Haddonfield Alumni Society presented its Lifetime Achievement awards to six honorees at the Haddonfield Memorial High School on Nov. 26, as part of an annual tradition that began in 1994.
They included Megan Mascena Gaspar, class of ‘85; Dr. Sharon Hilgen Willis, class of ‘84; Joel Cooperman, class of ‘71; Joanne Connor, class of ‘88; Debra Licorish, a teacher at Tatem Elementary for 14 years; and Mary Hall, also a teacher for Tatem who began her career there in 2000.
“Haddonfield School District wouldn’t be who we are unless they (the alumni) were here, and we’re not going to go where we need to go unless we learn from them,” said Superintendent Chuck Klaus.
Eight years after he graduated, Cooperman founded an accounting firm with Niles Citrin, his business partner and colleague. Citrin Cooperman now ranks among the nation’s top 25 accounting, tax and business advisory firms and has grown to 2,300 employees at its 18 U.S. locations.
He acknowledged his parents and third grade teacher for helping to shape his values.
“If I could offer career advice to any of you, it would be to find a career you have a passion for,” Cooperman said. “If you do that, it will not seem like work. Do each day to the best of your ability. Don’t stand in your comfort zone. Surround yourself with people smarter than you who have complementary skills and let them do the job, because they’re not afraid to challenge you.”
Hilgen Willis, co-founder of Integral Molecular, spoke about how her early work in virology contributed to her company’s success.
“We’ve always stayed true to our virology roots (at Integral Molecular) and one of our products is a critical reagent which is actually used in vaccine development and testing,” she said. “We work with all kinds of viruses … and so we were really able to rapidly pivot at the start of the pandemic and put out that critical reagent for COVID, which has been used in probably many of the vaccines that you all have received.”
Willis also emphasized Integral Molecular’s focus on training the next generation of scientists and her hope of engaging more individuals from underserved communities in biotech.
Mascena Gaspar participated in the drama club and music program in high school, and after studying television production at Emerson College in Boston, she made her way to Hollywood. After a few other jobs in waitressing, accounting and production, she spent 13 years in post-production for the TV show “JAG.” Since then, she has produced 24 pilots and series including “New Girl”and “Speechless.”
In her alumni society speech, Mascena Gaspar recalled being bullied in high school and thanked friends and family who kept her going.
“Is it complete irony or, as my classmate said, ‘Is it the world writing itself?’ to receive the lifetime achievement award from the place where you were constantly bullied?” she asked. “Actually, I have high school to thank for who I am now, because I believe it was a catalyst for how I approached my life from graduation onwards.
“Retreating into a fantasy world helped create my love of story,” Mascena Gaspar added later. “Being made to feel different made me embrace a more diverse and inclusive world …
“I create and entertain for others. I have the best job in the world.”
To learn more about the alumni award, visit https://hmhsalumni.org/?sitePage=custom&pageURL=school_files/haddonfieldalumni/pages/laa_procedures.htm.