11/04/2022 Barbara S. Stambaugh

First Impressions and Lasting Memories: Sam & Dena Lombardo’s historic gift supports the Now to Next campaign – and F&M’s bright future

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” goes the old saying. That folksy trope, usually attributed to Will Rogers or Oscar Wilde, matters in all manner of important first encounters: real estate, job interviews, and, of course, college visits.

In the very near future, Franklin & Marshall will have a new front door, and then some, thanks to an extraordinary $5 million gift to the Now to Next campaign from Lancaster area natives Sam and Dena Lombardo. Prospective students, families, alumni and friends of the College will be met with warmth, inspiration, and history at F&M’s new Samuel N. and Dena M. Lombardo Welcome Center, which will be located in the College Square building.

  • Dena and Sam Lombardo would like the Welcome Center to make a lasting first impression of F&M and Lancaster. Dena and Sam Lombardo would like the Welcome Center to make a lasting first impression of F&M and Lancaster.

“This generous gift is specifically directed to support the admission, advancement, and visibility goals in our new strategic plan,” said President Barbara Altmann. “The Lombardo Welcome Center will greatly enhance F&M’s ability to build strong relationships that endure – with prospective students who will thrive at F&M, with their families, and with our nearly 30,000 alumni from around the world, whom we always want to welcome back home. It will link the dreams of our potential and new students to the accomplishments of our illustrious alumni, and link those communities to one another and to our campus. It will highlight opportunities for and the accomplishments of our Diplomats, our transformative version of the liberal arts, and the many attributes of our beautiful hometown, Lancaster City.”

Meet & Greet

Centered at the entrance to campus, right across from Roschel College House, the new Lombardo Welcome Center will make use of interactive technology to put the College’s brand and mission front and center, both for those looking to find their future “home” for four years, and for those looking to reconnect to their alma mater, perhaps decades after their own graduation.

Currently housed in the Wohlsen Admissions House on College Avenue, F&M’s Office of Admission offers a charming and historic welcome to admission visitors, but accessibility, convenient parking and technology will be greatly improved at the new facilities.

“There are many important factors that go into a student’s decision to enroll at an institution,” says Vice President for Enrollment and Financial Aid Jimmie Foster, Jr., “but without question, the student’s initial visit experience is one of the most important. The concept for this new center revolves around connecting our prospective students with F&M’s distinctive education and with extraordinary outcomes – in other words, with our successful alumni and their F&M stories.” 

Like its competitors in the higher education marketplace, F&M must make a strong first impression as students compare their options.

Come Home & Gather

Right now, connections matter more than ever – to the health of our community, our academic programs, and our financial future. While high-schoolers who come to visit may be taking a first step in a decades-long relationship with F&M, the alumni who return to campus may be coming back after a long time, remembering their days as students, and considering how their relationship with the College will evolve. It’s important for alumni to be impressed and inspired when they return to campus.

“The Lombardo Welcome Center will provide a warm reception, instilling F&M pride and causing visitors to want to linger and enjoy the space,” says Vice President for College Advancement Cynthia Gorman. This is particularly significant at F&M because there is currently no central hub of experience to welcome alumni when they return to campus. “It’s not a building to pass through, but rather a place where alumni can engage with the College. In addition, current students, faculty and staff will come to know the Center as a place to connect our internal achievements with our extended family and external partners. The new spaces in the Lombardo Welcome Center will be used by our entire community.”

“Sam and Dena Lombardo are amazing people and friends of the College,” says Matthew Eynon, F&M’s former vice president for College Advancement, now associate vice president and chief operating officer for resource development at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I very much enjoyed working with them. As we completed the largest campaign in F&M history and launched a new initiative for alumni engagement, the Lombardos’ gift stands out as a major boost to both efforts,” he said. 

The Lombardo Welcome Center will make an immediate difference in the alumni experience, and over time, it will become the place alumni will remember fondly as the first place they visited on campus, back when they were prospective students, and feel like they are “home.” 

The Lombardos & Lancaster

One might ask, why are two people who didn’t attend F&M making such an investment in its future? Sam Lombardo is a huge success in the insurance field, but his last name may be better known to those at F&M from Lombardo’s Italian restaurant just down the street from campus, on Harrisburg Avenue. Lombardo’s is part of our campus neighborhood. Established in 1946 by Sam’s uncles, it has long been a gathering place for locals and for visitors to F&M, especially alumni and families of current students. In 2018, Sam purchased and fully renovated the restaurant “for love of family,” as he told the Lancaster News Press. A visit to the renovated restaurant displays the Lombardo family history in murals and artifacts, beautifully embedded in the interior design.

The Lombardos’ love of Lancaster runs deep. Sam was born at home in a second-floor apartment on Juniata Street. His family moved to Howard Avenue near the Crispus Attucks Center, then, when he was 5 years old, to Lancaster’s Cabbage Hill, where he grew up with a bevy of aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.

He remembers it as “a good growing up,” and “not wealthy but never lacking.” His father was a cook, and his mother provided daycare for children in their home. Dena was born and raised in nearby Ephrata. “We have stayed close by because Lancaster County is home,” she says. “We’re comfortable here.”

After Sam’s stint in the U.S. Army, including a year in Vietnam, he became an insurance agent in 1970. At first, it was all about supporting his family, but over time, and as his business interests evolved and expanded, it became about much more.

His goal for decades has been to improve systems of all kinds, not just for CEOs and the bottom line, but for individuals and their families. “Many of the paradigms established in the last 50 or more years aren’t working,” Lombardo says. “I tell young entrepreneurs not to focus on making money but to think of doing good, and success will come to you.” 

He opened his own agency in 1977, created the first health-insurance purchasing cooperative in 1991, and formed The Benecon Group in 1997. He and his executive team built it into a company with more than 1,800 participating employer groups and 600 brokers in 37 states. In late 2020, he sold Benecon to a large private equity firm. Sam retained a 30 percent interest and today is founder and chairman emeritus of the company. 

“I’m an overnight success after 45 years,” Sam says with a characteristic twinkle in his eye. “It was emotional for us to agree to the sale,” he adds. “The people in the company are important to us.”

“Sam created the positive culture there,” Dena says, explaining that he still retains an office in the corporate headquarters in Lititz. “It’s hard for both of us to let go of something so important.”

Dena even takes their four golden retrievers there for occasional puppy-therapy visits with the staff.

The Lombardos’ bottom line is what they refer to as “positive disruption.” Sam and Dena are both keenly interested in supporting causes, projects, and environments that help people and encourage them to learn from all viewpoints. Their philanthropy has included investments in the health and wellness and education sectors, along with veterans’ support organizations. They care about creating a sense of welcome for all, and their life’s work demonstrates the fertile ground created by problem-solving, and by the challenges and opportunities that emerge from the collision of old paradigms with new. 

For Sam and Dena, Franklin & Marshall is important because F&M is an integral part of Lancaster. They understand that the success of the College and the success of the city are inextricably linked. For them, F&M is an extraordinary school with an amazing future, and they are thrilled to help catalyze more momentum for F&M and the community through their magnificent gift.

The Past & Present Create the Future

Sam didn’t have the opportunity to go to college himself, but, like Dena, he values education with all his heart. Sam has been involved with F&M since the days of President John Fry, when, together, they worked to extend the model of health-insurance purchasing cooperatives to private colleges. Today, the Lombardos are inspired by President Barbara Altmann’s leadership and by the expanding sense of diverse perspectives on our campus. They are aware of the pressures inherent in our current financial model and interested in seeing F&M’s community develop to include greater socioeconomic and ideological diversity.

The Lombardos’ investment in F&M’s future is proof that they live what they care about: creating connections between and among people and ideas, opening doors, building new paths over rough terrain, and continually taking small steps toward big, positive change.

“Our passion is to make things better,” says Sam. “We’ve been blessed financially. Dena and I want to give back in ways that can help F&M evolve and differentiate. We are so happy to do it. Our society is divisive right now. But this too shall pass. We will emerge better and stronger.”

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