Reception honors Chancellor Emeritus Leo E. Morton
It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and Leo Morton was not about to let it pass.
“I’m on stage at the KC Rep, right? I have a mike, right?” asked Morton, the UMKC Chancellor since 2008 who recently transitioned to emeritus status. And with that, he launched into a theatrical oration of the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet,” taking it all the way through to “what dreams may come” and beyond.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said, grinning.
Morton’s wife, Yvette, then brought down the house, stepping to the lectern to deliver a three-word coda: “He sings, too.”
Raucous applause and cheers erupted from the audience of hundreds of civic and community leaders, alumni, faculty, staff and students who had gathered in the Helen F. Spencer Theatre, home of the Kansas City Rep, for a gala reception and tribute marking the conclusion of Morton’s tenure as leader of Kansas City’s university.
The moment came near the conclusion of an evening of tributes delivered in formats ranging from spoken words to metallic bling to a soulful instrumental rendition of Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” performed by a student-faculty combo from the renowned Jazz program at the Conservatory of Music and Dance.
And also in the form of hugs. Lots of hugs.
It was an occasion for Kansas City, and Kansas City’s university, to congratulate and thank the man who rebuilt and restored the powerful connection between campus and community to the betterment of both.
Speakers at the event included longtime civic leader and Kansas City Rep Chair Greg Graves; University of Missouri System President Mun Choi; Joel Voran, Chair of the UMKC Trustees; Ramin Cherafat, President of the UMKC Alumni Association Governing Board; Tom Bloch, Chair of the UMKC Foundation Board; Breann Branch, representing UMKC staff; Kathleen Kilway, representing UMKC faculty; recent alumna Ida Ayalew, representing UMKC students; and Interim Chancellor and Provost Barbara A. Bichelmeyer. A host of local civic, business and political leaders offered tributes in the video, including Kansas City Mayor Sly James and Missouri U.S. Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill.
The mood was jovial and joyful, for the most part, although Ayalew wept through part of her heartfelt tribute – and did not cry alone.
“Thank you for teaching me that my life’s journey has made me stronger. That when the weight gets heavy, to continue on because each rep makes me a little stronger, and that through working through that pain and overcoming it, by breaking that mental constraint, the liberation and freedom I receive is not only for myself, but for my community,” Ayalew said. “Thank you, Chancellor, for being a coach, a mentor, and a father figure in my life. It made a difference in my life that a man like you would believe I had something significant to offer the world, that a man of your stature lifted me up and put me on your shoulders when I felt weak, empowered me with your words and actions, brought my friends clothes and food when they had none.
“On behalf of the student body I want to thank you for investing in us, not as your customers or clients, but as your children. I pray that God protects and covers you for the rest of your journey.”
Earlier, Kilway and Branch presented Morton with a medallion to wear for official functions.
“For those of you who have joined us for one of our commencement exercises during Leo’s tenure, you’ll, no doubt, remember being overwhelmed by the sparkle from the Chancellor’s medal Leo wore at such ceremonies. It was a signature piece created by Robyn Nichols with oak leaves to signify strength and ivy leaves to represent endurance,” Kilway said. “Leo affectionately referred to the medal and all of its ornamentation as ‘the bling.’ This evening, it is truly our honor to present you with your own personal retirement bling. This is something that has never existed at UMKC before – a new honor called the Chancellor Emeritus Medal. We hope you will wear it with pride when you join us for significant celebrations of the university.”
Bichelmeyer offered a personal tribute.
“Leo, UMKC is stronger, and better, than it was nine years ago when you first stepped into the Chancellor’s office. So very much stronger and better. As many before me have said, you made a difference – for this campus, for this community, and in the lives of countless people. I am one of those people. I want to take a moment and express my gratitude for all you’ve done for UMKC over the past nine years. You have moved this university forward in leaps and bounds, and embedded it in the community in ways that surpass all who have led this campus before,” she said. “I am personally grateful to you for your love of UMKC, and for the opportunities you have provided me here. I look forward to continuing that connection through your new role as Chancellor Emeritus; and I truly value what that represents: your willingness to continue your commitment and advocacy on behalf of UMKC in the years to come.”