Monticello Central School District inducts four into its Hall of Distinction

Four unique alumni represent business and the arts

Four distinguished alumni were inducted into the Monticello High School Hall of Distinction on Friday, Nov. 1.

Travis Brust, Patrick Dollard, Lori Leshner and Dan Smalls returned to their high school to be honored. Each had a unique path to finding their passion and success in vastly different fields.

Five adults stand in front of a wall of wood with numerous plaques hanging on it.
Dan Smalls, Lori Leshner and Travis Brust, second, third and fourth from left, stand in front of the Monticello Hall of Distinction. At left is Dr. William Silver, interim superintendent of Monticello schools, and Lori Orestano-James, right, president of the Monticello Board of Education and chairperson for the Hall of Distinction Committee.

All students in grades 9 through 12 were in attendance at the Arnold Packer Hughs Auditorium. In addition to the students and district administrators, Assembywoman Aileen Gunther was in attendance and spoke to the honorees. Representatives from state Sen. Jen Metzger and Congressman Antonio Delgado also attended.

Travis Brust, a 1999 graduate, is an award-winning chef and mentor to culinary students. He told the auditorium filled with students, residents, family and friends that he found his passion for cooking as a teenager.

A man in a white chef's jacket stands with his arms crossed in front of his plaque hanging on the wall.
Travis Brust, in a familiar pose, proudly stands in front of his Hall of Distinction plaque.

Neither college nor culinary school were right for him and he honed his skills through paid apprenticeships and internships where he learned from some of the best in the field. Now, he is executive chef and director of food and beverage at the Williamsburg Inn in Virginia. “Find your passion,” he urged the students.

Patrick Dollard is the president and CEO of The Center for Discovery. A 1968 graduate of Monticello High School, Dollard’s message to the students was simple: be kind.

“Kindness is a big deal. The more you show, the more you get it,” he said.

A man with a white goatee wearing an open colored shirt and jacket and orange scarf, talks at a podium. His hands are animated.
Patrick Dollard, president and CEO of The Center for Discovery, addresses the audience at the seventh annual Hall of Distinction ceremony at Monticello High School.

He acknowledged he wasn’t the best student and that high school is tough. Some people may appear in control and confident but feel the opposite, he said. He urged the students to be kind to others and themselves. He lauded this generation of students for its acceptance of diversity. “Believe in yourself and be kind to yourself,” he said.

Lori Leshner, like Dollard, also had her struggles academically in high school. Her sisters were A students and her dad a teacher. “Dance was all I ever wanted and didn’t see myself doing anything else,” she told the audience.

A woman stands at a podium speaking. Next to her is a table with gift bags and a vase filled with autumn flowers.
Lori Leshner, a dancer, singer and actor, as well as an inductee at this year’s Hall of Distinction, speaks to the students about finding their passion and going for it.

Good thing. Leshner, a 1979 graduate, went on to become a successful dancer, singer and actor, devoting her life to sharing her love of dance with students all over the world. Leshner said she was never nervous on stage. It’s where she felt most at home.

“You don’t always have to go to college to make a life for yourself,” she said. “Find what you’re passionate about.”

Dan Smalls did just that. Although he was co-valedictorian of his Monticello High School Class of 1988 and went on to graduate from Cornell University, Smalls returned to Monticello to run his family’s business. But he always wanted to be part of the music industry.

Four adults - three men and one woman - stand together. The man second from left is holding a small plaque he just received. He is wearing a gray hat.
Dan Smalls, second from left, holds his plaque presented to him at the Monticello School District Hall of Distinction Friday. From left are Marvin Rappaport, a member of the Hall of Distinction Committee who nominated him, Smalls, Lori Orestano-James, president of the Monticello Board of Education and chairperson of the Hall of Distinction Committee, and Dr. William Silver, interim superintendent of Monticello schools.

He had booked concerts while he was in college and knew that’s what he wanted to do. He worked for a producer for a while and then returned to Ithaca and started Dan Smalls Presents, now known as DSP Shows. He books venues from Boston to Buffalo for performers in the industry. His company is ranked in the top 40 in the United States in ticket sales. He is motivated to bring culture and economic value to the communities he serves.

“It can happen anywhere. It just takes time,” he told the students, adding “I’m proud to be from Monticello.”