Distinguished Alumni

Distinguished Alumni

There has long been a tradition in the Ivy League, the land-grant universities, and many private colleges to award honorary degrees to their distinguished alumni and others who have made significant contributions to knowledge or to individual institutions for scholarships, professorships, and physical plant. Distinguished alumni have been honored by building, room, and program namesakes. Each commencement season, the news media carry stories of the honors bestowed upon those who have added distinction to the academic world in some way.

In general, institutions have awarded honorary degrees that roughly correspond to the highest degrees awarded in established programs, often changing only the name of the degree. An Ivy League university might give a doctorate in letters while another might award master’s degrees in various fields. However, it is common in the small private college field to award master’s or doctoral honorary degrees even though the bachelor’s degree is the highest earned degree offered. Thus, a small private college or some larger institution might give only an honorary master’s degree even if they have several doctoral programs.

In state colleges and universities, which have evolved from normal schools to state teachers colleges to state universities, there has been no tradition of honoring graduates who have achieved distinction. With the great growth in enrollment and programs after World War II, these institutions began to change. The usual direction was to make a distinguished alumnus/alumna award rather than an honorary doctorate.

The new awareness came to UW-River Falls with the same tide of affairs that brought the establishment of alumni chapters, the Foundation, and the awarding of liberal arts, agriculture, and education degrees. The faculty committee, which was wrestling with the problem of establishing local alumni chapters, first expressed concern on this point. The minutes of that committee for April 14, 1959 thus recorded:

Recognition of an outstanding alumnus should be considered by this group. Perhaps have the chapters nominate candidates for recognition. Could it be done this year? Wayne Wolfe to present the idea to President Kleinpell.

One week later the Alumni Committee recorded the next step:

President Kleinpell asked Wolfe to have the committee set up criteria and make recommendations for the award this year. Also we need not limit ourselves to the class of 1909 (or the 50th anniversary class).

The committee then proceeded to establish criteria for selecting the first distinguished alumnus/alumna, listing these requirements:

  1. Personal accomplishments in their field.
  2. Civic responsibility and contribution to the community.
  3. Continuing interest in the college.

A month later, the committee added a fourth criterion: "Highest integrity in professional, public, and personal relations," and placed four names in nomination.

The committee wrote to a number of alumni and other friends seeking information on the accomplishments of these graduates, and then nominated Dean Smith as the first to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award at the June Commencement, 1959.

In the ensuing years the committee invited nominations from the alumni and annually selected one person to be honored at commencement. This tradition was interrupted in 1967 for the first time when the award was made not only to LeRoy Luberg (1930) but also to Melvin Wall (1936) who had recently lost his life on an educational mission in South Vietnam. Since 1969, two alumni have been selected each year except in 1973, 1982, and 1983 when three were chosen and in 1977 when four were honored.  Since 1986, the committee has selected one alumnus/alumna each year for the award, reinstating the tradition established in the award’s inception.

The committee has always had a dozen or more nominations for consideration. It has conscientiously evaluated the achievements of each one, and though all of them deserved the Distinguished Alumnus Award, has made its selection after much discussion and by the secret ballot. Their frustrations came from the problem of choosing a candidate who may have achieved great distinction elsewhere but has never shown "continuing interest in the college”; deciding between a graduate at the peak of his/her career and one who has retired; or between one who contributed much to the college over many years but has only a modest business or professional reputation. Despite these problems, the list of distinguished alumni represent the best who have walked through these halls as students-each one having won distinction in his or her unique way. Astute and observing professors might well have predicted when these alumni were students that some day they would make their mark upon the world. All were good students; their colleagues may have elected them to office, and they may have distinguished themselves in extra-curricular activities.

The careers of these distinguished alumni have developed from the teacher preparation and academic base provided by this institution and are varied areas such as agriculture, aviation, business, dentistry, education, law, medicine, government service, nuclear and biophysics research, and other specialized areas. A number have had careers teaching on university campuses, writing books, and advancing the frontiers of knowledge in numerous fields.

It is difficult to judge all the factors that led to the selection of individual alumni for this award.  It seems evident that in addition to their professional contributions in their respective fields, their continued interest in campus life through scholarships and other enrichments have been factors.  Civic contributions have also played a role.  Chancellor Gary Thibodeau said it well when he remarked that these alumni are distinguished because "they made a difference."

As mentioned previously, nominations for the Distinguished Alumnus Award are made by former students and faculty. Information about each nominee is collected by the Director of Development and Alumni Relations, and copies are presented to the Alumni Committee, which is composed of both students and faculty. After initial discussion on the process, each member is asked to independently rank the nominees and submit their ranking to the committee chair. After votes are tallied, a meeting is held to discuss those candidates who have received the most votes. Only one distinguished alumnus is forwarded to the Chancellor for consideration. Unlike past years, only one distinguished alumnus/alumna is voted into the Hall of Fame each year.

The committee recognizes that there will always be more distinguished alumni from the thousands of former students than can ever be recognized.  Those chosen are distinguished through their many years of university, civic, and professional contributions.  It seems certain that they have done what the UW-River Falls pledge song says, "add just a gem/to shine forever in thy diadem."

Walker Wyman

Walker D. Wyman

Foreword from the book

It is not uncommon among U.S. institutions of higher learning to find in some prominent place a gallery of distinguished alumni with name and date of graduation. Faculty, students, and visitors who pass by may wonder what the distinguished alumni did to be honored. If one were to go to the library, it is doubtful that an answer could be found. Working through the alumni records might reveal the answer, though requiring considerable time.

The Faculty-Student-Alumni Committee at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls has selected one or more distinguished alumni each year since 1959. Appointed by the Faculty Senate, the committee members change, and students might find themselves disadvantaged in knowledge about past selections and the nomination process. To provide information on distinguished alumni chosen since 1959, this book is available. It will also serve as a family archive record for the distinguished alumni as well as give this university an opportunity to express pride in its graduates.

The original drawings of the distinguished alumni were done by artists H. Brewer Wilson and Benita Fernandez Close; photographs of the drawings were taken by Jens Gunelson of UW-River Falls Photography Services. Special thanks are due to both artists and the photographer for their contribution; also to my colleagues, Wayne Wolfe and Michael Norman, who have assisted in this project, and to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Foundation for support of the project. The author must assume all responsibility for errors of fact and judgments made.