When John Theissen, 46, was a junior at MacArthur High School, he started getting severe headaches. In September 1988, when he was 17 and starting his senior year, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He underwent an operation that December, and spent most of the holiday season recovering in the oncology unit at Schneider Children’s Hospital.
Because of his illness, Theissen wasn’t able to attend his own graduation. That’s why, he said, he was very emotional while offering the keynote address at the 2017 MacArthur commencement on June 24 — the same day he found out that he would be in the Levittown School District’s inaugural Hall of Fame class for founding the John Theissen Children’s Foundation after his recovery, and for his philanthropic efforts in Wantagh, Seaford and Levittown.
“It’s such an honor to be part of all of this,” Theissen, of Wantagh, said. “Being acknowledged for the work that I’ve done is so humbling and only makes me want to work harder and give back to the community every day.”
Theissen is one of 10 alumni from the district, which takes in students from north Wantagh and Seaford, to be inducted into the Hall of Fame this fall. The honorees, including elected officials, athletes, a veterans sports executive and an award-winning musician, will be recognized at a number of ceremonies throughout the district this month.
Todd Winch, Levittown’s assistant superintendent for instruction, said the idea for the Hall of Fame grew out of conversations he had with Dr. Tonie McDonald, the district’s superintendent. He said they wanted to celebrate the district’s successes and instill the spirit of community that has characterized Levittown since it was founded 70 years ago.
“The Levittown School District is very large, so we knew that there must be quite a few people out there in the world who have made their mark since 1947,” Winch said. “We wanted to look for those people to celebrate what they’ve done and note what gave them their start.”
District officials called for nominations last December. Nominees had to have graduated from either Division Avenue or MacArthur high school at least 10 years ago. The candidates had to have demonstrated “outstanding qualities of citizenship and leadership and have made significant contributions to society” and “inspire the students of the Levittown School District in their pursuit of their careers and lifestyles,” according to nomination form.
Winch said that a committee of Board of Education members, administrators, teachers and representatives of the athletics department chose the 10 inductees. They also worked with student liaisons, showing them the range of accomplishments of the nominees who went to their schools.
According to Winch, the committee wanted to bring together a group that represents a variety of careers in which people found success. The candidates have a variety of career backgrounds, he noted, comparing two honorees: Ellie Greenwich and David Falk.
Greenwich, a Levittown Memorial High School alumna, is an award-winning songwriter who penned “Be My Baby,” “I Can Hear Music,” “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “River Deep, Mountain High.” She was also a vocal arranger and backup singer on Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
Falk, who went to MacArthur, is the chairman and CEO of SFX Sports Group. He negotiated what was then the most lucrative contract in NBA history, for Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks. His top client was basketball legend Michael Jordan. Falk also served as executive producer of several blockbuster films, including “Space Jam” and “On Hallowed Ground.”
Winch said that other honorees are “those names that immediately come to mind when you think about Levittown.” He said that Hempstead Town Councilman Dennis Dunne was one of them, calling him a “model of success” for everyone in the community.
Dunne, 67, graduated from Division Avenue High School in 1968 and served with the Marines in the Vietnam War. He said he has stayed in the community because “it was built by veterans, for veterans.” He continued to give back to former military personnel through his affiliation with many veterans groups, serving as the director of the Nassau County Veterans Agency.
Dunne was the first elected representative of the 15th District in the Nassau County Legislature in 1995. He now serves north Wantagh and Seaford on the town board.
Saying that he was “blown away” when he was told that he would be in the school district’s Hall of Fame, Dunne said that the greater Levittown area was special. He noted that he has remained friends with people on his high school football team and Levittown North Little League squads.
“My passion has always been helping the wonderful neighbors and friends I’ve made here in Levittown,” Dunne said. “I hope that I could help somebody think about what they want to do in their future and how they could give back to this community.”
Winch said he hoped that current students would learn about the honorees when they check out the permanent Hall of Fame at the Levittown Memorial Education Center. A large screen in the main lobby will display digital profiles of each Hall of Famer.
“Kids don’t know what their futures hold,” Winch said. “If they see that someone who sat in the seat they’re sitting in now is an elected official or that they wrote pop songs, they’ll realize that there are so many possibilities.”