The man he's become
“He’s not getting better. . .”
Sitting in front of the radiologist, a 19-year-old David Dini didn’t want to accept the doctor’s words. But the circumstance was getting harder and harder to deny — Dini’s best friend, Robert Iglesias, may never wake up.
Six months earlier, Dini and Iglesias had just received their diplomas from Strake Jesuit High School in Houston, the city where they were born and raised. And like they had done almost every weekend and summer in high school, Dini and Iglesias headed straight for Pirate’s Beach in Galveston.
The area was so familiar to them that they even had their own route for water skiing — first they’d ski through the open waters of Pirate’s Cove, then through a 60-yard-wide canal before heading back to the house.
Days after arriving, Dini and the Iglesias family all hopped in a boat, ready to take turns skiing through the canal — just like they had all done hundreds of times before.
Dini skied first and lifted himself back onto the boat, handing his best friend the rope.
He then situated himself at the wheel and received the signal to push the throttle forward.
The cold Galveston waters splashed everyone on the boat as Dini drove over to the canal they were all so familiar with.
What Dini and the Iglesias family didn’t know was that there was another boat at the end of the canal. A boat that was coming straight towards Dini and Iglesias’s vehicle.
But Dini couldn’t see over the bow.
Dini yelled at the approaching boat — You’re on our side of the canal!
Robert Iglesias was skiing through a bend in the canal, so he couldn’t see the oncoming boat until it was too late — when he cut across the wake, he immediately saw the boat coming straight at him.
Dini watched in horror as the boat went straight at his best friend.
On June 17, 1984, Robert Iglesias was checked into John Sealy Hospital with severe head injuries and a coma that would last fourteen years.
And all Dini could do was watch.
After a year in the hospital, the Iglesias family moved Robert out of the hospital and into their home, outfitting his room with hospital-like capabilities, making it easier for visitors to see him.
Dini’s mother, Jeanne, was one of those visitors.
She saw the tragedy unfold around her and decided she needed to do something. So, for years after the accident, Jeanne Dini would visit Iglesias on Wednesday afternoons. She would sit at his bedside, hold his hand and read to him for hours on end.
“She had gone every week and read to Robert when nobody else was coming,” Dini said. “...I remember going with her many times, but people were really intimidated when they go to see him because it’s hard.”
Dini will always admire his mom’s efforts and be grateful for all the hours spent by his friend’s bedside. But it became harder and harder for him to visit Iglesias with his mom, to put the accident behind him, to move on — like all his friends did.
And while adjusting to a new life at Southern Methodist University (SMU), it became clear the experience would have a lasting impact.
“Those kinds of things — all the different aspects of that experience — they just shape who you are,” he said.
But not even the college environment gave Dini the needed escape from the horror of tragedy.
Since the boating accident, Dini wasn’t working. In fact, he wasn’t doing much of anything.
He started to gain weight, stopped studying. He even deactivated from his fraternity, Phi Delta, soon after joining.
He became self-destructive, depressed.
“My life didn’t really move on,” Dini said. “My priorities started changing too. I started seeing the world in a very different way.”
But then, unexpectedly, his dad snapped him back to reality, meeting downtown at the Metropolitan Club to discuss Dini’s life.
Dini remembers the lunch like it was yesterday.
He and his father sat on the second floor of the restaurant, overlooking the tennis courts and workout facilities beneath them.
Initially, Dini thought it was just a typical lunch with Dad.
But that’s when Richard Dini sat him down.
I know it’s been a hard time for you, but what you are doing in school is unacceptable. You either get your act in gear, or you’re out of school.
Dini couldn’t believe what his dad was saying — how could he come down on me like that? Doesn’t he know my best friend still hasn’t woken up?
But in hindsight, Dini knew his dad was absolutely right.
“[My dad] challenged me in a time when I needed to be challenged,” Dini said. “. . . because I was just self-loathing.”
So, after he graduated from SMU, he started feeling the same confusion as he had before — what do I do with the rest of my life now?
Dini thought about becoming a lawyer, because that was “something to do,” but it was just a default. In reality, he didn’t have a clue on what he wanted to do.
But again, his dad helped show him the way. And according to Richard, the path was simply to go to work.
“You need to get a job while you are thinking… go work at a restaurant,” his dad told him.
So he did. Dini began waiting tables at the original Pappadeaux restaurant on Westheimer Road in Houston, paying homage to his family’s history of owning seafood restaurants —Dini’s grandfather owned Dini’s Sea Grill for 64 years.
The restaurant business has always been important to the Dini family. But after eight months at Pappadeaux, Dini realized there might be more to life than taking food orders and busing tables.
“My dad certainly instilled in me from an early age that you should really focus on serving other people, and that should be first and foremost in your mind at all times,” Dini said. “And working in a restaurant, you really get that. You see that, really in living color.”
So, once again, Dini’s dad offered inspiration.
Dini had seen his father act as a servant leader throughout his life. For years, Richard Dini had worked in the development office at Rice University, and years later, he went on his own, forming Dini Spheris — a company which raised funds for nonprofit organizations like schools, museums and hospitals.
And as a result of his dad, Dini started to become service-minded too.
He fell into a career in education development, just like his dad.
Dini started to look like a new man.
At the age of 27, Dini called Denver, CO home.
Just two years earlier, he married his wife, Nancy, and moved to help run a fundraising campaign at Graland Country Day School near Denver, where he was the Director of Development.
But Dini’s work in educational development actually started two years earlier when he worked alongside John Cooper, founder of fellow SPC institution John Cooper School.
“I learned a great deal from him,” Dini said. “That was a real inspiring time. We worked to kind of put in place some foundational elements [for the school].”
When he worked at Graland, Dini was in the middle of an $8 million fundraising campaign when he — totally unexpected — received a call from a school in Texas.
“Our search fell through…,” St. Mark’s consultant Linc Eldredge said.
St. Mark’s was looking for a new head of Development and Alumni Relations, and former Headmaster Arnie Holtberg was reaching out to Dini through Eldredge.
After agreeing to consider the job, Dini met Eldredge in a busy Colorado airport’s Admirals Club.
They sat down to talk, and the next words Dini heard Eldredge say would change the trajectory of his life.
“I think you need to come down and interview,” he said.
Upon arriving at 10600 Preston Road for the interview, Dini remembers eating lunch with Holtberg.
Dini watched, fascinated, as he interacted personally with the Marksmen, calling each boy by his first name. By the end of his visit, Dini knew this was the kind of community he wanted to be a part of.
So in 1994, he moved back to Texas and took the job.
From the start, he knew there were high expectations for him. As a new headmaster, Holtberg had lofty goals — and he was counting on the relatively unknown 27-year-old to help get him there.
Fortunately, Holtberg’s instinct was good: just seven years after moving to St. Mark’s, Dini completed a $52 million campaign for the school — over six times more than his last campaign in Colorado.
“I certainly wouldn't be sitting here and don’t think I would’ve ever become a school head if it weren’t for that chain of events happening,” Dini said.
May 20, 2016
Dini was in his second year as Eugene McDermott headmaster, and today would bring the academic year to a close.
It’s Commencement for the Class of 2016, and Dini knew it would be a big night for the seniors who soon would be walking across that graduation stage.
By 3 p.m., Dini’s already assisted in the rehearsal, the ceremony’s preparations. So for the next activity of the afternoon, he was in the chapel.
Class sponsors Stephen Balog and J.T. Sutcliffe sat with him in the back of chapel as they watched Senior Class President Philip Montgomery and valedictorian Akshay Malhotra practice their speeches on the altar.
Other than the five of them, the chapel was empty.
But then, Dini heard the chapel’s double doors fly open, and turned to look.
His wife, Nancy, was rushing through the back of the chapel, and Dini noticed right away she had the something-is-wrong look on her face.
“I need to talk to you,” she said.
The two stepped out and walked into a side room in the chapel for some privacy.
“It’s your dad...” she began to say.
Dini was nervous. Alarmed, as he puts it.
“He’s had a heart attack.”
Dini began to process the information — A heart attack doesn’t mean death, a heart attack could just mean he’s in the hospital...
But the worst came into Dini’s head.
It took time before his wife was able to tell Dini what he didn’t want to hear.
“Did he not make it?” Dini asked.
Shock, devastation and sadness filled the room as tears began to form behind Dini’s eyes.
“No,” Nancy said.
Dini tried to process the information again. But he couldn’t. His dad was a vibrant and healthy man — and he was perfectly fit.
It just didn’t make any sense.
The tears were at full force now as Dini sat speechless in the chapel restroom. Nancy gave him more details: his dad was just out for a walk, and that’s when it happened.
But it was the afternoon of graduation, and Dini’s day was nowhere near finished.
Dini and his wife headed straight to the headmaster’s house behind Centennial Hall. No need to stop at the office.
When they got there, they took a seat out on the back porch, and talked.
Dini’s day wasn’t close to being over — he still had to host the Commencement speaker, Jbeau Lewis ’98, and his family for dinner at the headmaster’s house before the ceremony. Caterers were already setting up for the meal.
And Dini still had to hand diplomas to the men in white tuxedos later that night — a group of men he had grown to love in the two years he’s served as headmaster.
But family has always been there for Dini, so he knew someone needed to be there for his mom.
Nancy and Dini sat on the porch, thinking about what to do next and talking to his mom on the phone.
Dini’s brother, Mark, was in California. And a nephew who Dini was close to was out of town.
Although he wanted to get in the car and head straight down I-45, the 200 miles to Houston, he knew today was a special night for another family he’s grown to love over the past 22 years of his life — his school family.
And for the Marksmen family that has always been there for him, he only wanted the best.
“It’s graduation — you really want it to be special, and that only happens once,” Dini said. “It’s like, you go through senior year together and you’ve known boys, and you want to be there and you want to be present. You want to participate in that.”
Once Dini’s nephew told him on the phone that could go down to Houston to be with Jeanne, Dini could make the decision.
“I’ll be down there later tonight,” Dini told his mom on the phone.
The plan was to be there for both Commencement and his mom that night — handing out diplomas and then quickly leaving the schools grounds and making the three and a half hour drive to Houston.
The only people who knew what Dini was going through were his wife and Associate Headmaster John Ashton. That’s the way Dini wanted it.
“People made kind of a big deal about the fact that I was here for graduation and not there, but it wasn’t that way at all,” Dini said. “That was part of the reason I didn’t leave — because I didn’t want it to be a big deal. I wanted it to just be graduation — and it was.”
As one would imagine, the dinner was really hard for him — hard to park his emotions and not get distracted. And it didn’t get easier by the time he walked onto the graduation stage and took a seat where everyone could see him.
But Ashton — his good friend of many years — was sitting right next to Dini on the stage. He was there for him and would get him through the night.
By the time the last senior walked across the stage, Dini was almost done. He was almost able to let his emotions go.
It’s just about 9:30 p.m. when Dini finally stepped off the stage. He went straight to his car and drove to see his mother.
Today, David Dini would give anything to have his father back.
But somehow he doesn’t torment himself about it.
On June 28, 1998, Robert Iglesias passed away after spending 14 years in that coma.
And although Dini’s initial college days were plagued with depression after the accident, he learned something from losing a friend at such an early age — he learned never to take anything for granted.
Sure, Dini hated to lose his dad and wishes they could have more time together. He misses his Italian mannerisms, the warm embraces as greetings. And he misses the elaborate conversations they used to have.
But because Iglesias taught him to never to take things for granted, Dini had already told both his dad and mom everything that needed to be said.
“I want you to know how I feel about you,” Dini had told his dad earlier. “So if something happens and we don’t have a chance to have this conversation intentionally, I don’t want to leave anything to chance.”
And today, eight months after his death, Richard Dini still influences Dini’s everyday life.
“I feel a great sense of responsibility and pride in who he was and the way he lived his life,” Dini said. “And I feel a responsibility to live up to that example everyday.”
Dini loves his family — his wife and four kids. But he’s self-critical when it comes to being a parent, always comparing himself to his father.
“My life’s work is demanding,” he said. “And there are times when it causes me to compromise. My dad was always home pretty early, he was at every game and he always managed to balance that really well. I always admired that and I don’t think I’ve done that as well as I would’ve liked.”
But visiting the headmaster’s residence, you see otherwise. You see his family joking around with each other — joking about how long it takes for his daughters to get ready and how serious the oldest son, Thomas, looks while sitting in the family’s den.
The love is obvious. Family really is the greatest part of his life.
And it makes sense, because family’s always been there for Dini.
His mom and dad. His wife and kids. His school, Marksmen and the people he sees everyday.
“Obviously I’m the product of my surroundings like anyone else,” Dini said. “I was blessed to have a great family, great parents — loving and supporting parents who are great role models and inspiration for me as a young person and as an adult…. And then I’ve been blessed to have my own family too. I’ve had a phenomenal wife who’s been a great partner for now more than 25 years. And we’ve been lucky to have four great kids...”
Sitting in the headmaster’s office, it feels like it’s all worked out in the end for Dini. But when asked what makes him the man — the servant leader, the loving husband and devoted father — he is today, Dini gives an answer that seems like a hundred different moving parts.
But when you get to the heart of it all, his answer has one place where it all starts from, something in his life that’s constant.
“I’ve had incredible professional opportunities,” he said. “I've had the chance to work with great people, great educators, great teachers, and to be around great kids throughout my adult life. All those experiences have I think in many ways shaped the person I’ve become. But I mean, it really starts with family.”