1. Archive

New director brings varied background to cancer center

Published Sep. 28, 2005

(ran PC edition of PT)

John Fiengo is not afraid of tears.

On his first day establishing a county program to help cocaine-addicted babies, Fiengo found himself rocking one of the new patients while the medical center's staff set up the child's equipment.

"My baby shook, I shook. She cried, I cried," he recalled of the experience. "It was the most frightening three hours of my life."

That was more than 10 years ago at Tampa United Methodist Centers.

He considers his new position as executive director of the Children's Cancer Center the job of his life, and he certainly has lived a wealth of careers for comparison.

During the past 51 years, this resident of Lutz's Windemere subdivision has been at times a seminary student, a basketball coach, a pianist, a professor, a jai alai player and a fund-raiser.

At the Children's Cancer Center, Fiengo said he knows the job will entail heartache as he tries to gather community support for sick children, but he's ready. The Children's Cancer Center is a Tampa support organization for children battling cancer, and it has wings in several area hospitals.

"Could there possibly be a better cause than a 7-year-old girl with cancer?" Fiengo said.

"Absolutely not. This is me. One little person involves family, neighborhoods. We're going to get them through this."

The youngest of three children in his Hartford, Conn., family, Fiengo attended Catholic school while growing up, and the religious life almost became his role. "My sister had just become a nun," he said, "and they (his parents) had me pegged as a priest."

That idea soon faded when he began bringing girlfriends home from Saint Leo College in San Antonio, Fla., he said. "The monk's sedentary life wasn't for me."

The experience did teach him how to play the organ _ he played every morning for 5 a.m. mass _ and later he used the talent to play the piano at Shakey's Pizza and the organ on a cruise line for college jobs.

It also led to a two-year stint as one of the first Americans to play jai alai. "A priest saw me playing tennis one day," he said, "and told me, "I have a sport for you.' "

It was 1970, and Fiengo said he was shocked that all of the jai alai players were from other countries.

"You can't tell me that with all their sports, Americans can't adapt to this game," he recalled saying at the time, so he decided to show it could be done, winning games and later, tournaments.

A series of coaching and teaching jobs led him back to Saint Leo after graduation, and an offer that would change his life.

"Our library was virtually falling apart at the seams, and one day the president of the college called me in and said, "I don't know why, but I think you would make a pretty good beggar.' "

Fiengo took on the task, and with the help of others, spearheaded a fund-raising drive that brought in more than $1-million dollars for the college.

"That's when I found my calling," he said: fund-raising.

He credits part of his success at the role to tenacity and his competitive spirit.

"I never took a loss very well," he said. "I'm best at putting on the boxing gloves, getting out in the community and getting that money, no holds barred."