UMKC Honors Outstanding Alumni, Awards Scholarships to Current Students

Awards luncheon raises $130,000 for need-based student assistance

The annual Alumni Awards luncheon sponsored by the Alumni Association at the University of Missouri-Kansas City successfully served a dual purpose Thursday: honoring outstanding graduates and raising funds for vital financial aid for current students.

Catherine Spong M.D., chief of Pregnancy and Perinatology at the National Institutes of Health, was honored as the 2012 Alumna of the Year. She was one of 16 alumni and one family honored at the event. The Class of 2012 Alumni Award recipients also includes the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, the Chief Judge of Guam, a pioneering teacher-legislator and others who are making a mark in their profession and serving their alma mater.

Event co-chairs Stacey Johnson-Cosby (B.A. ’87) and Raymond Cattaneo (M.D. ’03) also announced an impressive fund-raising total. The event raised $75,000 for immediate need-based student assistance to help financially stressed current students stay in school — a 50 percent increase over last year’s total.

Johnson-Cosby called the immediate aid grants “the difference between dropping out and staying in school.” She thanked Mel Tyler, the vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management, for his role in obtaining $45,000 in matching funds, raising the total amount available for immediate aid to $120,000. Another $10,000 was raised during the luncheon event.

UMKC Chancellor Leo E. Morton presented the Chancellor’s Medal to Vera Olson, widow of the late James C. “Jim” Olson, who served as both UMKC Chancellor and President of the University of Missouri System; and to former UM System President Gary Forsee. The Chancellor’s Medal is the highest non-academic award presented to a volunteer. This medal, given at the discretion of the Chancellor, honors those who have shown UMKC unstinting support and service.

“Today, we honor some outstanding awardees as we celebrate what it means to be a part of this university,” Morton said. “Whether you are a student, alumnus, faculty and staff or a friend, here at UMKC, you are part of something special.”

Guests at the luncheon entered the hotel ballroom greeted by dramatically lit glass columns etched with the UMKC logo. A multi-media presentation on two large screens offered a brief summary of each award winner’s life history and achievements. The audience of more than 600 guests honored each of the award winners with a standing ovation.

Dr. Spong, speaking on behalf of all of the award recipients, thanked the university for the fundamental role it played in their careers.

“Thank you to UMKC for giving us the support and the opportunity to achieve, and dare I say, exceed, what we set out to do,” she said.

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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