Alumni Association honors 13 individuals, one family for achievement, service
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One University of Iowa graduate developed Iowa’s Camp Courageous into a million-dollar, year-round operation that serves individuals with disabilities and their families. Another creates thought-provoking theater performances that have earned him an Village Voice Obie Award, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer nomination. Yet another is given credit for being behind the success of one of the world’s most influential women.
These three are among 13 notable alumni and friends, and one family, selected by the University of Iowa Alumni Association to be honored at the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Awards luncheon June 7 at the Levitt Center for University Advancement.
Presented annually since 1963, the Distinguished Alumni Awards are the Alumni Association’s highest honor. They recognize the outstanding achievements and service of UI alumni and friends. This year’s awards are given in six categories: Achievement, Service, Faculty/Staff, Young Alumni, Hickerson Recognition, and Friend of the University.
“For more than 50 years, the Alumni Association has been recognizing the outstanding efforts of alumni and friends,” says Vince Nelson, president and CEO of the UI Alumni Association. “Whether through their professional work or their service to the community, they make a difference not only at our institution but around the world.”
The Distinguished Alumni Award for Achievement is given for significant accomplishments in business or professional life or for distinguished human service. This year’s recipients are:
Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green
Mitchell Burgess (B.A. ’78) and Robin Green (M.F.A. ’77)
This talented husband-and-wife team has written and produced some of the most widely acclaimed modern television shows, creating characters and stories of depth, intrigue, and integrity. Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green are responsible for celebrated programs such as the CBS hit Northern Exposure and the HBO series The Sopranos, for which they won multiple Emmys, Golden Globes, and Peabody Awards. More recently, they created and produced the police drama Blue Bloods, now in its fourth season on CBS. In 2004, they were honored as UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Alumni Fellows, and they continue to support the Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess Fund for prospective students of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Rinde W. Eckert (B.M. ’73)
An internationally recognized artist, Rinde Eckert has established himself as a major American playwright, performer, composer, director, and advocate for the arts. Through his plays, librettos, and other performance pieces, Eckert creates thought-provoking and haunting theater—winning a Village Voice Obie award for best off-Broadway performance for And God Created Great Whales and a nod as one of three finalists for a Pulitzer Prize for Orpheus X. In 2011, one of his musical collaborations won a Grammy Award for Best Small Ensemble Performance, and, in 2012, Eckert was named a Doris Duke Charitable Foundation inaugural artist. Still deeply connected to the UI, Eckert has returned to create new works with the theatre arts department and Hancher Auditorium.
Sheri A. Salata
Sheri A. Salata (B.B.A. ’80)
Sheri Salata, president of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network and Harpo Studios, is among the most powerful executives in modern media—responsible for television programming that has left an indelible imprint on American culture. Combining business and broadcasting acumen with her Midwestern work ethic, Salata climbed the ranks of Winfrey’s empire to become one of today’s 100 most powerful women in entertainment. Beginning with Harpo Studios in 1995 as a promotions producer, she then served as executive producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show from 2006 until its finale in 2011. Thanks to her leadership at OWN, the network continues to experience increased ratings and viewership, while Oprah Winfrey recognizes Salata as an integral part of her success.
Joanne Warner (M.A. ’76)
Currently professor and dean of the University of Portland School of Nursing, Joanne Rains Warner has significantly impacted U.S. nursing education through her academic leadership and her work with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. At Portland, she’s transformed nursing curricula through innovative programs like the newly accredited Doctor of Nursing Practice Family Nurse Practitioner program—the first doctoral program at that university in 38 years—and the “Dedicated Education Unit” approach that has expanded the ability of educators to provide clinical training to undergraduate nurses. Highly respected by her colleagues, Warner is considered an agent of change and an inspiration to the next generation of nursing champions.
The UIAA will also present three Distinguished Alumni Service Awards, honoring graduates who have provided commendable service to their nation, their communities, and their UI family. This year’s recipients are:
Leon J. Aden
Leon J. Aden (B.S. ’80, M.S. ’82)
In an impressive 30-year career as a top-level geologist with ExxonMobil, Leon Aden has led exploration and development expeditions to Africa, Asia, and the Arctic. Closer to home, he has demonstrated his stalwart support of the UI through his decade-long volunteer leadership efforts for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Advisory Board, his active role in helping recruit numerous UI students to ExxonMobil, and his assistance with various alumni outreach activities. Aden also has contributed financial support of more than $500,000; as befits an explorer, he particularly directs gifts to departments that pursue especially imaginative and promising programs.
Charles W. Becker
Charles W. Becker (B.A. ’76)
At age 24, Charles “Charlie” Becker became the third executive director of Camp Courageous in Monticello, Iowa. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to advance this nonprofit organization and the thousands of people with special needs for whom it provides a much-needed respite. Inspiring other volunteers with his devotion, vision, and hands-on approach, Becker has transformed the organization from a bare-bones, seasonal, 40-acre operation to a year-round endeavor with 200 acres, outstanding facilities, and a $1 million budget. Despite his long hours at Camp Courageous, Becker also volunteers for many other civic groups and organizations, which benefit greatly from his leadership skills, integrity, and compassion.
Cassandra S. Foens
Cassandra S. Foens (B.S. ’83, M.D. ’87, residency ’92)
The first woman and first radiation oncologist from Iowa to be elected to the American College of Radiology Board of Chancellors, Cassandra Foens is widely admired for her lifelong philosophy of service. In addition to her work as a radiation oncologist for Clinical Radiologists at Waterloo’s Covenant Cancer Treatment Center, Foens volunteers for numerous community and national organizations, whether as a board member for a local hospice or a spokesperson on women’s health and cancer-related topics. At her alma mater, Foens has established a presidential scholarship, a lecture series, and a leadership program to enrich the experiences and develop the potential of UI students.
The Distinguished Faculty/Staff Award is granted to retired or former UI faculty and staff in recognition of significant achievement or specific meritorious service on behalf of the quality and advancement of the university. This year’s recipients are:
Sandra and Joel Barkan
Joel D. Barkan and Sandra Hackman Barkan (Ph.D. ’84)
With distinction and devotion, Joel and Sandy Barkan have made significant contributions to the UI’s International Programs. The late Joel Barkan, a political science and International Programs professor emeritus, founded and served as the first director of the Center for International and Comparative Studies. Sandy, an adjunct assistant professor emerita of cinema and comparative literature, mentored numerous international students and guided the International Writing Program through its most turbulent period. Together, they helped establish the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, as well as a UI study abroad scholarship, bringing to this Midwestern community a greater understanding of the world.
The Distinguished Young Alumni Award honors UI graduates under the age of 40 at the time of their nomination who have attained significant accomplishments in their personal or professional lives. This year’s recipients are:
Avery L. Bang
Avery L. Bang (B.A. ’07, B.S.E. ’07)
As executive director of the nonprofit organization Bridges to Prosperity, Avery Bang has provided more than 500,000 rural villagers internationally with access to health care, education, and commercial opportunities. Her passion to use engineering for the public good started as a UI student when she built a bridge in Peru. Founding president of the UI student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Bang now serves on advisory boards for the civil engineering department and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She also acts as an instructor at the University of Colorado–Boulder and as a research assistant who leads teams developing alternative energy solutions for third-world countries.
Christina M. Freese-Decker
Christina M. Freese-Decker (M.H.A. ’02, M.S. ’02)
Just eight years after graduating from the UI with master’s degrees in health administration and industrial engineering, Christina Freese-Decker was the youngest vice president at Spectrum Health, a $4.3 billion health care organization in Grand Rapids, Mich. Within three years, she became president of Spectrum Health United and Kelsey Hospitals. She recently was promoted to senior vice president and chief strategy officer for the entire Spectrum Health system, overseeing 11 hospitals, a 1,000-member physician group, and a 570,000-member health plan. Freese-Decker also demonstrates her leadership skills beyond the workplace by volunteering on a UI College of Public Health alumni board, at her local YMCA, and with the American College of Healthcare Executives.
The Hickerson Recognition Award honors graduates or former students for outstanding contributions to the UI Alumni Association. The award is named for the late Loren Hickerson (B.A. ’40), the UI’s first full-time alumni director. This year’s recipient is:
Stephen H. Wolken
Stephen H. Wolken (B.S. ’65, M.D. ’68, residency ’75)
A proud, lifelong Iowan, Steve Wolken has provided decades of steadfast leadership to the UI Alumni Association, the UI, and the surrounding community. As former chair of the UIAA board of directors, he offered wise counsel during the development of the organization’s strategic plan. The ophthalmologist and UI adjunct clinical ophthalmology assistant professor has also lent his expertise to the UI Carver College of Medicine Alumni Society advisory board and established a medical scholarship for UI students. He volunteers his time and expertise to a number of community organizations, including the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association.
The Distinguished Friend of the University Award honors those individuals who are not Iowa alumni, but who have provided outstanding service on behalf of the UI. This year’s recipient is:
Michael and Nicole Gerdin
Eric and Julie Durr
Angela and Brian Janssen
The Gerdin Family
Michael and Nicole Gerdin (B.A. ’93, M.A. ’94), Julie and Eric Durr, and Angela and Brian Janssen are following in the footsteps of their parents, visionary philanthropists Russ and Ann Gerdin. Countless thousands of student-athletes and Hawkeye fans appreciate the family’s support of UI initiatives like the Athletics Hall of Fame, the Kinnick Stadium renovations, and the Gerdin Athletic Learning Center, while cancer patients benefit from the family’s generous gifts to the J. Hayden Fry Center for Prostate Cancer Research, the Gerdin American Cancer Society Hope Lodge, and the new UI Children’s Hospital building. Through the breadth of such interests and the desire to improve the lives of others, the Gerdin family is making a lasting difference at the UI.