13 minute read

Beyond the Boardroom


Not all Beta legends are Fortune 500 executives.

By Mike Roupas, Iowa ’10

Businessmen, politicians, athletes and entertainers: we hear about their accomplishments all the time. They’re discussed at the dinner table, they appear in our push notifications, and they’re being covered on your TV right now. For Beta Theta Pi, they’re often deemed Beta legends — and for good reason. They all add incredible value to our world.

But not all legends are found in company boardrooms or sold out arenas. Another set of professionals often goes unnoticed and underappreciated. With a “roll up your sleeves and get it done” attitude, these men give their blood, sweat and tears each day to support their communities and the people within them.

Much respect and gratitude is owed to the five men whose stories are told within — men who keep their heads down, get the work done and never look for the spotlight in return.

POLICE OFFICER | Dan Szczesny, Illinois ’12 | River Forest, Illinois

“It’s a fine line inserting yourself to accomplish your investigation while being compassionate.”

UNLIKE MOST POLICE OFFICERS, Dan Szczesny, Illinois ’12, requests to work the overnight shift. He learned a lot during his first six months on the police force working during the day, but ultimately wanted a bigger challenge.

“I want to be patrolling at night to protect others from those who are endangering innocent people,” says Dan. “Some nights I’ll find someone who is driving around town drunk and other nights I might find a burglar walking down an alley breaking into cars.”

Dan’s extensive community accolades speak for themselves. He is Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s 2018 Hero Award honoree, a three-year recipient of the Top Cop Award for DUI enforcement by the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, and Police Officer of the Year for his department — two years in a row.

The son of a U.S. Marine, grandson of a U.S. Army colonel, and nephew of a 27-year Chicago police officer, Dan grew up surrounded by heroes who helped contribute to his deep love for the law, history and his country. Raised by his father following his parents’ divorce at a young age, Dan credits his dad as the stabilizing force in his life who taught him the importance of responsibility and a strong work ethic.

Dan had it all figured out by the time he was in high school. Graduating near the top of his class, he would study public policy and law in college and attend law school upon graduation. Dan stayed the course through his sophomore year: he excelled in academics, joined Beta Theta Pi, and planned to turn his focus toward the LSAT his junior year. But everything changed over summer break when tragedy struck; Dan discovered his father unresponsive in the shower following a massive heart attack.

“His passing was a grueling and difficult test,” says Dan. “I had already grown up much faster than many of my peers, and from that moment to today, the pace only quickened.” Dan’s plan to take the LSAT was put on hold while he finished college, working at least two jobs at a time to pay for classes, rent and food.

Following graduation and a two-year stint in Washington, D.C., where he worked for two U.S. Senators and co-founded a business, Dan returned to Chicago with his sights set on becoming a police officer. In 2013, he did just that, scoring first out of 300 in a rigorous testing and hiring process.

Working six days on and twos , in addition to volunteering at community events, serving as president of his local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, and now attending law school part time, Dan’s standard work routine finds him patrolling the streets, responding to dispatch calls, writing detailed reports in the office, and representing the department in the courtroom. But one of the most powerful moments he faced was responding to a call from a family after their son’s suicide.

“It’s a fine line inserting yourself to accomplish your investigation while being compassionate,” says Dan. “Losing my father and understanding how to deal with sudden loss prepared me for that case. I knew how to be productive, but also sensitive to the family’s needs while they were going through this shock.”

Next up for Dan? “I just want to keep giving back to the community, whether that’s in the police force or becoming an attorney who benefits the community.” Completing law school in 2019, Dan is prepared to serve the community wherever his path leads.

CHEF | Scott Pajak, UNLV '02 | Las Vegas, Nevada

“It’s been crazy back there. At one point we had 40 tickets. Now we’re down to three.”

WE ALL PUT FOOD ON OUR TABLES, but for Scott Pajak, UNLV ’02, the daily responsibility extends to more than 1,000 tables of hungry sports fans who are served during peak game times at Lagasse’s Stadium in Las Vegas.

As head chef for the last eight years, Scott is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the kitchen and its staff, and also adds some of his own creative culinary ideas to the menu. One of his most clever concepts during the football season is a customized menu for Monday and Thursday night football that features food specials with local flair from whichever cities are playing that night.

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Scott’s first job was at age 10 delivering newspapers, but his career in the food industry began in high school when he landed a job washing dishes at an Italian restaurant owned by his best friend’s family.

“I didn't plan to be a chef,” says Scott. “I started when I was 15 years old, and I never left the restaurant business. I’m going to be 42 this summer. This is all I know.”

While studying culinary arts at UNLV, Scott gained experience at restaurants in the area, including Planet Hollywood, New York-New York Casino, and a country club where he prepared meals for PGA Tour golfers. His career with Celebrity Chef Emeril Lagasse began in 2002 at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House, first starting as a line cook and learning the trade over the next nine years as a saucier, butcher and sous-chef, before Emeril promoted him to chef de cuisine, or head chef, of Lagasse’s Stadium.

A former chapter president of his Beta chapter as well as campus interfraternity council president, Scott speaks highly of his fraternity experience. “Unfortunately, the UNLV chapter isn’t around anymore, but these guys are still my best friends today, without a doubt.” Scott was even honored with the opportunity to prepare food for his chapter brother’s wedding reception.

When he's not in the kitchen at Lagasse’s Stadium, Scott enjoys cooking for his two kids and doing charity work. One of his favorite events is an auction hosted by the Boys and Girls Club where attendees can bid on a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Scott to cook a five-course meal inside their home. This year, two groups bid $6,000 each on Scott. “In my mind, I help the kids in our community and all I have to do is cook,” he says. His skills have proven worth the investment with one group bidding on him for the second consecutive year.

For the last three years, Scott has also given back through the “Create a Change Now” program where he teaches school children about healthy eating using produce they grow in the schools’ gardens. “The look on the kids’ faces is priceless when they know they are eating something they grew,” he says.

In April, Beta’s editorial team visited Scott at Lagasse’s Stadium during the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship Game and had an opportunity to watch him in his element and sample a variety of his food. Halfway through the fourth quarter, Scott popped out of the kitchen to check in before making his rounds to see some of his regulars. “It’s been crazy back there,” he says. “At one point we had 40 tickets in the kitchen. Now we’re down to three.”

FIREFIGHTER | Doug Johnson, Wisconsin '08 | Madison, Wisconsin

“I never know what the day may hold for me, but I know I’m going to be there ready to help at a moment’s notice.”

ARRIVE AT THE FIREHOUSE AT 7:00 A.M. — it’s the beginning of the third and final 24-hour rotation this week. Get the tools and medical supplies in place. Inspect the truck. Make sure the equipment is in working order so it’s ready to go at a moment’s notice. Touch base with the team in a morning briefing and learn what’s on the agenda for the day. Sometimes it’s a community event or elementary students are touring the firehouse. Other times it’s training: equipment training, HAZMAT training, EMS training, weight training — it’s all about staying prepared and ready.

And just then, the alarms blare. A dispatcher informs the firehouse that a lifesaving rescue is in motion; in an instant, the day takes a new direction. Throwing on his bunker gear, Doug Johnson, Wisconsin ’08, jumps in the firetruck with three other firefighters, taking off full speed ahead to a nearby apartment complex where an elderly woman is having a heart attack. Rushing inside, the firefighters bring her out on a gurney to a nearby ambulance that they escort to the emergency room. In that moment, a life is saved.

THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS FIGHTING FIRES; often they’re responding to car accidents, performing lake rescues, or tending to calls about natural gas or downed power lines. But in Madison, Wisconsin, Doug says most calls are for those having a medical emergency.

“Ever since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to help people,” says Doug. His mother was a teacher, and his grandfather, uncle and brother were police officers, so serving the community ran in the family. With that strong foundation, Doug knew early on that his professional path would need to lead him somewhere equally as fulfilling: something physical and challenging where he could help people.

Doug later established roots in Madison. There, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, created some of his best friends in Beta Theta Pi where he also served as house manager, and met his wife. “I’ve built a life here,” says Doug. “I’m a part of this community, and I’m committed to helping the people in it.”

The commitment to his community extends well beyond Doug’s time on the clock. Since 2016, he has served as chairman of the Sable Flames, a non-profit organization of African American firefighters established in 1991 following the tragic death of five children killed in a fire that divided the community. In what is now considered a healing moment for the city, the African American firefighters who were serving Madison at the time established a benefit dance to raise money that would provide scholarships to low-income students.

Today, Doug and his firefighter family carry on the legacy by volunteering around the city in a litany of capacities: supporting backpacking events for kids, serving meals at multicultural centers, providing lunch for a state-wide burn camp for young burn survivors, and in a nod to tradition, they still host their flagship event — the Second Alarm Benefit Dance.

“A lot of people from the fire department volunteer, donate and come to the events, because that’s what the firefighter family does for each other,” says Doug. “That’s the sense of family we have here.”

Though Doug never knows what the day may hold for him, one thing is certain: he is ready to help his community at a moment’s notice.

WELDER | Brian Grant, Maine '00 | Portsmouth, New Hampshire

“I did not qualify to enlist in the military, but now I get to repair and maintain some of our country’s most formidable assets.”

BEING A WELDER TAKES SKILL; of course, not just anyone can make a career of repairing and maintaining the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet. With 15 years of welding service under his belt at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire, Brian Grant, Maine ’00, doesn’t take his duties lightly — nor the Beta connection that helped chart his course.

Born, raised and educated in Bangor, Maine, Brian was fascinated by machinery at a young age and credits his welding interest to the fabricated cars used on screen in the movie “Mad Max.” His father worked on helicopters for Bangor’s medical air ambulance, his uncle was a skilled mechanic, and the family had roots in the paper mills, so he was often around labor-intensive work.

While studying business administration at the University of Maine, Brian found a home in Beta Theta Pi and served as the chapter’s house manager, ritual chairman and Convention delegate. Crediting the Fraternity for its support, he experienced a series of highs and lows in college that his brothers helped him through, including academic hardships and the loss of his mother.

SEARCHING HIGH AND LOW for his dream job after college, Brian followed his passion for machinery and took a couple of jobs at motorcycle dealerships over the course of three years before realizing it wasn’t the right career fit. Shortly after, Brian connected with a Beta alumnus who encouraged him to apply for a skills position at the shipyard. Following an extensive hiring process, he landed its welding apprenticeship.

“The stringent requirements and strict tolerances needed to ensure that the Navy’s attack submarines can go in harm’s way, perform their missions and return their crew home safely is something most people overlook or take for granted.”

Having learned the craft, Brian says there are no typical days at the shipyard. Catering to the needs of machinists, electricians and toolmakers, each day brings a new challenge for him to problem solve. Best of all is the reward that comes from serving his country in a professional capacity.

“I did not qualify to enlist in the military due to surgeries when I was younger,” says Brian. “But now I get to repair and maintain some of our country’s most formidable assets so our submariners can defend our country all across the globe.”

In addition to supporting his country, Brian served a three-year term as president of his local lodge of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, leading the union to help support a variety of organizations for veterans and children in the area.

Today, Brian’s passion for welding has spilled over into his personal time, too. “Seven years ago, I was able to buy a home with a garage and start building my tool inventory up to where I could fabricate from home,” says Brian. “I enjoy working with steel and creating objects that are aesthetically pleasing and perform a useful function to the owner. I keep my builds personal and unique.”

TEACHER | Johno Oberly, Denver '13 | Dallas, Texas

“A lot of times, people who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

FEW MEN WOULD BE WHERE THEY ARE today without their teachers, and for students who have benefited from the unique leadership education designed by Johno Oberly, Denver ’13, the profound impact is evident.

Studying international economics as an undergraduate and earning a master’s in global finance and trade, Johno originally thought he’d work for the World Bank or run a nonprofit. It was a 2013 internship with a charter school, however, that inspired him to apply for the Teach for America program.

Johno was hired as an algebra teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in North Dallas, serving a culturally diverse community with a large ESL student population. He immediately established an after-school club called the Patriot Ambassadors with a mission to give students a voice to address the systemic and structural challenges they faced at school.

“A lot of times, people who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” says Johno. “I knew it was important to give students the opportunity to fix issues they were seeing at school.”

Johno ran the after-school club for two years before pitching to his principal the idea of operating it during the school day as a class. “The students who wanted to be involved also had younger siblings at home, and they had to work and help their parents with bills,” says Johno. But he knew these students still had the drive and capability to do outstanding work if it was made possible to participate during school hours.

Supporting his vision, the program was immediately transformed into a day-time class taught by Johno called Student Voices. It was so well-received that it has expanded to six high schools in the Dallas area since then. Today, rather than working with students directly in the classroom, Johno develops all of the program’s curriculum and trains the teachers who execute it. His daily routine also expanded to advocating for excellent public education and racial equity in the school system by working directly with local community leaders and school boards.

But with his ongoing oversight of Student Voices, Johno is still a recognizable fixture in the classroom. “He’s sort of like the backbone of the class,” says one student. The class takes on a workshop-style setup and is home to about 15 students per school, each with unique personalities and opinions that are brought to the table while working together toward one common goal.

Each student has an individual project that they lead, as well as one large class project aimed at improving the school or the larger community, some choosing to address homeless or low-income issues they see affecting their peers, some advocating for the equality of resources across classrooms, and others boosting school pride through a better lunchroom experience.

“Even by walking in this room, I feel like I’m in another universe,” says a student. “We’re here to do something. We’re empowered to speak up and people hear us. Because of that, I have a lot more confidence now.”

“Students have incredible capacity to lean in, think critically and act boldly,” adds Johno. “We just have to empower them with the permission and space to do so.”

The attitudes and accomplishments these students graduate with are a true testament to Johno’s impact in the classroom — and by extension, Beta’s value of cultivation of the intellect, which he passes on to them.