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Father, son Gessners share St. Vincent College commencement limelight

| Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, 10:40 p.m.
Dr. Thomas Gessner, president of the Latrobe Hospital Charitable Foundation, hugs his son, Christopher, president of Children’s Hospital, after receiving an honorary doctorate Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at St. Vincent College.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Dr. Thomas Gessner, president of the Latrobe Hospital Charitable Foundation, hugs his son, Christopher, president of Children’s Hospital, after receiving an honorary doctorate Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at St. Vincent College.
Dr. Thomas Gessner, president of the Latrobe Hospital Charitable Foundation, receives an honorary doctorate on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at St. Vincent College.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Dr. Thomas Gessner, president of the Latrobe Hospital Charitable Foundation, receives an honorary doctorate on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at St. Vincent College.
Christopher Gessner, president of Children’s Hospital, poses for a portrait with his father, Dr. Thomas Gessner, president of the Latrobe Hospital Charitable Foundation, on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at St. Vincent College.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Christopher Gessner, president of Children’s Hospital, poses for a portrait with his father, Dr. Thomas Gessner, president of the Latrobe Hospital Charitable Foundation, on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at St. Vincent College.
Christopher Gessner, president of Children’s Hospital, gives his commencement speech on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at St. Vincent College.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Christopher Gessner, president of Children’s Hospital, gives his commencement speech on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at St. Vincent College.

St. Vincent College and medicine course through the veins of Dr. Thomas Gessner and his son Christopher.

The elder Gessner, a pediatrician, graduated from St. Vincent in 1964, while his son, president of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, took summer courses there between semesters at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

The pair shared the stage this month at St. Vincent's commencement. Thomas Gessner, 72, received an honorary doctorate in science, and Christopher Gessner, 49, gave the event's keynote speech.

Brother Norman Hipps, president of St. Vincent, said health care served as a kind of umbrella for the commencement ceremony that highlighted the Gessners and the first graduating class of students earning their doctor of nurse anesthesia practice.

“It's a little overwhelming,” Thomas Gessner said before the ceremony. “I think it's a testament to be able to give back to your roots in education.”

A passion for education has driven Gessner's involvement in state and national organizations, including the American Board of Pediatrics, the American Board of Family Medicine and the Governor's Advisory Council on Maternal and Child Health.

“The common theme through all that has been continuing education of physicians in one way or another,” he said.

Gessner has worked as an assistant professor and staff member at West Virginia University Medical Center, the University of Pittsburgh and Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

He serves as president of the Latrobe Area Hospital Charitable Foundation and on St. Vincent's board of directors.

“You taught aspiring doctors so that the same dedication to all aspects of patient care was passed to future generations,” Hipps said as he presented the honorary degree. “You continue to serve your profession, community and alma mater in a remarkably generous number of ways today.”

Christopher Gessner said his father's degree is “well-deserved.”

“He's a doctor, but first and foremost, he's an educator,” Gessner said of his father. “We all need great mentors, and one of mine has been around all my life.”

Gessner said he “was both flattered and surprised” when the college asked him to give the commencement address.

“St. Vincent is in my blood. I grew up 20 minutes from here,” he said, referring to his childhood home in Ligonier.

In his speech, Gessner offered graduates his advice on how to be a top performer, no matter their field of study:

• Don't take yourself too seriously. Learn to balance arrogance and humility. Be confident enough to take action, but know when to ask for help.

• Learn to excel in group projects. Effective leaders know how to balance the strengths of each group member while keeping common obstacles — egos, politics and turf battles — at bay.

• Be an effective communicator by listening intently, maintaining eye contact and breaking complex topics into understandable pieces.

• Be “gritty.” And not gritty like “John Wayne, but more like Mother Teresa. Understand what your constituency wants, persevere and “cherish the struggle” to solve complicated problems.

“Go ‘all in' on tackling the biggest obstacle that stands between you and your goal, and once you've conquered that challenge, go after the next one,” Gessner told graduates. “Going through life's toughest tests is the path to maximizing your potential ... and having a significant impact on this world.”

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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