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Pandemic hero Frank Cantone wins George Peter Award

After playing a key role in helping keep the university calm, healthy and safe during the pandemic – and for his expertise as campus opened for the 2020-21 academic year – Frank Cantone, former director of Cornell’s Office of Emergency Management, has won the 2021 George Peter Award for Dedicated Service.

“I’m overwhelmed,” Cantone said June 29 in accepting the award, given by Cornell’s Employee Assembly and presented by Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer. “I am honored and a little emotional right now because of the reality of tomorrow.” Cantone retired June 30.

Dan Maas, emergency management specialist, left, Daneen Phillips, assistant to the associate vice president for environmental, health and safety, and Nathan Hunter, emergency management specialist, far right, pose with the retiring Frank Cantone, winner of the 2021 George Peter Award for Dedicated Service.

“As I always tell my wife, I don’t feel I make an impact on people’s lives,” Cantone told a gathering of about 80 people at the East Hill Office Building atrium. “But I guess I was wrong.”

Cantone is the 193rd recipient of the prestigious award since its inception in 1980; in 1999 it was renamed for George Peter, who was a strong advocate for staff and the university’s first employee trustee. This year, Cantone is the award’s lone recipient.

In his career, Cantone has been a volunteer firefighter and fire department captain in Ithaca. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Adelphi University, and a master’s and Ph.D. in mycology and plant pathology from Purdue University.

At Cornell, he conducted research at the Boyce Thompson Institute and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture facility on Tower Road. He switched to administration in 1999 as a Cornell biosafety officer, concurrently earning an MPH from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, gaining expertise in public health issues such as disease outbreaks and pandemic response.

In emergency management at Cornell, Cantone worked behind the scenes to help keep people safe in laboratories; he also monitored the operations center at large campus events such as Commencement, Slope Day and Dragon Day.

“Frank has always been involved in public service by volunteering at the local fire department here in Ithaca and at numerous Cornell-sponsored events,” said Christine Stallmann, the university’s chief compliance officer in Compliance and Risk Services. “He has a visible presence to the campus community, as well as to the senior leadership, promoting emergency preparedness across campus.”

Joanne DeStefano, executive vice president and chief financial officer, concurred.

“Frank is the calmest person I’ve ever met,” she said. “There’s no one better in an emergency.”

When COVID-19 struck, DeStefano recalled, “I would call Frank and ask what to do. He was calm, he knew our risks and he led us through the beginning of the pandemic.”

In preparing for emergencies, Cantone led so-called “tabletop drills” – classroom-like practice sessions among emergency preparedness professionals. One such trial considered the scenario of a campus closure due to an infectious disease outbreak, months before anyone had heard about COVID-19.

Cantone also facilitated a tabletop preparedness exercise in case the university faced financial strain. That stress test, DeStefano said, “actually helped the university get into a better position to make it through the pandemic.”

Cantone’s celebration had hints of normalcy following the long lockdown. People hugged, sat next to each other, freely ate cake and ice cream.

Ted Murray Sr., director of Compliance and Risk Services, nominated Cantone for the award. Murray said Cantone had originally expected to retire in September 2020, but was persuaded to stay through June 2021 because of the need for his public health expertise during the pandemic.

Cantone worked through the pandemic with Gary Koretzky ’78, vice provost for academic integration, who described an exhaustive list of pandemic tasks that Cantone successfully completed. “I can say with zero hesitation that we had fewer cases [of COVID-19] because of Frank.

“He may be an unsung hero – maybe less-unsung today – but he is incredibly, incredibly important,” Koretzky said. “I slept much better knowing that Frank was on the case.“

Murray paid a heartfelt tribute to Cantone in the hushed atrium.

“Knowing and working with Frank for 23 years has been a privilege; [it’s] easy to look at him as a role model,” Murray said. “His sincere, caring approach, treating everyone with respect, has been a lesson for all.

 “Frank’s No. 1 is not himself,” he said. “It is everyone else.”

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Abby Butler