Young Alumni Award from The Gilbert School located in Winsted, Connecticut.

This extraordinary recognition is truly an honor that reflects upon your excellence and leadership as an officer on active duty in the United States Air Force. I applaud your extensive list of outstanding accomplishments, which include your position as Assistant Director of OSS, your participation in combat missions in support of Operations Joint Forge, Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Joint Task Force Horn of Africa.

Furthermore, you have flown numerous distinguished visitor, medical, and humanitarian support flights throughout Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia, and the former Soviet Union.

In addition, you have flown aeromedical evacuation missions and distinguished visitor support movements to include General David Petraeus, the Secretary of the Navy, Senator Russ Feingold, and the Deputy Secretary of Defense. You are also the recipient of numerous major awards and decorations, such as the National Defense Security Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, and the Armed Forces Service Medal.

It is my hope that you will continue to succeed as one of Connecticut’s most inspirational members of the United States Air Force. Your exceptional drive for success is a true testament to your dedication, commitment and tireless efforts to raise the standards of excellence not only in Connecticut, but around the world as well.

It is a privilege to extend my words of tribute to you. Please know that you have my best wishes for continued success in the future. Congratulations again on this tremendous achievement.

Sincerely,

M. Jodi Rell

Governor

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