Ron Rizzuto, in 2019, and in a 1985 photograph from the University archives.

It seems everyone who met Ron Rizzuto in the classroom has a story about him outside of it.

For Tad Yo (MBA 1994), it was a nudge toward an internship that led to a 15-year career at Time Warner Cable. For June Travis (MBA 1978), an education that raised her game and elevated her entire office. For David R. Duncan (MBA 1994), it was the business plan that developed into his collection of wineries.

“His influence was the seed of the vine that grew into where we are today. In my mind, that’s unquestionable,” said Duncan, the proprietor, chairman and CEO of Silver Oak Cellars and Twomey. “Like thousands of other DU students, Ron had a profound effect on the way I look at the world.”

Thousands is no exaggeration.

During his 49 years at the University of Denver’s business school (nameless, when he was hired), the Daniels College of Business and the Reiman School of Finance, it is estimated that Rizzuto has personally interviewed more than 5,000 students. His goal is to understand what they are interested in, where they want to be and—if possible—how he can help get them there.

Mind over matter

About 70 miles southeast of Pueblo is Rizzuto’s hometown of La Junta, Colorado. About 8,000 people lived in the quiet town, but Rizzuto grew up in the hustle and bustle of a family business. His dad’s wholesale candy and tobacco business was all-consuming and left no time for vacations.

With a PhD from NYU, teaching would become his career. He arrived at the University of Denver in 1976, where he would solidify his expertise in corporate mergers, strategic partnerships and acquisitions—especially in the cable industry.

Plus, he would meet an economics professor named Katherine Freeman, who became his wife and rock as he balanced personal and professional life. Even so, staying at DU long term was not part of the plan.

“I figured that I would be here a few years, sort of get the lay of the land, see if I liked it, Rizzuto said. “I found each year, you got more interested; you got new projects and things to work on. I developed some real research interests, but working with students, teaching, cultivating them, seeing them grow and progress—I think that was the good part.”

Ron Rizzuto delivers a lecture in 2016.

Kindness in the classroom

Rizzuto loved teaching—and his students loved him back. His classes certainly weren’t easy, but his pupils remember his tranquility, empathy and humor.

“Finance is not my strong suit, to say the least, and he was very, very encouraging and patient,” said June Travis, who was one of the first to graduate from a Daniels Executive MBA program. “We had to write a big paper at the end of class and his comments back were that I didn’t quite get all of the financial facts quite right, but that they were expressed beautifully. That’s what made him special. He encouraged you, even if you weren’t getting everything.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in the one-on-one interviews he has conducted with every student in his classes for at least the last decade.

“You pick up some things as you go around the classroom,” Rizzuto explained, “but there’s no substitute for just saying, ‘Tell us about yourself. How did you get here? What are you looking at doing? Do you have a job? Can we help you?’”

In so many cases, the answer is yes. Whether it’s through independent study, continuing education, classroom lecture or office hours, Rizzuto is always finding ways to help.

“Ron is a truly master teacher,” said Randy Lewis, an adjunct faculty member who has co-taught classes with Rizzuto for 20 years. “His ability to facilitate students’ learning is almost unequalled. Couple that with his interest in knowing and supporting his students and you have a truly extraordinary member of the Daniels faculty who has delivered generations of top performers to our community.”

Rizzuto has raised the bar for faculty too, Lewis said. At every turn, he has encouraged growth and experimentation. It opened the door for Lewis to write cases that have become part of the national curriculum for several organizations.

For 17 years, Rizzuto led the Chinese Executive Media Management Program, which offered lessons in the U.S. industry and regulatory structure.

Rizzuto hasn’t been afraid to push the envelope either. During his career at DU he has designed curriculum for MBA programs, founded an entrepreneurship program and facilitated the Chinese Executive Media Management program—a partnership with John Sié that has upskilled the country’s media executives and public officials.

He’s done it all with an eye toward professional success.

“Because I think an important part of what we do is, obviously, we teach,” Rizzuto said, “but we also have to help students launch their careers—find internships, cultivate a network for them.”

Connecting students to career opportunities

When DU presented Rizzuto with its Faculty Career Champion Lifetime Achievement Award, students, faculty, advisors and career coaches all testified to his ardor for excellence beyond graduation day.

He understands what the industry is looking for, and what roles students are looking for, they said in a video honoring his achievement. He’s never afraid to lean into his network, engage and forge connections. And he’s always willing to share his leads with career services offices across campus.

“Whether his advice and support led them to Wall Street, to the telecom and tech industry, or to corporate banking or financial services, Ron’s tireless mentorship made a huge difference in students’ lives,” said Bob Kumagai, executive director of Daniels Career Services.

Rizzuto craves connections, however they present themselves. He has set countless students up with those he has met in the industry over the years. His Rolodex is full of alumni and corporate contacts. And he doesn’t limit himself to the business world.

When an alum’s daughter was interested in attending the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, for example, Rizzuto talked with her and set her up with those he knows across campus. When he realized that a freshman in the Department of Business Information Analytics was the grandson of someone he knew, Rizzuto took them to lunch.

A personal touch

Much of Rizzuto’s success can be attributed to the personal relationships he has developed over the years.

His planner is packed with phone calls, lunch meetings and dinner dates. With Ron, so many say, it’s personal.

“The key is the fact that he’s a good human being, someone you want to reach out to to say hello or just catch up,” said Tad Yo. “Even now, as I reach the twilight of my career, I still seek his advice and counsel at times, when I have issues related to my career or when I need to be introduced to someone.”

Ron Rizzuto, second from right, dines with five students from the first MS in Finance program, who graduated in 1997.

Rizzuto estimates he keeps in touch with hundreds of students, maintaining a relationship for years, even decades after they graduate.

David R. Duncan is committed to continuing that legacy. He has helped establish the Ron Rizzuto Student Opportunity Fund, which will support a broad range of causes. Students may receive stipends to help them attended professional development conferences or simply make ends meet while they complete an internship. Some money may also be directed to the student finance club and course development.

Ultimately, Duncan said, the fund is designed to represent Rizzuto’s kindness, humility and empathy.

“I think Ron represents such a great part of what DU is today, Duncan said. “Obviously there’s been a lot of people who have created a lot of good things at DU, but Ron is a wonderful avatar of what the university can be—and is to me.”

As he steps away from campus, Rizzuto is once again focused on personal relationships—only this time, they are even more centered around his family. He expects to log plenty of miles visiting his eight grandchildren, celebrating the milestones that sometimes conflicted with the academic calendar. He’ll be taking Spanish lessons, to better communicate with his son, daughter-in-law and grandchild in Peru. And he’ll be learning to swim, a skill that eluded him to this point.

After 49 years, a new routine will take some getting used to, Rizzuto admits. He will miss his colleagues and the campus, but he expects to stay involved. Maybe by teaching an odd course, maybe through some informal counseling.

He may be “graduating” from a successful tenure on campus but, like he has demonstrated with so many alumni, his relationship is likely here to stay.

Donate to the Ron Rizzuto Student Opportunity Fund

The Ron Rizzuto Student Opportunity Fund honors Ron’s legacy by embracing his values: elevating leadership, promoting mentorship and celebrating purpose. This fund will support a broad portfolio of experiences that will bolster student resumes and equip them to launch successful careers.
Learn more and donate