UMKC Honors Outstanding Alumni, Awards Scholarships

Donations support students with immediate financial need

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The annual awards luncheon produced by the Alumni Association of the University of Missouri-Kansas City is more than just an event to honor distinguished graduates; it also provides vital support to current students with financial needs.

Four years ago, at the height of the Great Recession, the alumni association created a new mission for what was once a gala dinner focused solely on honoring graduates for their outstanding career success and contributions to the community. The dinner was scaled back to a luncheon and added a major fundraising component designed to help financially stressed current students stay in school.

Last year’s event raised more than $50,000 for immediate student financial aid. Unlike many scholarship programs that invest proceeds in endowed scholarship funds, this program provides immediate assistance to students. The fund provides assistance for students enrolled in every academic unit at the university.

A video depicting students offering their thanks for this vital support can be viewed at a special web page that also includes a “Donate” button for supporting this year’s campaign.

The scholarship luncheon event is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. April 26 at the Westin Crown Center Hotel. The program will highlight the award winners’ stories and accomplishments. The honorees will also share their experiences with students through speeches, presentations and classroom visits.

Each year, the UMKC Alumni Association recognizes 16 alumni and one family with top honors. The Class of 2012 Alumni Award recipients includes a chief researcher at the National Institutes of Health, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, the Chief Judge of Guam and others who are making a mark in their profession and serving their alma mater.

“Each one of this year’s awardees has a remarkable story — of obstacles overcome, of perseverance, of achievement,” said event co-chair Stacey Johnson-Cosby (B.A. ’87). “Their work and accomplishments have shaped their respective professions and changed the landscape of everything from health care to the arts.”

The annual luncheon is the University’s largest event and has sold-out for the past three years. Proceeds from the Alumni Awards Luncheon are used to support immediate aid scholarships for students with urgent financial needs. Over the past three years, the luncheon has raised more than $200,000 in immediate aid for students.

“The UMKC Alumni Association wanted to find a way to honor our outstanding graduates while helping the current student body,” said event co-chair Raymond Cattaneo, (M.D. ’03). “The awards luncheon proceeds all go directly to support students who otherwise might not be able to continue their enrollment or live in campus housing.”

To date, more than 55 students, representing each UMKC school and college, have benefitted from these funds. The Alumni Association’s goal is to support an additional 35 students in 2012.

“When I learned I had received the Alumni Awards Scholarship I burst into tears,” said Joseph Salazar, a student in the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences and a 2010 scholarship recipient. “This scholarship made it possible for me to focus on school and I no longer had to worry about how I was going to find a way to pay my tuition. I am forever grateful for the UMKC Alumni Association for their help. Receiving the scholarship made me proud to be a Roo and I look forward to giving back to the next generation of UMKC students just as this generation has given back to me.”

“The UMKC Alumni Association has taken its signature event honoring our outstanding graduates and leveraged it to benefit UMKC students at a time when their financial need is dire,” said UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton. “The Association has been a true partner in making education more affordable and accessible to our students.”

Following are the 2012 UMKC Alumni Awardees:

Campus-Wide Alumni Awards

Alumna of the Year — Catherine Y. Spong (M.D. ’91)

Often named by her peers as one of the most influential women in obstetrics and gynecology today, Catherine Spong is chief of Pregnancy and Perinatology at the National Institutes of Health. In her role with NIH, Spong oversees nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts in maternal fetal medicine, neonatology and obstetrics. The UMKC Alumna of the Year award is the highest alumni award given by the campus and the Alumni Association to honor eminence in a professional field and outstanding service to society.

Defying the Odds Award — David Westbrook (B.A. ’71)

The Defying the Odds Alumni Award is given to an alumnus who has achieved professional and personal success in spite of significant obstacles. Diagnosed with juvenile glaucoma at age 12, Westbrook had lost his vision by age 17. He enrolled at UMKC and began a journey that would lead him to a multi-decade career as a communications and public relations professional and a civic force in Kansas City. Westbrook is senior vice president of strategy and innovation at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

Spotlight Award — Yvonne Wilson (M.A. ’71, Ed.Sp. ’76)

Missouri Senator Yvonne Wilson began a life-long career as both an educator and education advocate after graduating from UMKC. She spent more than 35 years serving in public education as a teacher, principal and eventually as the first African American president of the Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals. The Spotlight Award recognizes an alumnus whose accomplishments, leadership and public service have caused regional and national attention to be focused on the metro area and UMKC.

Bill French Alumni Service Award — Lajuana Counts (B.B.A. ’82, J.D. ’88)

A tireless volunteer for UMKC, Lajuana Counts balances her role as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri with many hours of service to her alma mater. Counts has served as president of the UMKC School of Law Alumni Association and currently serves on the board of the UMKC Law Foundation. The highest award for alumni service at UMKC, the Bill French Award recognizes alumni who have demonstrated outstanding loyalty, commitment and service to the University.

Legacy Award — The Hartwig Family

The Legacy Award recognizes a family with a tradition of attending UMKC and who have a record of service to the University, their community or profession. For two generations, the Hartwig family has made a name in the pharmacy profession while lending support and advocacy to UMKC. Hartwig family members train students at their Red Cross Pharmacy and established a scholarship for deserving pharmacy students.

Alumni Achievement Awardees

College of Arts & Sciences — Michelle Wimes (B.A. ’88)

Wimes has used her UMKC Spanish and Communications degrees to spearhead workforce diversity and inclusion across the U.S., Europe and Latin America. Currently the director of Professional Development and Inclusion at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, she has garnered many professional and community awards for her work, including The Daily Record’s Leader of the Year Award.

Bloch School of Management — Esther George (M.B.A. ’00)

Recently named president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, George had been the bank’s chief operating officer and first vice president. Prior to that, George had served as executive vice president of the Supervision and Risk Management Division, making her the top banking regulator in the region. George is a member of the UMKC Board of Trustees and has been active with the UMKC Bloch School Advisory Council.

School of Computing and Engineering — Hagos Andebrhan (BSCie ’78)

Andebrhan is CEO of engineering firm Taliaferro and Browne, which he purchased in 1992 with colleague and fellow UMKC engineering alumnus Leonard Graham. Born in Eritrea, Andebrhan was one of only 30 students selected for the Ethiopian Airlines pilot training program. Today, Taliaferro and Browne is one of the top 25 Kansas City engineering firms, known for helping shape the redevelopment of downtown.

Conservatory of Music and Dance — John Leavitt (D.M.A. ’90)

A musician, composer, teacher, conductor and author, Leavitt is a regularly featured artist for the Manhattan concert Production’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Series in Washington, D.C., and a regular guest conductor of the New York Mid America Productions Carnegie Hall Concert Series. His compositions are in nearly every music catalog, and he is co-author of the frequently used choral music textbook series Essential Elements for the Choir.

School of Biological Sciences — Kamlesh Patel (B.S. ’00)

Patel is assistant professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Washington University in Saint Louis and a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. His practice includes the treatment of cleft lip/palate disorders, reconstruction for facial malformations, ear reconstruction for children with abnormal or absent ears, and facial trauma reconstruction. Patel’s current and future research includes speech outcomes following cleft palate repair.

School of Dentistry — William Giannobile (M.S., D.D.S. ’91)

Formerly on faculty at Forsyth Institute and Harvard University, Giannobile is now the Najjar Endowed Professor of Dentistry and director of the Michigan Center for Oral Health at the University of Michigan. His lab is exploring new methods of growth factor delivery such as gene therapy to stimulate periodontal tissue repair. His research also seeks predictive markers of periodontal bone loss.

Dental Hygiene — Patricia Walters (B.S.D.H. ’89, M.S. ’91)

Walters serves as global oral care scientific information manager for Procter & Gamble. She helps to lead the company’s global oral care professional and scientific relations and is accountable for responding to world-wide technical and scientific questions about products and for sharing research about the science of the company’s products. She is a frequent author, speaker and lecturer.

School of Education — Suzanne McCanles (M.A. ’97)

McCanles is head of school at Oakhill Day School in Gladstone, Mo., a position she’d not held long when a tornado devastated the school in the summer of 2008. In just 109 days, McCanles had the damaged school open in time for fall. Community and school officials credit her leadership in the recovery from that disaster and in building the school’s many new community partnerships, including Kansas City’s first Farm to School Lunch program.

School of Law — Frances Tydingco-Gatewood (J.D. ’83)

Appointed by President George W. Bush as Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Guam, Tydingco-Gatewood is the first female judge of Chamorro descent (Guam’s indigenous inhabitants). In 1994, she was appointed to the Guam Superior Court. In 2006, she was nominated and confirmed by the United States Senate to her position of Chief Judge.

School of Medicine — Alexander Norbash (B.A. ’85, M.D. ’86)

Norbash is chairman and professor of radiology at Boston University, which appointed him Assistant Dean for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs in 2011. An interventional neuroradiologist , his clinical work includes the endovascular treatment of aneurysms, strokes, and other chronic issues. His research has led to the development of new tools now in use for neurologic therapies.

School of Nursing — Rennae Ellis (B.S.N. ’98)

Ellis is Maternal Child Nurse Care Manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City. She is active with the Black Health Care Coalition, working to reduce infant mortality rates among the African American population. Ellis has brokered a number of community partnerships and organized community health fairs, screenings and information sessions to benefit the underinsured and uninsured. She has served as membership chair of the Greater Kansas City Black Nurses Association and was its 2009 Nurse of the Year. Her volunteer work extends to the March of Dimes and Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

School of Pharmacy — David Sater (B.S.P. ’72)

Prior to his election to the Missouri House of Representatives, Sater and his wife owned and operated Sater Pharmacy in Cassville, Mo., from 1974 to 2004. He was named Pharmacist of the Year in 2003 and has been active in a number of health-care organizations, including as founder of the Pregnancy Care Center in Aurora, as president of the American Cancer Society and in serving on medical mission trips to Honduras. Sater received the “Legislative Leadership Award” from the Missouri Pharmacy Association and the “Freshman Legislator of the Year” award, both in 2005.

About the University of Missouri-Kansas City

The University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), one of four University of Missouri campuses, is a public university serving more than 15,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. UMKC engages with the community and economy based on a four-part mission: life and health sciences; visual and performing arts; urban issues and education; and a vibrant learning and campus life experience. For more information about UMKC, visit You can also find us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and watch us on YouTube.

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