Share Tweet Share Email

Alumni Association names 2012 award winners

April 11, 2012

Logo of the NIU Alumni AssociationEvery spring, the NIU Alumni Association recognizes the achievements of exemplary alumni through a series of prestigious awards.

Winners of the Outstanding Alumni Awards for each of NIU’s academic colleges join recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award, the F. R. Geigle Service Award and the Outstanding Young Alumni Award.

Recipients are selected based on professional and personal achievements, as well as involvement in civic, cultural or charitable activities.

“NIU alumni have gone on to distinguish themselves and their alma mater in countless ways,” says Joseph Matty, executive director of the NIU Alumni Association. “This program seeks to recognize those individuals who have achieved great success in their personal and professional lives.”

The NIU Alumni Association will honor these exceptional alumni at a private reception Friday, April 20, at the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center. For more information, contact the Alumni Association at (815) 753-1452 or [email protected].

Michael J. McGrath

Michael J. McGrath

The prestigious Distinguished Alumni Award is given to an NIU alumnus or alumna who has achieved outstanding success and recognition in his or her field. This year’s recipient is Michael J. McGrath (B.S. Management, 1970), the president and CEO of McGrath Automotive.

A respected leader in the business community, McGrath began his career in the automotive industry following his graduation from NIU in 1970 with the purchase of the Heritage Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Elgin, Ill. He acquired several additional franchises over the next 15 years, ultimately uniting the dealerships into Heritage Auto Village Complex, a 12-acre location. Within two years, he sold the entire auto mall to Currie Motors of London, England.

In 1991, McGrath opened McGrath Lexus in Westmont, Ill., followed by the 1994 opening of McGrath Acura in Countryside, Ill., now located in Westmont. He continued to expand with the 1999 opening of McGrath Lexus in Chicago and the purchase of McGrath City Honda and Hyundai dealerships in Chicago in 2006.

In June, he will open McGrath Acura of Chicago.

McGrath has been an active member of several business organizations, serving in capacities such as president of the Chicagoland Lincoln-Mercury Dealers Association, chairman of the Pontiac National Dealers Council, chairman of the Acura National Advisory Board, and vice chairman of the National Lexus Dealer Advisory Board. He has also served as a director on the Lexus National Advertising Board and as chairman of the Chicago Auto Show in 2003.

McGrath also lends his time and expertise to civic and charitable organizations. He has served on the board of directors of the Elgin Chamber of Commerce, the board of ambassadors of the American Cancer Society, and the board of directors of the Local Educational and Employment Development Council in Chicago. He has received awards for his support of the Shriners Children’s Hospital, the American Lung Association and the Respiratory Health Association of Chicago, among many others. Along with his wife, Kristina, McGrath has also provided support for the Joffrey Ballet and the USO of Illinois.

An advocate for his alma mater, McGrath has lectured in classes in the NIU Department of Marketing and is dedicated to helping the university enhance its presence in Chicago.

Richard Ryan

Richard Ryan

The F. R. Geigle Service Award is presented to an individual who has demonstrated outstanding service and commitment to the best interests of Northern Illinois University. The 2012 recipient of this important award is NIU advocate Richard Ryan, emeritus president and COO, DEKALB Genetics Corp.; co-lead, Monsanto Global Product Management, retired.

Raised on a grain and livestock farm in Mt. Sterling, Ill., Ryan received a bachelor’s degree in accounting and economics from Quincy College in 1964, an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1966 and an M.A. from Stanford University’s Food Research Institute in 1979. Ryan got his start with management positions at Armour and Company and the Chicago Board of Trade, and, after his graduation from Stanford, settled in DeKalb, where he began a 23-year career in the agricultural seed industry.

After beginning his career with DEKALB Genetics Corporation with a position in the corporate development department, Ryan went on to hold several senior management positions with the company, including chief financial officer, executive vice president, and president and chief operating officer. Following the company’s acquisition by Monsanto in 1998 and prior to his retirement in 2002, Ryan was involved in the optimization of Monsanto’s newly acquired seed businesses during an era of important agricultural biotechnology discoveries and new seed trait introductions.

During his 33 years as a DeKalb resident, Ryan developed a close relationship with NIU as a friend, neighbor and staunch supporter. The relationship began with his membership in a local business advisory board to the NIU president, and his involvement grew as he became a member of the NIU Foundation Board of Directors, where he served two terms.

Ryan has shown philanthropic support to the university, primarily to the College of Visual and Performing Arts, reflecting his appreciation for the college’s exceptional faculty and students. Following the retirement of the Vermeer Quartet, his endowment of a violin chair was central to the establishment of NIU’s current resident Avalon String Quartet. Ryan has also been a generous supporter of several alumni initiatives, including the construction of the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center.

Elena Haliczer

Elena Haliczer

The Outstanding Young Alumni Award is presented to an individual who has exhibited outstanding accomplishments within 10 years of earning an undergraduate degree from NIU. This year’s recipient is Elena Haliczer (B.A. English, 2004; M.A. English, 2006), product director of social news for The Huffington Post Media Group.

After her graduation from NIU with degrees in English – a bachelor’s in 2004 and a master’s in 2006 – software developer Elena Haliczer was employed as a marketing specialist with NIU Outreach, where she conducted research and developed integrated marketing techniques for the university. In 2008, she accepted a position as community and content manager for Games for Change, a MacArthur Foundation-funded nonprofit focused on social-impact video gaming.

In December 2008, Haliczer co-founded Adaptive Semantics, Inc., a company specializing in sentiment analysis, and created its main product, a software tool called JuLiA (Just a Linguistic Algorithm). JuLiA is able to moderate online comments by spotting offensive language, blocking spam and identifying commenters who might be experts on a given topic. The company soon attracted major clients, and was acquired in 2010 by the Huffington Post, a news website, to monitor the millions of comments posted on the site each month.

As product director of social news for the Huffington Post Media Group, Haliczer manages a team of more than 30 employees around the world. Her duties include managing core product development initiatives, exploring internal and external revenue-generating opportunities and managing cross-platform community and social product tie-ins. She also acts as the company’s main liaison with social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook.

Haliczer is active in her professional community, and has served as chair of operations for the Web Analytics Association’s Committee for Social Media Metrics and Measurement from 2007 to 2009 and as a finalist adviser for the Data Design Diabetes Apps Challenge in 2011 and 2012. She was selected as a “buspreneur” on the 2012 Startup Bus challenge where she and her team launched a new startup in four days on their way from New York to the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas. Most recently, she was asked to advise startups focused on solving social issues through technology through an incubator with locations across the United States.


Outstanding College Alumni Awards are presented to graduates from each of the university’s seven colleges who exemplify the diverse disciplines of a comprehensive university.

Martin Cabrera Jr.

Martin Cabrera Jr.

The recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award for the College of Business is Martin Cabrera Jr. (B.S. Finance, 1994), the CEO and founder of Cabrera Capital Markets, LLC and Cabrera Capital Partners, LLC.

While Cabrera was in high school, playing a game changed his life. While previously he had aspired to become an architect, he changed course when his economics class participated in the Stock Market Game – a program that teaches financial literacy and the operations of financial markets. Cabrera was so motivated by the program that he decided to study finance, obtaining a bachelor’s degree from NIU in 1994 and furthering his studies at the London School of Economics.

Cabrera started his professional career as a registered representative with Olde Discount Stockbrokers and found subsequent employment as a portfolio manager for Corporate Securities Group, Inc. Shortly thereafter, he was named senior vice president of Amerivet Securities, Inc. Currently the CEO of Cabrera Capital Markets, LLC and Cabrera Capital Partners, LLC, he oversees daily and long-term activities in investment banking, municipal finance, corporate debt, initial public offerings, institutional sales and trading.

A celebrated member of the business and Latino communities, Cabrera is the 2007 recipient of the Minority Business Advocate of the Year award from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency. Cabrera has also received Chicago United’s Business Leader of Color Award and the Securities Industry Association’s Outstanding Recognition Award. In 2004, he was named to Hispanic Business magazine’s list of the 100 most influential Hispanics of the year.

Cabrera is dedicated to giving back and participates in numerous civic activities. He is a devoted supporter of the Stock Market Game, enabling thousands of students to participate in the same program that touched his life years ago. Cabrera has also served on the board of trustees of the Illinois Council on Economic Education, the ECON Illinois governing board, and the U.S. Bank, Chicago, advisory board, among others.

James A. Schmid

James A. Schmid

The recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award for the College of Education is James A. Schmid (B.A. Speech Communication, 1976; M.S.Ed. Counselor Education, 1983). As the principal of Metea Valley High School, Schmid is the curriculum and administrative leader for a comprehensive school of 2,500 students. Also the current president of the Illinois Principals Association, Schmid has truly dedicated his career to the betterment of secondary and higher education in Illinois.

After his graduation from NIU in 1976, Schmid got his start as an English and speech teacher at Waubonsie Valley High School and Aurora Central Catholic High School, where he also coached basketball and baseball. In 1982, Schmid joined Aurora University as assistant director of admissions and was later named dean of student development. He returned to Waubonsie Valley High School in 1992 as dean of students. In 1997, he received Type 75 Administrative Certification from NIU and became principal at Waubonsie in 2004, where he remained until his departure for Metea Valley High School in 2008.

From 1982 to 2000, Schmid was also dedicated to coaching varsity baseball for Waubonsie Valley High School and Aurora University. In addition to receiving the NCAA Mideast Region Coach of the Year award in 1990 and the NCAA Central Region Coach of the Year award in 1992, he was inducted into the Illinois Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1997.

Schmid is an active member of several professional organizations and has served as president of the Aurora Police Foundation Board of Directors, and as a member of the Illinois Baseball Coaches Board of Directors and the Kiwanis Club Board of Directors, among others. He has achieved prominence in his field, receiving recognitions including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Aurora University in 2004 and the Illinois Director of Student Activities Principal Leadership Award in 2007.

Charles Carroll Jr.

Charles Carroll Jr.

The recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award for the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology is Charles Carroll Jr. (B.S. Finance, 1985; M.S. Industry and Technology-Safety, 1989), partner, Insurance Office of America, and president, C. F. Carroll Risk Management, Inc.

A 9/11 survivor, Carroll has seen his share of adversity in his pursuit of a successful career in the safety profession. Carroll grew up on his family’s farm in Genoa, Ill., and received a bachelor’s degree in finance from NIU in 1985. With the help of a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, he completed a master’s degree in industry and technology with a specialization in safety in 1989 while fighting a battle against cancer.

Carroll found post-graduation employment in Florida as director of construction safety for Disney World, where he worked to build more than 30 new facilities in just two years. Later, as vice president in the construction division for Aon Risk Services, Carroll was conducting safety training in the World Trade Center when the September 11 terrorist attacks took place. He narrowly escaped to later learn that several people he had been training had not been so fortunate.

Crediting the experience with giving him a new approach to life, Carroll focused on the positive and continued to build his career in the safety field. Currently a partner with the Insurance Office of America and president of C. F. Carroll Risk Management, Inc., Carroll has done consulting work with some of the most important businesses in the insurance industry.

Carroll’s interest in promoting safety in our society extends to his continued relationship with his alma mater. He has been a regular guest speaker in NIU safety courses and helped to develop the Department of Technology’s Industrial Hygiene Laboratory. A recipient of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology’s Outstanding Alumni of the Year award, he also created the Charles F. Carroll Jr. Technology Scholarship Fund to assist students preparing for careers in the safety profession.

Sandi Splansky

Sandi Splansky

The recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award for the College of Health and Human Sciences is Sandi Splansky (B.S. Fashion Merchandising, 1980; M.S. Resources and Services, 1983; Ed.S. Counseling, 1991), academic advising director for NIU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

With a trio of NIU degrees and over two decades in the university’s employ, Splansky is a true Huskie. Following her graduation with a bachelor’s degree in 1980, Splansky joined her alma mater as an academic adviser, instructor and graduate assistant in the School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences. Beginning in 1986, she served as the academic counselor for the College of Health and Human Sciences and was later named academic advising director for the college.

In her time in these positions, Splansky has played a vital role in helping students adjust to college life. In 1987, recognizing the unique needs of incoming freshmen, Splansky developed, implemented and served as campus coordinator for what is now UNIV 101: University Experience, an extended orientation course assisting students in their transition to college. Today, the UNIV 101 experience has expanded to countless section offerings each fall and remains a core course for incoming freshmen.

Splansky has also devoted herself to helping students adjust by finding a home at NIU. In 2001, in collaboration with NIU Housing and Dining, she worked to establish the Health Professions House, an academic residential program that is a popular offering for students interested in the majors and careers associated with the College of Health and Human Sciences.

The author of several professional articles, Splansky is also a prolific presenter, having spoken at conferences across the country. She has achieved recognition in her field, receiving, among others, the Student Services Recognition Award from NIU in 1999, the NIU SPS Presidential Award for Excellence in 1992 and an award in 2002 for Outstanding Service to Commission XVI-Academic Support in Higher Education from the American College Personnel Association.

John B. “Ben” Roe

John B. “Ben” Roe

The recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award for the College of Law is John B. “Ben” Roe (J.D. Law, 2000), Ogle County State’s Attorney.

Roe holds a bachelor’s degree in government from Centre College and graduated from the NIU College of Law with a juris doctorate in 2000. In 2004, he was elected state’s attorney of Ogle County, where he has assisted in a variety of evidence-based and promising practice initiatives, including the development and implementation of an adult drug court, a juvenile drug court that is set to open in fall 2012, a domestic violence response protocol, and juvenile diversion and detention alternative programming.

Roe’s previous experience includes roles as assistant state’s attorney in Carroll County, juvenile probation officer at Focus House (a youth shelter care facility operated by the Ogle County Probation Department) and Ogle County Sheriff’s Department correctional officer and control room operator.

A pioneer in the handling of juvenile crime, Roe has presented at conferences across the country on juvenile justice reform policies, protocols, and best practices. He has also served as a consultant for the University of Massachusetts Medical School National Youth Screening and Assessment Project on the issues of juvenile competency to stand trial and juvenile risk assessment. In 2009, Roe was honored by the MacArthur Foundation-supported Models for Change Initiative as a Champion for Change for his efforts at improving the lives of court-involved juveniles, their families and communities.

Thanks to his expertise in the area, Roe serves on several state and national commissions, committees and boards related to juvenile reform. He is a member of the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice and the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, among others. He also serves as the Illinois state co-chair for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, and supports NIU by serving as a judge in the College of Law’s annual Moot Court competition.

John Mertes

John Mertes

The recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is John Mertes (B.S. Mathematics Education, 1988). For more than two decades, Mertes has served Illinois’ Rhodes School District with extraordinary dedication and enthusiasm in his capacity as technology director. The integration of education and technology the 1988 NIU graduate has established for the district in this role can best be described as visionary.

In 1996, Mertes pioneered a partnership with Triton College to provide Rhodes School with Internet access via wireless technology – saving the district more than $30,000. He also worked with seventh- and eighth-grade students to create a comprehensive website for the village of River Grove. For these and other innovative projects, Mertes was awarded the Exemplary Use of Technology Award from the Illinois State Board of Education Educational Service Center #2 in 1994 and several subsequent years.

Mertes has also coupled his interest in technology with his passion for the environment. The recycling program that he instituted at Rhodes School was so successful that the National Recycling Coalition chose Rhodes as their School of the Year in 2003 – the first and only time that a K-8 school has received the distinguished award. Mertes also worked to install a wind turbine at Rhodes, a project completed in the spring of 2010 at no cost to the school, as he has been awarded more than $295,000 in grant money for this and other important projects.

Among Mertes’ many awards and recognitions are the 2003 SeaWorld Environmental Excellence Award and Walt Disney’s 1998 American Teacher Award (Tech/Environmental). He was also selected as a 2010 Lincolnland Legend when a student’s winning essay described how inspired he was by Mertes. Tirelessly dedicated to both his alma mater and his students, he combines his enthusiasm for both when he brings his eighth-graders on a campus visit each year, and takes great pride in the fact that several former students are now fellow Huskies.

Michael Disa

Michael Disa

The recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award for the College of Visual and Performing Arts is feature film director and writer Michael Disa (B.F.A. Studio Art-Comprehensive Design, 1987). If you’ve seen an animated film recently, there’s a good chance Disa played a part in its creation. Over the course of his Hollywood career, the prolific feature film writer and director has worked virtually every film production job in existence, and has been fortunate to train beside some of the best filmmakers and artists of this generation.

After his graduation from NIU in 1987, Disa left Chicago with his portfolio, his grandfather’s old Delta 88 and $1,100 in his pocket. He arrived in Hollywood with a solid background in art and a belief in the power and accessibility of digital film making, and soon found work in the video game and television industries. Disa spent the next 10 years as an animator/story artist for major studios such as Walt Disney Feature Animation and Amblin Entertainment, working on films such as “Pocahontas,” “The Tigger Movie,” “Tarzan,” “Fantasia 2000” and “Casper.” He also directed and co-wrote Disney’s DVDX award-nominated “The Origin of Stitch.”

A desire to focus on the craft and message of a film, and not its bottom line, led Disa to strike out on his own and become an independent director and writer. The director of outré R-rated films “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto,” “Dead Space: Aftermath” and “Dante’s Inferno,” he is interested in developing smart, original animated films that challenge stereotypes—qualities exhibited by the strong, untraditional heroine of his recent film, “Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil,” and in his present reimagining of the classic English property, “Postman Pat.”

Disa is more than willing to share the wisdom he’s learned during his journey, and maintains a blog intended to disseminate information about the art and craft of film making. Last spring, current NIU students benefited from his return to campus to share guidance and insight in a frank discussion called “From NIU Art Student to Hollywood Director: How to Do It.”