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Spartan Profiles

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            One person who will play a key role in the reconstruction of Iraq is Sami AL-Araji, ’67, Ph.D. ’73, Iraq’s Deputy Minister of Industry and Minerals.  He has been charged with leading that nation’s economic redevelopment. “We want to eliminate unemployment in five years,” says AL-Araji, who visited MSU during the weekend of Homecoming.  “We are revitalizing state enterprises—in petro-chemicals, food and pharmaceuticals, textiles, and construction materials  factories.  We are also revitalizing small- and medium-sized enterprises in the private sector.” A native of Baghdad, Sami attended MSU on an Iraqi government scholarship.  “I stayed in room 318-West in Shaw Hall,” he recalls. “It was an all-male, up-to-date dormitory. It was my honor to meet many fine people there.” Later he worked as a graduate advisor in Owen Hall while pursuing a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering. He cites former professors like James Beck and Merle Potter for their mentorship. He is also aware of MSU’s progress in football, noting, “I’m glad we smashed Notre Dame this year.” After graduation, he worked for two years with Consumers Power in Jackson before returning to Iraq, where he worked in education, in the private sector, and in the nation’s atomic energy commission.  When former MSU president Peter McPherson served as the financial coordinator for Iraqi Reconstruction in 2003, Sami was spearheading industrial entrepreneurship for the Ministry of Industry. “I introduced myself as a graduate of Michigan State,” recounts Sami.  “After that, McPherson was very supportive of our mission.  We were able to start the economy moving although at a limited scale.”  Sami believes that with the decline in violence and with the current political leadership, Iraq is on its way up.  “We hope that the next two years will be years of great achievement,” he says.


            Since 1999, when FIFA, soccer’s governing body worldwide, approved her as an international referee, she has worked at the last three World Cups and the last two Summer Olympics—including the Beijing Games last summer.  These selections clearly signal that Kari Seitz-VarnHagen, ’92, ranks at the very top of her profession. “For me, the Olympics is the most important event,” says Seitz, who lives in San Mateo, CA, and is media director at Grey San Francisco, an advertising agency.  “You live a dream being invited to represent your country. It’s unbelievable.”  A native of Brighton, Kari had not intended to attend MSU.  “But I took a tour of campus, and was hooked,” she recalls.  “MSU had just the right feeling.  I never looked at another school.”  She did not make MSU’s soccer team.  “I was a goalkeeper and only 5-foot-4,” she explains.  But through her roommate, Kari got involved in theater.  “I was a stage hand, did publicity work, and once even performed as a dancer on stage,” she recalls.  “It was a confidence builder. The wonderful thing about MSU is that you get exposed to so many programs that are rich socially and academically.”  As a student, Kari refereed soccer games around the state, both at the high school and college level.  After graduation she was in Chicago five years before moving to the Bay Area.  As one of only four women international referees in the U.S.—the maximum allowed by FIFA per country—Kari needs to constantly work on her craft.  “I am really fortunate to have a wonderful career and be able to represent the U.S.,” she says.  “Referees run as much as the players.  We have to pass physical tests that are very strenuous.” 


            Science Idol is like American Idol, only the participants are cartoonists and they produce editorial cartoons instead of songs. This year’s winner is Justin Bilicki, ’01, a former cartoonist for the State News who won the 2000 John Locher Memorial Award for Best College Cartoonist.  Currently a senior art director at Avenue A | Razorfish, an advertising agency in New York, Bilicki has been published in everything from the Los Angeles Times to the Congressional Quarterly. To claim the Science Idol title, a contest sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, he beat hundreds of other cartoonists in an online vote.  “I was surprised when I was chosen as a finalist,” says Justin.  “When I found out I had won, I was ecstatic.”  A native of Livonia, he started to doodle at a very young age.  “I did Garfield in first grade, then I drew my schoolmates,” he recalls.  “People would react. I just kept on drawing.”  He says he has “opinions about everything” and also loves to draw, so that editorial cartoons are a natural.  “You have the power of a journalist with the vehicle of a photographer,” Justin explains.  “It’s easier to digest the message when you see a simple cartoon rather than having to read 1,000 words.”  Today he draws five editorial cartoons a day, which comes easily to him because, he notes, politicians constantly give him fodder.  “All the content of my cartoons comes from the news, and so it’s always being refreshed,” he notes.  “It’s a very rewarding line of work, because you can actually change how someone thinks or at least make them look at something from a different perspective,” says Justin.  “You do it with distortion, exaggeration, and a sense of humor.”


            He was a ferocious Academic All-American defensive lineman for MSU in the 1970s. The past three decades, he has been an educator and school administrator.  But transcending his success on the gridiron and in the classroom has been his passion to build an orphanage.  John Shinsky, ’74, M.A. ’77, Ph.D. ’83, associate professor and department chair in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University, grew up at the Parmadale Orphanage in Cleveland, and he attributes his personal success to the family that adopted him.  He decided to build his model orphanage in Mexico, where conditions for orphans are not favorable. In 2003 he received a donation of 17 acres of land in Matamoros, Mexico.  After completing the necessary legal and bureaucratic work, and gathering support, he has launched the orphanage’s construction. “We plan to be there for the grand opening sometime in May,” says Shinsky.  “We will have six buildings and will be able to house 40 kids.  My ultimate goal is to have 12 buildings and some 120 kids.”  To maintain the facility, Shinsky has enlisted the help of two former MSU football teammates—Eljay Bowron, former director of the U.S. Secret Service, and Joe DeLamielleure, one of only two Spartans in the NFL Hall of Fame—on an ambitious fundraising project.  “We are planning a 2,000 mile bike ride from East Lansing to Matamoros,” explains John.  “We’ll start in Spartan Stadium on the day of the Green and White game and we are arranging for gatherings with rotarians and alumni groups along the way.  We’re estimating about 30 days for the trip.  Our goal is to raise $5 million, which will establish an endowment to operate it on an annual basis.”  For more information, visit


            In its 10th season, CBS’s hit reality show Big Brother 10 finally produced a winner who received a unanimous vote from other competitors. 2008 winner Dan Gheesling, ’05, M.S. ’06, a teacher and coach at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s high school, received every vote from rivals that he evicted—or helped to oust—from the Big Brother House in Studio City, CA. “You spend all your time kicking people out, and then having to win them over,” says Gheesling, who won the $500,000 first prize. “Fortunately they voted not on personal feelings but on how we played the game.”  Dan has invested his winnings, using evaluation techniques he learned at MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business.  “I want to thank many professors who helped me win,” says Dan.  “Dr. Fred Morgeson taught a management course dealing with the dynamics of teamwork, and that really helped. I also learned a bit of sports psychology from Dr. Marty Ewing.”  A native of Dearborn, Dan played football in high school. “As a 5-9, 150 cornerback, I was too small to play at the next level,” he muses.  “But I volunteered as a student assistant. (Coach) John L. Smith hired me as a graduate assistant. I’m very thankful, because that allowed me to pursue a master’s degree in kinesiology.”  Dan knows some of the seniors on the team, such as defensive tackle Justin Kershaw. “The program is turning the corner with Mark Dantonio,” he notes. Dan intends to return to the classroom as a teacher. He keeps in touch with most of his fellow house guests.  “(Runner-up) Memphis Garrett and I talk all the time,” he says.  “He and I come from different backgrounds but we had a lot in common.  We created an alliance, trusted each other and took it to the end.”


            As the first lady of MSU men’s basketball, she has long supported local and national charitable causes.  For 15 years, she has led the Food Bank drive at the Breslin Center, where fans can donate cans of food.  She has also spearheaded projects by Volunteers of America to help the homeless.  This year, Lupe Izzo, ’74, and her husband Tom, have teamed up in the Coaches Vs. Cancer drive—a collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches.  Lupe and Tom have formed a volunteer-driven group, along with a line-up of donors, to spearhead this cause.  “I try to pick charities that don’t have voices,” says Izzo, noting that that was one reason for deciding to help Lansing’s St. Vincent Home for Children.  “We’ve been able to acquire a lot of funds to the cancer cause, but our main focus is to raise awareness,” says Izzo.  “Of course funds are important, but we’ve also promoted wellness—eating well, not putting substances in your body, and many preventive things.”  The current cancer drive is separate from the Jimmy V Foundation, to which the Izzos have donated for a long time.  Before she met Tom, Lupe owned her own business selling water treatment and purification equipment.  Her community involvement began early.  “My parents gave me the inspiration,” she explains.  “They were always helping people get back on their feet.  They co-founded the Cristo Rey Center in Lansing.”  In their current cancer drive, says Lupe, she and Tom have taken the “Suits and Sneakers” concept and gone one step farther.  In May, the Wharton Center for Performing Arts will stage “Izzo Goes to Broadway,” a musical produced by Greg Ganakas—son of Gus Ganakas, former MSU coach and radio color commentator—and other Broadway professionals working with community people.  For more information, visit


            Spartans who attend events sponsored by the MSU Alumni Association, from tailgates to alumni cruises, might have sampled a green-and-white ice cream.  Called Go Green Apple, it was donated by Dave Durant, ’81, executive vice president of Uncle Ray’s Dairyland in Fenton.  At this year’s four-day “Green and White Days,” Durant supplied ice cream to some 1,600 prospective students who visited the MSU campus.  He also donates ice cream to the Varsity S Club.  “We take it everywhere, and we’ve done it for years,” says Dave, whose late father Ray founded the ice cream store in 1978.  “We say we’re in the business of fun, and it so happens that ice cream is involved.” The store shares space with Halo Hamburgers and a miniature golf course.  “Our motto used to be, ‘If you can’t get to Disneyland, get to Ray’s Dairyland,’” says Dave.  “We have 24 flavors of ice cream—all handmade at our premises, no mass production—10 flavors of soft serve, and 100 flavors of frozen yogurt made with real fruits.”  Dave has been a diehard Spartan since he was one year old, when his (late) parents moved into Spartan Village the day it opened in 1960.  “My father and I attended every home football game for 40 years,” he says.  “Last year we decided to get club seats, but he passed before he could use them this fall.”  In 2006, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of MSU’s famous 10-10 tie with Notre Dame, Dave created a 40-foot long banana split in the shape of a block S.  “Bubba Smith, Clinton Jones, Bob Apisa, George Webster, Charlie Thornhill and most of the other players were at the reunion and all ate from it,” he says. “They went nuts.”  Dave says his business is booming.  “Last year we served more than 300,000 customers,” he notes. “We’re an overnight sensation, 30 years later.”


            In recent years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s largest promotion of mixed martial arts, has surged in popularity on cable television to rival boxing and professional wrestling.  The sport ranks second to the NFL in popularity among 18- to 25-year-olds. One rising UFC supernova is former MSU wrestler Rashad Evans, ’03, who remains undefeated after 15 fights. In September he knocked out former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell in Atlanta. “It was the punch heard around the mixed-martial-arts world,” reported the Vancouver Sun, which called it “biggest breakthrough of Evans’ career and one of the biggest upsets in recent UFC history.”  Evans remains humble.  “A lot of positives have happened since then,” he says, while training in New Mexico. “Chuck Liddell was to UFC what Michael Jordan was to basketball. He is larger than life and knocked out seven guys in a row. People expected me to lose.”  A native of Niagara Falls, NY, Rashad wrestled at MSU at 174 pounds. “I loved it so much I stayed in the community,” he notes.  After graduation, he worked as a security guard at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital, and worked out with MMA friends. In 2005, opportunity beckoned. Rashad was selected as one of nine heavyweights on The Ultimate Fighter 2, a reality TV show on Spike TV.  At 5-11, 225, Rashad was the shortest and second lightest of the competitors, but he defeated all his foes, including a 6-7 opponent in the final. Despite that beginning, he was an underdog in just about every UFC bout.  “People have been inspired by my success,” he says.  “I continue to survive.  I find a way to win.”  Today, when he’s not fighting, he’s appearing in Microsoft’s “I’m a PC” ad alongside the likes of Bill Gates. 

Author: Robert Bao