On September 17, 2022 at the second biennial fall reunion, the Connecticut Alpha AVC recognized four alumni brothers as inaugural members of newly established Connecticut Alpha Alumni Hall of Fame: George Zitnay ‘60, John Santa ‘64, Michael Baldassari ’88, and Brigadier General Ralph Hedenberg ‘89. The AVC established this award to honor chapter alumni who have distinguished themselves in a manner bringing credit and honor to themselves, the CT Alpha chapter and the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity, and to spotlight the extraordinary impact our brothers make in their professions and communities. The award also is intended to inspire our undergraduate brothers to live the Ritual and to challenge them to exceed their expectations, as these Hall of Fame inductees have done.
George Zitnay ’60 is recognized as an international expert on traumatic brain injury and neurorehabilitation. A 1957 chapter initiate, he went on to earn a Masters degree in psychology from Southern Connecticut State University and a Ph.D. in neuropsychology from Columbia University.
He served on the faculties of the Boston University Medical School and University of Virginia Medical Center. The youngest person ever appointed as a superintendent of a public mental health center, he served in several other appointed positions for the State of Maine and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, on advisory boards of the National Institutes of Health, and as chair of the World Health Organization’s Neurotrauma Committee.
George co-founded the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, the premier brain injury and PTSD treatment and research center of the United States Department of Defense, and has treated our injured military veterans from the Vietnam war through the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In addition, he contributed to many significant pieces of legislation, including the Americans with Disability Act, the Community Mental Health Centers Act, and other legislation benefiting persons with special needs.
His life-long commitment to neuroscience and to helping those with traumatic brain injury, in particular our military veterans, and advocating for those who didn’t have a voice of their own, stands as an example how to serve others with Diligence and Brotherly Love.
John Santa, ‘64 joined SigEp in in 1961. Following graduation, he served as President and CEO of Santa Energy, one of the largest family-owned energy services companies in New England. After retiring from an active role in the business, he became a consultant to other family-owned businesses, providing guidance on all aspects of running a family business, including best practices in governance and succession planning.
John’s success in business was equaled or exceeded by the more significant impact he has made in his work in service of criminal justice reform. Reflecting the power of Brotherly Love toward his fellow man, he set aside what would be a natural desire for retribution as a victim of a financial crime by a life-long colleague, and instead recognized that those caught up in criminal activity are not necessarily bad people. Rather, their entanglement with the system may be the result of struggles with mental illness, substance abuse, or other challenges.
Believing the state’s justice system ought to better reflect this reality, he founded the Malta Justice Initiative as a second chance program for inmates leaving incarceration and re-entering society, and to advocate for criminal justice reform. That led to his appointment to the Connecticut Sentencing Commission, on which he has served as vice chairman since 2013.
As a result of his leadership, the State of Connecticut has tackled many difficult issues within the criminal justice system. In recent years, Connecticut safely reduced its prison population while bringing crime to a 50-year lowin no small part due to John’s advocacy for juvenile justice reform, community-based alternatives to incarceration, and education and treatment programs for low-risk defendants,.
John’s selfless dedication to bettering the human condition is an inspiration to us all and serves as exemplar of all our Cardinal Principles – Virtue, Diligence and Brotherly Love.
Michael Baldassari ’88 has distinguished himself professionally, rising to the top of his field in theatrical lighting design.
Arriving in Storrs prior to the start of his freshman year to participate in marching band camp, fate would have it that a couple of SigEp brothers were among the first people who greeted him. This encounter led to him joining SigEp his first semester at UConn.
He went on to study theater and began his professional work at UConn. Later, after a short stint working as a draftsman and lighting assistant, he ventured out to form his current lighting production company, Mike-o-Matic Industries.
His career has spanned over thirty years in theater, film, television, and music, and his work has been seen through the United States and overseas. Most professionals in lighting design and production distinguish themselves only in one of those mediums. Mike, however, is the outlier who has excelled in all four, thus earning the nickname “Mr. Versatility.”
His most recent projects include lighting Billy Crystal’s television adaption of “Mr. Saturday Night,” and Jon Stewart’s “The Problem with Jon Stewart.” His other credits are too numerous to mention here, but are worth a sampling by medium.
In theater, he lit productions of 42nd Street, Children of a Lesser God, Grease, Man of La Mancha and Spamalot, and the award-winning revival of Cabaret. His film portfolio includes Rock of Ages, Ghostbusters (2016), and Sex and the City 2. On television he has worked Late Night with Seth Meyers, Game Theory with Bomani Jones, LOUIS C.K. at Madison Square Garden, and with David Letterman, Dana Carvey, Pete Davidson and Ray Romano. Mike is a fixture in the production of Phish’s New Year’s Eve concerts, and he has worked with Neil Young, Alice in Chains, Mary J. Blige, Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw.
He received the Entertainment Design Award, and has been nominated for other awards including the Tony Award, and twice nominated for an Emmy Award.
He not only made his mark on the stage and screen, but his creativity and resourcefulness are reflected in his contribution to the technology of his craft. His creation, Baldassari Blue, is a custom color lighting filter found in industry lighting catalogues, and he has designed several other lighting devices regularly used in the industry.
But sometimes some of the most interesting things about people do not show up on their resume. In this case, it is the countless aspiring young professionals Mike has mentored, providing valuable counsel to them around career paths, money management, and life decisions, as well as advocating for diversity within industry.
We are proud of Mike’s contribution to producing entertainment which lifts our spirits and gives us respite from the challenges we face in our lives, and for his commitment to helping others.
Brigadier General Ralph Hedenberg ’89 joined SigEp in 1986, but he had already enlisted in the Army Reserve as an infantryman a year earlier. In 1988, he accepted a commission as a Second Lieutenant. With a degree in communications in hand from UConn, he went on to earn Master’s degrees in International Security and Civil-Military Relations from the Naval Postgraduate School and Strategic Studies from the US Army War College.
Ralph then steadily rose through the ranks to brigadier general, having served in a variety of staff and command assignments including Rifle Platoon Leader, Company XO, company commander, and battalion commander. Prior to his current assignment, he commanded of the 169th Regiment Regional Training Institute, a brigade level command with three training battalions, tasked with providing military occupational skills training for both military medics and police officer candidates.
He served our country overseas in operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq; and as the Joint Task Force Connecticut Commander responsible for leading and coordinating the state and federal response to the COVID pandemic. He currently is “dual-hatted” as deputy commanding general of the Combined Arms Support Command and as Assistant Adjutant General, Connecticut Joint Force Headquarters based in Hartford, Connecticut.
His many awards and decorations are too numerous to mention here, but include the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal (each w/ 5 oak leaf clusters), Basic Airborne Badge and the coveted Ranger Tab.
Ralph is also known a caring brother ready to come to a fellow brother’s aid should he fall by the wayside, and as a devoted husband to Laura and father to two children.
We thank Ralph for his service to our nation’s defense and recognize him for the credit and honor he has brought to himself, his family and friends, his country, SigEp and the CT Alpha chapter.
Congratulations again to our inaugural inductees! To nominate an alumnus for the 2023 class of Hall of Fame inductees, email firstname.lastname@example.org.