After John E. Toffolon Jr., GABELLI ’73, ’77, died on April 26 following a battle with cancer, his family asked for memorial donations to be sent to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and to Fordham—specifically, to its New Era Fund supporting the men’s and women’s basketball programs in their drive for national prominence.
About $400,000 in memorial donations has come in to date, a sign of the strong interest prompted by Toffolon’s leadership in advancing the basketball programs, said Fordham’s athletic director, Ed Kull.
“This strong community of donors is a testament to John’s passion for the University,” said Kull, adding that Toffolon’s memory will be honored at a home basketball game this season. “I want to thank all of those who have given to Fordham basketball in memory of John Toffolon. Thanks to our community’s strong support for the New Era Fund, his passion for the program will continue on.”
That passion took root in his student days, when Fordham basketball became a national powerhouse that sold out Madison Square Garden and fueled fierce pride in the University. In 2020, as a trustee fellow, Toffolon co-founded the New Era Fund as part of the University’s current $350 million fundraising campaign, Cura Personalis | For Every Fordham Student, which seeks to enhance the entire Fordham experience. He brought many other supporters along through his example.
In fact, he had been setting an example of giving back and helping others for most of his life—and not just in the arena of basketball.
Forged at Fordham
During his student years, Toffolon was active in many areas of University life, including United Student Government, and seemed to be able to move in every circle of students, as described by two of his classmates, David and Don Almeida, twin brothers and 1973 graduates of the Gabelli School of Business. “He was very much a Fordham guy,” said Don Almeida, a Fordham trustee fellow, “and when he graduated, he remained that for the rest of his life.”
After graduating, Toffolon launched his investment banking career in the management training program of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and came back to Fordham a few years later to earn an M.B.A. That’s when he met his wife, Joan C. Toffolon, GABELLI ’77, a fellow student in the program. He went on to hold leadership roles at First Boston Corporation, Nomura Securities international, and the Cowen Group, among other firms.
He was board chairman at Cowen during its 2009 merger with Ramius LLC, and showed genuine concern for everyone in the merged company, said Jeffrey Solomon, who was a managing member and founder of Ramius.
“John was always well intended, thoughtful, and wanted to make sure that he was making a positive impact in the lives of others,” said Solomon, now chairman and CEO of Cowen, a New York-based banking and financial services firm. Toffolon “wanted to make sure that, through his board stewardship, we were doing the best things we could for everybody at Cowen,” he said.
Giving from the Heart
That care and concern extended to his philanthropy. “John was the real deal,” said David Almeida, a board member with the Making Headway Foundation, which serves families of children diagnosed with brain or spinal cord tumors. Toffolon was a longtime supporter, and “would actually call me up every year to make sure I got the check,” a level of personal attention that meant a lot to him, Almeida said.
Toffolon gave to many organizations supporting health, education, and youth development, and played a leadership role in Fordham’s fundraising efforts. He often gave in partnership with his wife, Joan; in 1995, they created the Joan and John E. Toffolon Jr. Presidential Endowed Scholarship Fund for women attending the Gabelli School of Business.
The first recipient of the scholarship, Cindy Vojtech, Ph.D., a 2000 graduate of the Gabelli School, periodically met Toffolon for lunch. “In any conversation, it was just very clear that he was very enthusiastic about this school and about giving back and trying to … help shift the industry” toward having more women represented in its ranks, said Vojtech, a principal economist at the Federal Reserve Board and a member of the Fordham University President’s Council.
The Toffolon scholarship made it possible for her to come to Fordham and pursue her career dreams in finance and economics, she said. Today, she is paying it forward by creating a scholarship of her own, so that future students can enjoy the Fordham community and support that she did. “It’s just such an amazing gift,” she said.
Another recipient, Samantha Barrett, GABELLI ’21, met John Toffolon on a few occasions, joining him for a Fordham basketball game and dinner at Roberto’s on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx in 2018. “He was just a truly wonderful man, with the kindest heart, and I am a better person for having known him,” she said.
It was humbling and amazing, she said, to learn that the Toffolons’ scholarship would be covering the full cost of her Fordham education. “In that moment, I knew that I needed to have a college career where I did my best—for myself, for John and Joan, for my family, for those around me,” said Barrett, now an analyst at Jefferies Credit Partners in New York City. “I kept John and Joan in mind in every decision I made at Fordham,” wanting to make them proud, she said.
Before the launch of the New Era Fund, the Toffolons made many gifts to support athletics. At the Lombardi Center on the Rose Hill campus, they funded the installation of a wood floor on a practice court—now named in their honor—that is sometimes used by the basketball teams.
That gift seemed to come out of the blue, said Frank McLaughlin, FCRH ’69, athletic director emeritus at Fordham and special advisor to the director of intercollegiate athletics and recreational sports.
“He would do a lot of things unannounced like that, to help people,” McLaughlin said.
Days of Glory
McLaughlin knew Toffolon for about six decades, since Toffolon was a student and he, McLaughlin, was a young assistant basketball coach at Fordham for one season under head coach Richard “Digger” Phelps.
“In 1970–1971, it was a magical year where we were a national power, and he saw what that meant to everybody,” McLaughlin said. “There was a tremendous pride in the institution.”
The Rams went 26-3 that year, playing twice before sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden—beating Notre Dame the first time and falling to Marquette a week later. Fordham advanced to the “Sweet 16” in the NCAA tournament and finished the year ranked ninth in the country.
“Everybody was coming to see us, and Madison Square Garden was full,” Don Almeida said. “I was scared the place was going to fall down, it was shaking so much [with]everybody standing and rocking.”
The school spirit had a unifying effect, he said. “You had ROTC marching in Edwards Parade and you had anti-Vietnam War demonstrations going on all over campus, and at night, everybody was at the basketball game,” he said.
“For the four years that [John and I were] at Fordham, we had very, very respectable basketball teams,” which set a benchmark for the team’s future efforts, Almeida said. “No matter what happened thereafter, we knew what we could do, because we had done it.”
Launching a New Era
Almeida and Toffolon were part of a group led by Fordham trustee Darlene Jordan, FCRH ’89, that started the New Era Fund to boost the basketball teams as a unifying source of Fordham pride and enhance the University’s national profile.
The fund pays for the recruitment of coaching talent and various supports to help student-athletes do their best in class and on the court. With its help, the men’s team improved to a 16-16 record last season under then-head coach Kyle Neptune, and it’s seeking further progress this year under Keith Urgo, who became head coach in April.
Toffolon “was very passionate about seeing the New Era Fund get off the ground” and cared deeply about helping the student-athletes, said Frank Aiello, GABELLI ’76, a supporter of the fund and member of Fordham’s Athletics Hall of Fame committee.
He kept coming to Fordham basketball games while undergoing cancer treatments. “He was all in,” Don Almeida said. Toffolon knew and interacted with all the players, and the entire men’s and women’s teams came to his wake, along with members of the coaching staff. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” he said.
Following a Mass of Christian Burial on May 5 at St. Joseph’s Church in Bronxville, New York, John Toffolon was laid to rest at Gate of Heaven Cemetery. Survivors include his wife, Joan, their daughters, Ashley and Allison, and his sister, Penley Kidd (Douglas).
“There isn’t a day goes by when I am not saddened that he is no longer here to support us. But he’s there in spirit, I’ll tell you that much,” McLaughlin said. “He was an inspiration.”
To ask about contributing to the New Era Fund, contact Kara Field, director of athletic development and assistant athletic director, at 973-223-2157 or email@example.com.