Christ the King Award Recipient for 2017:
Jeff Columbini ’79
You can measure the depths and heights of character by the quality of one's friends as well as by cataloguing one's deeds. By all measures, Jeff Columbini is a man worthy of the Christ the King Award, the highest honor St. Ignatius College Preparatory bestows upon a graduate.
All you really have to know about Jeff, though, is one story: In 2010, when Jeff's daughter, Gianna '14, was a freshman at SI, Jeff and his wife, Audette, attended her back-to-school night. After he drove them back to their Millbrae home, he grabbed his spare firefighter gear and headed, along with a friend from the Pacifica Police Department, to San Bruno, where earlier in the evening a natural gas pipeline exploded, sending a wall of fire 1,000 feet skyward and killing eight people. He reported to the incident command post and helped fight the fire well into the night. Three years later, when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed at SFO, he did the same thing, racing to the scene while off duty to help where he could.
For Jeff, these acts aren't something to brag about. "Most in our department would have done the same thing," he noted. "It's just a part of what we do. If there's something going on and we think we can help, we go."
In his 28 years with the San Francisco Fire Department, Jeff has distinguished himself as a model firefighter and leader. He earned promotions to lieutenant and captain and worked nearly every neighborhood in the city. He served as training captain at the Treasure Island Training Facility, where he created one of the top live burn facilities in the state. He now serves as Assistant Deputy Chief and Director of Training for the department, working to improve the skills of firefighters while recruiting new men and women to join their ranks. A key member of the eight-person Command Staff, he has helped the department grow in its use of life-saving technological advances. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that the safety and security of San Francisco has been placed in his capable hands, and he has worked wonders. It is no wonder that he was named Firefighter of the Year in 2016 by the Irish Israeli Italian Society of San Francisco. His boss, Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White also praised Jeff for serving "dedication, pride and commitment and is a role model for future generations of public safety members."
We have seen Jeff's competence, compassion and conscience up close and personal over the past few decades in his service to the school's Alumni Association, first as a member starting in 1993 and then as its president from 2005 to 2014. In an age of changing leadership among the school's administration, the Alumni Association proved a steadying influence on the community helping the school to thrive. He encouraged graduates to come to tried-and-true events — such as the Downtown Business Lunch — and to new ventures, such as the Alumni Wine Classic and the Law Society Lunch. He was present at so many events that he rivaled Fr. Sauer in his omnipresence. And he did this all as a volunteer.
As Alumni Association President, Jeff would receive many accolades, yet he always acknowledged his peers on the board and on the administrative staff for doing so much in support of SI. "This desire to acknowledge all involved in the mission exemplifies his true character," said his good friend Bob Enright '76.
For those who grew up with Jeff and who have worked with him over the years, none of this comes as a surprise. Perhaps it has something to do with geography. He grew up on the famed Windsor Drive in Westlake along with the Enrights, Tonellis, Bacioccos, Murrays, Pacellis, McKennas and Feeneys. "Every evening, there were 50 to 60 kids playing in the street, all of whom went to Our Lady of Mercy and most then to SI." His best friend and mentor was Bob Enright, who taught Jeff how to ride a bike — a stingray with a banana seat. Said Bob: "He was halfway across the school yard before he realized I wasn't behind him. We were inseparable then and still are." Bob would later serve as Jeff's best man.
He followed Bob to SI, where Jeff found mentors in Peter Devine '66, Leo La Rocca '53, Brother Douglas Draper, S.J., and Bishop Gordon Bennett, S.J., SI's campus minister at the time. "Bishop Bennett changed everything about SI for me, and I thank him for that," said Jeff.
Bob also watched as Jeff made a career change early in his life, leaving United Parcel Service, where he was destined to become a top executive. "Most people don't know that Jeff was on the corporate fast track after several promotions," said Bob. "Despite the allure of financial benefits, he decided to become a firefighter both to stay in the Bay Area and to follow the Jesuit ideal of service to others. He has since risked his own personal safety to save the lives of others. That would be his reward. As fate would have it, he would rise to the top ranks in the fire department, just as he was expected to do in the corporate world. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Jeff."
Working firefighter hours also allowed Jeff to devote his life to serving the greater community. He has been actively involved with the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Pomeroy Center and the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Foundation. Despite all of his work and volunteer hours, he made his family his number one priority. Of all that he has accomplished, the title he wears with most pride is that of Gianna's father. "I am so proud of how hard she has worked to reach her goals," he notes. "I see a lot of me in her, as she likes stepping up when other people won't and make sure a job is done right."
If Jeff sounds like a cheerleader for growing up Catholic in the Bay Area, perhaps it's because he served as president of the Spirit Club in his senior year, rallying students behind all the teams, including a varsity basketball squad that had won only one game that season.
Now it is our turn to cheer Jeff — a man who has given cheer and support to so many over the years. We echo the words of former Alumni Director John Ring '86, who worked closely with Jeff for more than eight years. John praises Jeff's "loyalty, work ethic, intelligence, dedication and honesty. While Jeff is probably recognized most for the fellowship and warmth that marked his tenure as Alumni Association President, let's not forget that he played a key role in helping the school raise more than $50 million over a nine-year period. He has been an extraordinary volunteer and remains a good friend. Jeff gave the school thousands of hours during his time off, attending hundreds of local events and going on dozens of road trips on behalf of chapters. You don't see too many guys willing to hop on planes for the betterment of their school. Jeff was able to do this thanks to his wife, Audette, who supported him throughout his tenure as Board President. Jeff is one of the people I admire most. SI has been around for 162 years and few graduates have done more for the school than Jeff Columbini."
For all these reasons and so much more, we honor this man for others, this humble hero, this person who doesn't think twice about putting his life on the line to help others. He is a model both for our students and for all Ignatians. Thank you, Jeff, for all you have done and all the good you will continue to do in the years to come in service to city, school, community, family and God.