On March 23rd, the RHS Alumni Association held their biannual Distinguished Alumni Dinner, a special event where alumni with outstanding accomplishments are recognized and awarded. This year’s honorees were Thomas L. Hawkins ’42, Dave Duffield ’58, Deborah Thomas ’71, Ajay Kirtane ’90, and Ali Stroker ’05. This impressive group excelled in their respective fields and boasted impressive careers, accomplishments, and legacies.
The first honoree, Thomas L. Hawkins, served in the U.S. Army Air Forces and was part of World War II’s famed Tuskegee Airmen. On March 7th, 1945, Flight Officer Hawkins was killed in a plane crash during a mission. His squadron was presented the Congressional Gold Medal for their heroic actions and the ultimate sacrifices made during their service.
Dave Duffield is a software engineer who founded six companies in the tech and investment management industries. Duffield has made giving back to the community a top priority with his foundation, the Dave and Cheryl Duffield Foundation, supporting his local community, veterans, and companion animal welfare organizations. He is also responsible for the largest donation in RHS history with the Duffield STEAM Initiative to develop all areas of student opportunities.
Deborah Thomas worked and taught at Yale University for 33 years, serving as the Associate Dean of the Graduate School and Lecturer in American and African-American studies. Following her career at Yale, she served on the Board of Trustees of Middlebury College for 15 years. Throughout her glamorous career, Dr. Thomas received numerous awards, such as the Dorothy Danforth Compton Fellowship from Brown University and the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, before being inducted into the National Edward Alexander Boucher Graduate Honor Society.
Ajay Kirtane is a Professor of Medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center and Director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratories at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. Kirtane is a world-renowned cardiologist and director of many regional, national, and even international educational conferences regarding Interventional Cardiovascular Medicine.
Ali Stroker is a groundbreaking actress who won a Tony Award in 2019 for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!”. She has been featured in many plays and television shows with some of the most famous actors in modern entertainment. Ms. Stroker has also prioritized giving back to communities across the nation. She co-founded Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying program, and has led multiple theater workshops for South African women and children affected by HIV and AIDS with a group called ARTS Inside Out.
During the event, Ms. Stroker graciously gave a few minutes of her time to answer some questions for the Ridgewood High Times. When she was seven, she was introduced to theater and later joined the New Players Company at RHS. “I was so immersed in New Players, I felt like I was part of a company, and that really made a huge difference to me because I felt the community, and that was when I knew I wanted to be around people like this for my entire life.” Stroker looks back at her time in New Players fondly and describes it as “a dream experience.”
When asked what advice she would give to RHS students interested in pursuing a career in the performing arts, she said, “If you love it, pursue it and do not give up.” Stroker explains how difficult the audition process is and speaks of it as “a game of persistence, patience, and hard work.” Ms. Stroker attributes these “three keys of success” to her ascendance from New Players to Broadway and mainstream television and film.
When asked what it meant to win a hometown award after winning a Tony, she responded, “It means so much to me! I was so touched when I found out that I would be receiving this [award] because out in the world, you are this person that people perceive, but at home, you are the real you. Everybody knows you for your heart, and they watched you grow up, and they watched you before you were someone to the public eye, and this is where I got to lay my roots and become who I wanted to be…Ridgewood is such a special town, and I got to do that”. Stroker holds the memories she made in Ridgewood incredibly close to her heart and deeply values the community that supports her.
The Distinguished Alumni Dinner serves as a reminder of what a unique town Ridgewood is. There is a clear correlation between a supportive community and the immense opportunities that come along with it, which is evident in the town’s ability to hold biannual events recognizing its acclaimed and hardworking residents. Both the past and present honorees have shown exemplary work in their fields and have truly carried on a tradition of excellence.
Graphic: Musaab Mahmoud