If Carlos B. Castillo ’88 ever doubted the impact his friend and mentor Dean John F. Stack Jr. had on his students, he realized it fully when he arrived at the 2011 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg with Stack at his side.
As they approached the FIU alumni tent at Tropicana Field, Stack was swamped by current and former students who wanted to say hello, shake his hand and say thank you.
“It really was an incredible thing to see,’’ said Castillo, a former assistant U.S. attorney who has served as FIU’s general counsel since 2016, a move he discussed with Stack, who he first met as a teenager in high school. “I told him he was a rock star. He didn’t like me saying that, but he was definitely a rock star at that football game.”
Stack, founding dean of the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, passed away June 23 at the age of 71 after a career at FIU that spanned nearly five decades.
More than any academic achievements of his own, which were substantial, he often said he was most proud of his students, many of whom went on to top-level jobs in government, law and politics.
“Our students come from all over the hemisphere, and many have overcome multiple challenges to be here,” Stack said in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine in 2020. “They have come to make something of themselves, and there is a fire in their belly. They have grit and determination and continue to push themselves once they graduate and pursue their careers.”
His former students say it was Stack who helped instill that grit and that “fire in the belly.”
“The biggest thing he taught me was to believe in yourself,’’ said Chris Cummins ’16, an FIU Model United Nations head delegate who now serves as legislative and policy director at the Ferguson Group in Washington, D.C. “He embedded that in all of us. You always left Dr. Stack feeling encouraged and spurred on to do more.”
An expert in constitutional and administrative law, Stack taught future judges, legislators, prosecutors and Congressional staffers, as well as others who went on to lead top U.S. agencies and private law firms. Most kept in touch with him through the years, calling on him for guidance or advice on major professional or personal decisions.
“He took me under his wing when I was just a 19-year-old punk and, two decades later, I can't think of a single major life decision I've made without first discussing it with him,’’ said Clayton Solomon ’05, a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice in D.C. who also served on Stack’s dean’s advisory council.
"The first person I called when I heard the news was my mother, who adores John,” added Solomon, who said his mother maintained a years-long correspondence with the dean. “He's family. He leaves behind an incredible legacy at FIU and in the students who he inspired to work for the public good."
The Hon. Barbara Lagoa, a U.S. Circuit Judge who was the first Hispanic woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Florida, graduated from FIU in 1989 and has remained a life-long friend of the dean’s.
“Professor John Stack was one of a kind,’’ she said. “He cared deeply about his students. He taught us to think critically and to broaden our horizons. His mentorship was life-changing for so many of the students, including me, who had the privilege to learn from him. He made us realize that we had unlimited opportunities, and without his mentorship, we would not have achieved the dreams that he inspired in us. I will miss him greatly.”
Eliot Pedrosa ’95, an attorney in Miami who recently served as executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank, attributed his decision to pursue a career in law to his time spent debating issues in Stack’s constitutional law class.
“John inspired me in so many ways, and he profoundly shaped my life. I found my passion for the law in his class,’’ said Pedrosa, who also met his late wife Nilda in Stack’s class. “John was a mentor and a friend to both of us. He cared about us, encouraged us, helped us and offered us advice. Without John’s impact, my life would look nothing like it does. I truly owe him my career. And I’ll miss him.”
Brian Fonseca, director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, which Stack founded 30 years ago, said the dean was a “dear friend and mentor” who made him a better leader and a better person.
“Not long after I took the lead of the Gordon Institute, John and I had a serious disagreement on something related to the institute,’’ said Fonseca, who also was a student of Stack’s, taking his graduate international politics course a few years ago.
“Forty-five minutes into the discussion, John lowered his voice, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You may be a Marine, but I am the dean. He then cracked a smile and kicked me out of his office. That phrase, “You may be a Marine, but I am the dean,” was his way of saying no in subsequent years and became our inside joke. But he always said it with a smile and from the heart. In the end, he was absolutely right and it made me a better leader.”
Eddie Hondal '88 MS '00 described Stack as a “kindred spirit” who was “all about the students.”
“That was what drove him in everything he did, including his dogged determination to fight for an FIU law school,’’ said Hondal, a former FIU alumni director and two-term alumni association president who served with Stack and Castillo on FIU’s College of Law initiative. “He knew how much a private law school education cost, and he was determined to provide another option for our students.”
Beyond that dogged determination, another quality often mentioned by former students – the dean’s robust sense of humor.
“He called things as he saw them,’’ said Castillo. “I often teased him that his bark was louder than his bite. He could debate you and analyze things through multiple lenses but then he’d shake hands and share a laugh with you.”
Cummins, who bonded with the dean after he showed his professor how to tie a bow tie, said Stack “gave his all for his students,” most recently penning a letter of recommendation for Cummins to attend George Washington University, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration.
“Every step along the way, he’s been there with his wisdom and insight,’’ said Cummins. “We had a lot of great moments and a lot of laughs. It’s a huge loss.”