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Alumni Profiles

Three Wilkes Alums Return To Their Roots With Jack Black In The Polka King

By James Jaskolka ’16

Three Wilkes University alumni enjoyed a moment in the spotlight when they performed with actor Jack Black on national television to promote his movie, The Polka King.

Bob Lugiano ’92, Ron Stabinsky’ 92 and Steve Bitto ’95 appeared with the comedian in segments on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and The Today Show playing a number from the movie, which premiered on Netflix in January. Black portrays Pennsylvania polka legend Jan Lewan, who took the world by storm until a ponzi scheme landed him in prison. All three alumni played in Lewan’s band during its peak.

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Working on promotional appearances in New York for Netflix’s The Polka King brought together alumni musicians, from left, Ron Stabinsky ’92, Steve Bitt0 ’95 and Bob Lugiano ’92, seen in a New York restaurant. Photo courtesy of Bob Lugiano ’92

Performing on national television is another credit in the long musical careers of all three men, who have been playing and teaching professionally since graduating from Wilkes with degrees in music.

Lugiano has run the band Souled Out since 1999, primarily playing weddings and private events and once even opening for Aretha Franklin. He also runs Music Solutions, a music business that does everything from composition and judging to instrument repair and lessons.

Freelance trombone player Bitto has played in various jazz clubs, concert halls and with wedding bands, including time in Lugiano’s band. He also been a band instructor for more than two decades in the Pleasant Valley School District.

Stabinsky is a full-time professional pianist, specializing in jazz and avant-garde. In addition to accompanying university and community choirs, he plays regularly with the New York City-based bands, Mostly Other People Do The Killing and the Peter Evans Ensemble, as well as alternative legends the Meat Puppets.

While the three men have vastly different career arcs, the common thread – in addition to Wilkes – had always been playing in Lewan’s band. Playing with Black was a way to re-live that chapter.

“It was scary to hear him sing and sound so much like Jan…it brought back memories,” Lugiano says.

“All the sound checks and rehearsals were Jack, but once he showed up in costume, none of the personal interactions were. It was all Jan,” Stabinsky says. “It was just a little surreal, when you know you’re not talking to that person, but someone’s doing a really accurate portrayal of them.”

“To be playing with Jan’s actual music stands, with [Black] dressed in an exact replica of one of Jan’s suits, as he’s basically channeling Jan….surreal is definitely the word,” Bitto adds.

The alumni said Black has a genuine personality and a great work ethic.

“Jack and Jason [Swartzman] are so down to earth and very much into their roles…they didn’t come with a big entourage. Jack actually showed up in a taxi cab,” Lugiano says. He was the only one of the three alumni to play on the film’s soundtrack.

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Actor Jack Black, left, and alumnus Ron Stabinsky ’92 take a break from rehearsals for an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to promote the film The Polka King.

“Over the course of three days, we probably played the song 50 times because of soundchecks for the shows…but he never mailed it in,” Bitto explains. “He did the moves, he did the voice…he gave it 100 percent every time.”

While playing on national television was a great experience, the trio also expressed how good it was to be in each other’s company again. “Steve, Ronny and I all stayed together, and it was like 20 years ago, like in college,” Lugiano says.


Randa Fahmy ’86 Tackles National Debt With Makeup America!

By Samantha Stanich

Randa Fahmy ’86 has always focused on politics in her work as a lawyer and owner of a consulting firm. Now her passion project also puts America in the spotlight and addresses one of the biggest numbers in Washington: the national debt.

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Fahmy is the founder of Makeup America!, “the first American branded premium cosmetic line that reflects the American Spirit.” The line is made in America and gives one dollar of every product sold to the U.S. Treasury in hopes of paying down the national debt of $20 trillion.

Makeup America! sells lipsticks and nail polish at patriotic prices that play off the year of America’s independence, 1776. With names such as Gold Standard and Independence Red, the lipsticks cost $17.76 and the nail polish is $13.76. Fahmy wants to expand into all beauty products and hopes to continue her pricing scheme.

A daughter of immigrants, Fahmy says she has always had a “heightened sense of appreciation for all things American.” She explains she saw an incredible movement of America and patriotism in 2016 during the presidential election, and something clicked in her mind.

“It made me ask, ‘What do I think America is?’” Fahmy said. “I remember how much I loved America’s bicentennial, and I wanted to feel like that again. And I wanted to bring people and women together.”

Fahmy had been interested in cosmetics years prior to her entrepreneurial journey, having read the statistic that Americans are the number-one users of beauty products. She continued her research and found that the national debt affects women of every generation.

“Women benefit the most from programs that will get cut if we don’t pay the debt down,” she said. “They always tell us to not get into debt personally, but who is looking out for the country’s debt? No one. My rallying cry became, ‘It’s time for women to take control of our nation’s checkbook.’ ”

Fahmy is also a Wilkes University trustee and her father is Mahmoud Fahmy, a Wilkes emeritus professor of education. Her work to improve America has been a long time coming as her mother and father always taught her to be a good global citizen.

“No one is addressing the national debt, and people ask me if it can really be that easy to pay,” she says.

The mechanism by which Fahmy pays down the debt was formally approved by the U.S. Department of Treasury. Every year, she tallies up the amount of product she sold, multiplies that by one dollar and writes a check from Makeup America! to the U.S. Department of Treasury Bureau of Fiscal Services with a note in the memo line that states “contribution to pay down the U.S. national debt.”

The company celebrated its one-year anniversary in February 2018 and has been featured in articles in Cosmopolitan, Allure and product placement on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. She is also in discussions with the Home Shopping Network and most recently, provided gift baskets at an event for the U.S. Olympic Committee. The products are available online and in boutiques in Michigan and Virginia.


Lauren Stahl MFA ’12 Solves the Mystery of Writing a Successful Thriller

By Samantha Stanich

After beginning her professional career as a prosecutor, Lauren Stahl MFA ‘12 took a page from her own life when she wrote her first novel. The result is The Devil’s Song, published in January by Kaylie Jones Books, an imprint of Akashic Books.

“I was able to draw on my experiences as a former prosecutor,” she says. “I’ve been in the throes of a criminal trial, worked with detectives, I’ve attended autopsies – I’ve worked cases where the facts were stranger than fiction.”

Stahl’s experiences jumped off the pages as her writing successfully took readers into her days as a prosecutor, in the person of her protagonist, assistant director attorney Kate Magda. On the day of publication, Jan. 2, 2018, the book broke the top 50 in Amazon’s Kindle/Mystery, Thriller and Suspense bestsellers category and broke 100 in paperback book sales. Within two days of publication, the book sold out on the online bookseller. The thriller then headed into a second printing, just one month after its first publication, all because Stahl wrote what she knew best: the law.

“I think it is fair to say as writers, we take what we know and then expand on it,” she says. “That expansion is where our characters truly come to life.”

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Lauren Stahl MFA ’12 signs copies of her novel at her New York City book launch. Photo courtesy of Kaylie Jones Books

The twists and turns of The Devil’s Song grab the reader’s attention not only because of Stahl’s suspenseful writing but also because she has lived parts of the life of her main character. Magda is a prosecutor in Pennsylvania who is the lead counsel on a series of murders in the community. The character is also the daughter of a powerful local judge.

“There are admittedly a few things Kate and I have in common,” Stahl says. “Like Kate, my father was the county’s president judge when I was in the DA’s Office, her choice in music is similar to mine, and the fact she is somewhat obsessed – okay, really obsessed – with her giant dog, all mirror my own life, but the similarities mostly end there. In the end, she is very much her own character,” she says.

All the success of the book seems surreal to Stahl, but she isn’t through with trying to win the case.

“It was a true ‘pinch me’ moment,” she says. “Kate Magda isn’t through telling us her story. I am about halfway through writing the second book.”

Stahl may not have started out as a writer, but according to her, she has “been a writer my entire life,” and she credits Wilkes University’s Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing for taking her writing to the next level.

“Whether it was a short story, a journal entry, or really bad poetry, I was always writing,” Stahl says. “But it wasn’t until I entered the Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Creative Writing Program that I began to take my writing seriously or thought I could actually pull off writing a novel.”