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His Love of Learning Lives On

Michael Vignato and Linda Vignato

Linda Vignato, Class of 2001, and Michael Vignato, Class of 2007

Michael Vignato tried on a pair of firefighter’s boots for the first time when he was 3 years old. In that moment, something sparked in the young boy’s soul, leading him to devote his life to helping others.

Before long, Michael became a junior firefighter with the Hagerman Fire Department in East Patchogue, spending a decade absorbing as much knowledge as he possibly could about the art of firefighting.

At 18, he signed on to become a volunteer fireman. But there was one roadblock: Michael, who had cystic fibrosis, failed the breathing test and was not cleared to fight fires. Undeterred, the 2007 SJC Long Island graduate persevered and continued to volunteer with the department, learning to drive the fire truck so he could still answer calls.

Michael embodied St. Joseph’s College’s pillar of service until the day he died on Jan. 25, 2014. He was 29 years old.

In his last days, the biology major asked his mother, Linda Vignato, 2001 Long Island graduate and director of physical plant at SJC Long Island, to create an endowed scholarship in his name at St. Joseph’s that could one day send a student to college for free.

“He wanted the scholarship to pay for four years of college for someone, so they wouldn’t have to worry about tuition,” says Linda, who used proceeds received from her son’s life insurance policy to create the Michael J. Vignato ’07 Biology Scholarship Fund in 2014.

To date, SJC faculty and staff have contributed almost $10,000 to the endowed scholarship, which is awarded annually to an incoming Long Island St. Joseph’s freshman biology major.

“Michael was always eager to learn and loved his time at St. Joseph’s College,” his mother says. One of his favorite St. Joseph’s moments was a trip he took to Puerto Rico with his class to study the local ecology.

He constantly talked to his mom about his inspirational professors in the Department of Biology, including Moira Royston, Ph.D., Carol Hayes, Ph.D., and Francis Antonawich, Ph.D. He also had a special friendship with Sister Jane Fritz, an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science.

“I’m constantly in awe because [the professors] still bring Michael up in conversation all the time,” Linda says.

S. Jane recently came by Linda’s office in O’Connor Hall to share a special memory she had of Michael taking the time to visit her office to help fix her work computer.

“That sense of community was one of Michael’s favorite things about St. Joseph’s,” according to his mother.

“I love it when [S. Jane] comes in and says, ‘I thought of Michael today,’” Linda says.

Michael’s thirst for knowledge extended much further than the classroom. In his spare time, he taught himself photography and how to install car radios. He even took a phlebotomy course, curious to see what the trade was all about. The avid learner was also bilingual.

“He spoke perfect Spanish,” his mother explains.

Most of Michael’s working life was spent at Sam’s Club, where he worked mainly in the bakery and produce departments, before becoming the produce manager. When he noticed that most of his co-workers spoke Spanish, he decided to pick up the second language, so he could speak to them in their native tongue.

Michael became fluent once he picked up a minor in Spanish at SJC Long Island. He also minored in chemistry, and often tutored his peers in the subject.

Michael Vignato

Michael had an astonishing work ethic, and he loved doing anything he could to make money to fund his hobbies.

“He wanted to do everything in a big way — and to do it right,” his mother says, noting that when Michael dabbled in photography, he purchased the most expensive lenses. He captured the beauty of Long Island through his camera, from the open landscapes to the wildlife.

Michael volunteered often at the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, assisting the wounded animals — taking a special liking to the owls. He spent day in and day out training to become an owl handler. It was an impressive feat, considering his cystic fibrosis made it difficult to hold heavy weight.

“He was determined,” Linda says. “He worked every day to learn how to handle the animals.”

Michael’s persistence showed. Linda recalled a blizzard, during the winter of 2013, when Michael was adamant that he must make the 30-mile drive in the icy conditions to check on the animals.

“Michael said he needed to check up on them because no one else was,” Linda says.

While Michael was constantly helping people — he was also a Boy Scout — he had a true soft spot in his heart for animals. His mother is still the guardian of his two cats, Trouble and Two Face. He chose the names to align with their personas: Trouble always likes to get into trouble and Two Face’s mug is half orange and half black.

Linda’s face brightens whenever she gets the opportunity to talk about her son. At home, Michael was a typical, goofy boy who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and loved spending hours on end playing video games.

Linda vividly remembers helping Michael practice his junior firefighter skills at home. They would go out on the lawn and she would hold her hands out in a circle to resemble the opening in the fire hydrant. Michael would then come running at her, with their garden hose in hand, and “connect” the hose to her — just like he learned at the firehouse.

Michael was a very popular figure around the firehouse. In 2008, he was named an honorary chief and a life member.

Linda says she’s “been lost without my best bud,” and that the Michael J. Vignato ’07 Biology Scholarship fund gives her some solace that her son’s love for learning and passion for helping others lives on.

To learn more about honoring a loved one while making a difference in students’ lives, contact Susan Loucks at sloucks@sjcny.edu or 718.940.5564.