Reading for Champions
Two years after he graduated from Boston University, having enrolled in a graduate program in English at McGill University in Montreal, Steven Biondolillo ‘77 found himself in the middle of a frozen tundra. In forty degree below zero cold, Biondollo and his crew trekked through the masked crowds of Quebec’s annual celebration to make an ethnographic documentary called “The Will to Revel,” funded by a grant from the Canadian government. It’s an unexpected place for a graduate student in literature to end up, but Steve has never been one to stick to the program.
A New York City native, Steve entered the nation’s oldest large-scale orphanage, Girard College, at the age of nine. On the forty-three acre campus of the school, surrounded by walls two feet thick and ten feet high, Steve found his passions in sports and literature. He memorized Shakespeare, practiced wrestling, and enjoyed camaraderie among the classmates he calls his “orphan siblings.” He graduated second in his class at Girard and gave the salutatorian speech at his commencement. By the time Steve reached BU in 1973, he felt he was ready for anything—but he wasn’t expecting the revered literary critic, Professor Helen Vendler. “Here I am in Helen Vendler’s Proseminar in Literature for English Majors and I have no idea who Helen Vendler is. I did nothing but struggle to keep up. Even though I had a tremendous English program in High School, I could not read until I took that class. She actually taught me how to read.” After Vendler’s seminar, he moved on to study Modern literature with great success. He became the valedictorian at BU, and shared his stage with Senator Ted Kennedy, the poet Robert Lowell, the children’s author Maurice Sendak, and Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce.
Graduate study in Literature seemed a logical next step, but when his advisor, Donald Theall, left the program at McGill to become the president of Trent University, he also left Steve with the government grant to develop media. Within a year, Biondolillo had produced radio, film, and photography projects for other students as well as writing, directing, and producing “The Will to Revel” on his own. He wasn’t unprepared for the challenge, having founded the Brownstone Steering Committee back at BU under the auspices of which he produced over one hundred events ranging from film series and poetry readings to block parties and dances. After shooting on the documentary had wrapped, instead of returning to McGill, he made one of his many bold decisions: to compete in the Canadian Olympic team trials in wrestling. Although he didn’t make the team, he went to Israel to wrestle in the international Maccabi Games.
Once back in the States, Steve knew for sure that he didn’t want a traditional ‘job.’ He got busy and started working on an idea. “This is what happens when you don’t ask for advice,” he jokes now, in the comfortable Wellesley offices of Biondolillo Associates, the nation’s leading marketing and development consultancy dedicated to helping non-profits build special-event fundraising programs. After a childhood spent in a non-profit institution and a young adulthood spent getting people excited about events, he said to himself, “I know a lot about the system and the issues of the system. So why don’t I go work for organizations that help those people?” Steve is the first to point out that while the non-academic experiences of his academic career provided the pre-professional training he needed to get his business off the ground, his liberal arts education taught him how to think. The value of the skills he gained in the English department at BU has influenced the way he views potential hires; “I have a bias towards hiring people from the liberal arts because they can read and write. I can teach you anything technical in business. I cannot teach you how to read and write. And reading doesn’t only mean reading a text or a book. It means reading a meeting. Can you, with integrity and accuracy, analyze what’s actually happening? If you’re not in the habit of doing that, I’m sunk. All astute employers understand this.”
Biondolillo Associates began with the two events that continue to define their work today: The Grime Fighter Program, which gets underprivileged youths involved in urban clean-up projects, and the Walk for Hunger, the oldest and most successful continual pledge walk in the country. Steve got involved in the Walk in its nascent days, and the first walk under his guidance caused an explosion—not only of the event itself, but also of a movement. “We took one of the nations crop walks for hunger, a little event in Boston, and made that the nation’s first million dollar walkathon, two million dollar walkathon, and three million dollar walkathon. If you went to the ’85 Walk for Hunger and you read in the paper the next morning that 11,000 people participated and raised 1.1 million dollars, it would be the equivalent of waking up tomorrow and finding out that the Grover Cleveland Middle School in Newton had a bake sale yesterday and raised 1.1 million dollars. It would be international news.” And it was. A framed New Yorker cartoon is proudly displayed in his office. It shows a man sitting at a desk across from his doctor and the caption reads, “You probably already know this disease from the walkathon of the same name.” It’s a funny encapsulation of the ubiquity of the fundraising-event movement that Steve was instrumental in creating. “We get the credit or the blame for having brought these events to scale. Suddenly, everyone you know is calling you up saying they have a bikeathon next month and a walkathon the month after that and will you sponsor me?”
Now that he has built an industry out of branded fundraising activities, Steve devotes a large part of his time to lecturing and educating non-profit workers and business leaders. These lectures have become an unlikely place for him to return to his love of literature. In 2000, he read a Boston Globe story about the “Miracle on Ice” victory of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team, on which three of his BU classmates played. This story focused, however, on the three players who were cut from the team before the games—an experience to which he could, after his own 1980 Olympic trial, relate. He was indescribably moved by their story. And he began to write poetry. Biondolillo’s lines on the athletes read like Yeats, if Yeats had lived in the 21st century and knew what it’s like to compete at the highest levels of sport: “Now it’s true about every dream realized/ that sacrifice has to be made/ But it’s true that all winners with clear eyes/ do know where their debts should be paid.” His first book of poetry, Macaroni and Cheese Manifesto, was published in 2009. Steve has also incorporated the poems into the talks and lectures he gives on a regular basis; “When I perform that piece to any business group, corporate group, or management team . . . grown men cry.” But the highlight of his poetry career thus far has been the reading to the New Hampshire Fire Chiefs Association. After three hours of poetry, he concluded with his poem on 9/11 entitled “480 B.C.”; “When I performed that poem, seventy fire chiefs jumped to their feet and gave me a standing ovation.” Though he has been applauded by stadiums across the world, this ovation meant the most to Biondolillo—a winner with clear eyes, after all.