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Spartan Profiles

  • Author:
    Robert Bao
  • Published:
    Fall 2013
Being the voice of Snow White for Disney films is a special calling.  Only four actors have done so since the animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted in 1937.  The iconic princess’ voice now belongs to Katherine Von Till, ’97, who as a child never imagined doing this. “Working as a Disney princess was a dream of mine,” Von Till says.  “But I didn’t know that voice-matching a character was even a thing.  When people hear I voice Snow White, their reactions are a real treat for me.  It’s so special.”  She does many jobs—doing voice-overs, commercials, stage, TV and film.  “I do so many different things,” she says.  “Even within voice-overs, I do promos, animation, video games—everything.”  Earlier this year she was the voice for The Style Network, and has appeared on-camera with Charley Sheen in Anger Management, as well as other sitcoms like Community, The Middle with Patricia Heaton, and Nickelodeon’s Sam and Cat.  You may have seen her Dannon Oikos yogurt commercial with John Stamos.  She has also been involved in musicals, including the Broadway First National Tour of Little Shop of Horrors.  Her ultimate goal is to become a series regular in a multi-camera sitcom with a studio audience.  “I want to feel the energy from the audience in a live performance,” she explains.  “I’m in this business for the laughter and applause.”  A native of San Jose, CA, Katie got involved with theater at age eight when she appeared in a local production of Annie.  As the daughter of two diehard Spartans, she chose to attend MSU and major in interdisciplinary humanities and theatre.  “MSU is what college is in the movies, with ivy-covered halls, sorority life, Big Ten sports, academics and a college town,” she says.  “Arriving at MSU was like stepping onto a movie set.”  Katie has given advice to the theatre department on how to provide more value-added to theatre students interested in an acting career and is active with a group called Spartans in Hollywood.  A resident of Hollywood Hills, Katie is proud to represent MSU.  “I drive a green and white Miata with MSU vanity plates,” she notes.  Make that Green and Snow White.
One century after its founding in 1915, the 600,000-member Kiwanis International will finally be led by a woman.  Sue Petrisin, ’85, ’92, MHRLR ’09, currently vice president, will serve as president in 2015-2016.  Petrisin, associate director of the MSU Alumni Association, becomes the first woman to head any large service organization—including Rotary and Lions International. “I’m deeply honored,” says Sue. “Kiwanis has always been about inclusivity and service beyond self.  But to be viable in our next century, we need to recognize the differences in cultures, generations and technology that determine how and where we will succeed.”  A native of Alpena, Petrisin joined Kiwanis’ Key Club in 1977—a year after girls were admitted.  She was active with Kiwanis’ Circle K at MSU, but could not join as a woman, so she stayed active by serving as the MSU staff adviser for the group.  She finally joined Kiwanis in 1988.  “I was the first female to join from East Lansing,” she recalls.  Sue chose to attend MSU because, in her words, “MSU was the only school I even considered.  It seemed like my kind of school.”  She had to work her way through college.  “I was one of seven siblings,” she explains.  “At MSU I was very shy and quiet, totally focused on getting through school.  I worked summers, breaks, anything I could do.”  Sue has served on the Kiwanis international board for the past three years and helped spearhead the elimination of maternal and neonatal tetanus via activities for Key Club, CKI, Builders Club, Aktion Club and K-Kids.  Sue feels her presidency will also help her work with the MSUAA.  “We’re volunteer organizations and I’m able to see things from both staff and volunteer perspectives,” she explains.  She looks forward to 2016, when as Kiwanis president she will get to ride in the Rose Bowl parade.  “It will be nice to be there with the MSU football team,” she predicts.
This past summer’s top-rated television show, NBC’s America’s Got Talent, gave national exposure to a 19-year-old MSU student.  Sophomore Steve Price, an honors student in mechanical engineering, does not sing or dance.  Still, he wowed the judges with his unusual ability to build Rube Goldberg machines—intricate, over-engineered contraptions that, after a series of chain reactions, perform a simple task.  “Before appearing on the show, I did a performance for 30 people at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum,” says Price.  “After being on the show, I had 11 million viewers.”  Those viewers saw Steve’s machine, after a convoluted sequence, put a soccer ball in a net.  “Other machines I’ve created would end up making a cup of coffee, feeding my dog or making a sandwich,” he says.  “To advance you have to come up with a lot more complex schemes and use things in ways people don’t expect.”  A native of Canton, Steve first got into Rube Goldberg machines when he was about 12.  “One day I started playing with dominoes, hot wheels and mobile tracks,” he recalls.  “It was very interesting seeing how you can put things together where one thing leads to another.  I was hooked.”  Three years ago, Steve launched a YouTube channel called SpriceRGM to share his machines and ideas.  “The channel has gotten more than a million views worldwide,” he notes.  Steve survived rounds in Chicago and Las Vegas to advance to the quarterfinals at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.  He assembles the machines by himself but appreciates the support of “my father, mother, sister and girlfriend.”  The grandson of a Spartan football player, Steve chose to attend MSU because he loved the campus.  Though building Rube Goldberg machines may be cool, there is no such career.  But Steve believes there might be a related career in entertainment—creating a television show that “showcases innovation and creative skills in engineering or physics related things.”  
He took over as chief financial officer of Six Flags Entertainment Corp. in 2010, when the company was coming out of bankruptcy.  “Our history was like a roller coaster,” says John Duffey, ’82, who works out of the company’s offices in Chicago, New York City and headquarters in Grand Prairie, TX.  “We had experience turning around troubled companies and that’s what we did.”  Company shares, even with a couple of splits, rose from $7 to $35.  Previously, Duffey spearheaded a similar turnaround at Dade Behring Inc., which was acquired by Siemens AG in 2007.  Having grown up in Birmingham, John chose to attend MSU because of its veterinary medicine program.  “There is no better school,” he says.  But after being exposed to accounting, he developed a new passion.  “I give a lot of credit to (the late) Al Arens (the PriceWaterhouseCoopers Auditing Professor at the Eli Broad College of Business),” says John.  “Every single class I attended, he showed the same passion. MSU helped me develop a strong work ethic and strong communications skills that I use to this day.”  John also met his wife Becky, ’82, at MSU.  Having served on the boards of many  charitable organizations, John and Becky have made a major gift to the Little City Foundation to build a new Duffey Family Children’s Village.  “I have a sister who is developmentally disabled, so I’ve always had a passion in this area,” explains John.  “Little City serves the needs of hundreds who are developmentally disabled.  The more we learned, the more we realized the good they do and the decreasing support they are receiving from the state.  We wanted to help.”   Another passion John has is anything Spartan.  He and Becky attend most home football games and some away games.  “We have three children, and the third one is now a student at MSU, so it will be fun to come to games this fall,” he notes.  The Duffeys have donated $1.5 million to upgrade the football practice facilities, now called the John and Becky Duffey Football Practice Field.  He also has a summer home on Douglas Lake, where Wolverine fans abound.  “We painted our garage door in green and have a Sparty helmet the size of a car,” he says with a chuckle.  “We’ve taken on the task of putting as much green and white there as we can.”
When it comes to building the playing fields of America, FIELDS, of Canton, GA,  is a popular choice for the Green Bay Packers, the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Twins and many other professional teams.  “Building Sports Fields of Distinction” is the tagline used by President and CEO Brian Storm, ’77, to sum up what his company does.  “We participate in the upper echelon market of the sports field construction business,” says Storm.  “We don’t just do fields.  We do lights, bleachers, landscaping, heating systems.  In some cases, we’ve built lakes and amphitheatres.  We’re very diverse.”   A native of Saginaw, Storm worked in a local nursery as a boy and showed promise, so the owners promised him a job after college.  “MSU was one of the top three schools for horticulture in the Midwest,” recalls Brian.  “Both owners of the nursery were Spartans. I loved MSU.  It was a fantastic experience.  I’m a Spartan through and through.”  He singles out three professors—the late Harold Davidson, Roy Mecklenburg and Robert Schutzki as people who made an impact on his life.  Having achieved success with his company, Brian believes strongly in giving back to his alma mater.  “I consider myself fortunate,” he says.  “When you have success, part of it is you, but a part of it is other people’s energy.  I believe you should never forget where you come from.”  That is why he decided some years ago to give something back every year to his alma mater, beginning with a project after the U2 concert.  “We graded that field so that the sod from Colorado could be laid,” says Brian.  “We received a minimal payment, but mostly it was me wanting to do something for MSU.”  Since then Brian has pledged to donate $50,000 a year in in-kind services.  He has renovated the MSU soccer field, then redid it and fixed the baseball and softball fields after the flooding from the Red Cedar.  His company is currently working on applying heating technology to MSU’s baseball and softball infields. Says Brian, who is an Ambassador level donor with the Spartan Fund, “My motto is, ‘Be thankful, give back.’”
NBC’s reality show Fashion Star showcases rising stars in the fashion design business.  In the show’s second season, which ended in May, we got to know Tori Nichel (rhymes with Michelle), ’98, a New York-based women’s wear designer and creative design consultant who also runs her namesake collection.  “It was a long process, almost a year from submission to the show airing,” says Tori Nichel of her being cast in the show, where each episode shows design teams creating new fashions.  “Never in a million, kazillion years did I think I would be on a reality TV show.  But it was great!”  Tori Nichel adds, “It was so cool to see the other designers close-up and see everyone’s designs in their own personal aesthetic.”  A native of West Bloomfield, Tori Nichel has held a passion for fashion since childhood, when she appropriated her sister’s doll kit and designed outfits.  At age 16, she worked with former Dior model Christiane McCormick, who served as a mentor and advisor.  Tori Nichel chose to attend MSU partly because of a program allowing her to spend her junior year at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York City.  “It was amazing,” recalls Tori Nichel.  “It was an accelerated program where I could get my associate degree in one year.  I felt like a medical student—doing all fashion all the time with no time for anything else.”  Since graduation she has worked for high-profile designers such as Tibi and Kenneth Cole.  She recently relaunched her dress collection.  “People are super excited,” she says, noting that Forbes Online has called her “a designer to watch.”  Tori Nichel believes her strengths are in creating everyday dresses that are sexy but chic, using fun colors and eclectic fabrics.  “I like to say they are effortless and chic,” says Tori Nichel, who was first put on the fashion map with a series of jumpsuits.  With the newfound PR arising from her television appearance, Tori Nichel is building her presence online.  She wants to eventually become a visionary like Diane Von Furstenberg, Tom Ford and Mickey Drexler.  “My goal is to design for a lifestyle,” she explains.