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2014 Alumni Award Recipients

Western's Alumni Association honors extraordinary Vikings

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Lifetime Achievement Award

Mina Ghattas

('59, History/Social Studies; '60, M.Ed., Secondary Education)

Mina Ghattas was a Palestinian refugee studying at the American University of Beirut when an encounter with the owner of a Bellingham television station changed his life.

Ghattas was a student assistant in AUB’s audio visual department in 1957 when he met Rogan Jones, owner of KVOS-TV in Bellingham. Jones invited Ghattas to Bellingham to learn about broadcasting and then return to Lebanon and work at a new station Jones was planning. Jones and KVOS also paid for Ghattas to complete his education at Western – and Ghattas remains deeply grateful to Jones for the opportunities that influenced his career.

Jones’ plans for the television station in Lebanon didn’t pan out, but Ghattas completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Western and returned to Beirut, where he taught at AUB and directed the university’s Audiovisual Center. Soon, he returned to the U.S. to continue his education.

Ghattas earned a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in 1970, where he met his wife, Meredith Ghattas, now a retired high school administrator and math teacher. They married in 1969. He spent much of his career at Northeastern University in Boston, where he directed the Office of Learning Resources.

Ghattas was an early proponent of distance education and led many projects, both at Northeastern and later as an independent consultant, that used broadcasting technology to expand access to education around the world. For example, in conjunction with the World Bank, he worked with Chinese officials who were developing 17 polytechnic institutions and bringing college-level classes to the whole country through Radio Television University. He also worked with the education ministry in Yemen to use tutored video instruction to train teachers across the country. He helped teach Turkish educators to adapt their lessons for delivery on video. And at Northeastern University, his lab had the first bank of microcomputers on campus, for computer-assisted instruction.

Ghattas’ many other projects include helping to develop a bilingual school and an institute for children with learning disabilities, both in Kuwait. He has served on college and university accreditation teams, designed graduate educational technology programs and many directed grant-funded projects.

Mina and Meredith Ghattas now live in the Boston area, where they enjoy the symphony, theatre, opera and international travel.

Larry "Go Vikings!" Taylor Alumni Service Award

Jo Metzger-Levin

('81, Physical Education - Secondary; '85, M.Ed., Physical Education)

Metzger-Levin is arguably the best women’s basketball player in Western’s history. A former All-American, she was named Western’s female athlete of the 20th century. But it’s the players of this century whom Metzger-Levin continues to support. When the women’s basketball team made it to the Elite Eight in 2012, Metzger-Levin met the team bus on the way to the airport for a one-woman pep rally – and gave the team matching T-shirts. She also funds a scholarship for women’s basketball and is working to build the Goodrich-Dolfo Endowment for Excellence in Women’s Basketball, giving a boost to the next generation of women’s basketball players.

Young Alumnus of the Year

Brett Mitchell

('01, Music Composition)

At 34, Mitchell is one of classical music’s rising stars. He is the assistant conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, and music director of the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra. His work has been impressing audiences around the world for more than a decade. He has worked with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, Washington D.C.’s National Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, as well as the orchestras of Oregon, Rochester, Baltimore, Memphis and Pittsburgh. He served as assistant conductor of both the Houston Symphony (2007-11) and the Orchestre National de France (2006-09). With such a lengthy résumé, no wonder a reviewer from the Austin Chronicle called him a “bright young hope for classical music’s future.”

Distinguished Alumnus, College of Fine and Performing Arts

Francis Johnston

('73, Visual Communication - Design)

1973 was a big year for Fritz Johnston, the year he graduated from Western, married Diane Johnston (’70) and went to work for Boeing as an entry-level designer. This year he will retire as the company’s vice president of Global Brand Management and Advertising, overseeing the worldwide development of the company’s brand. He plans to spend more time on campus once he and his wife retire to the Pacific Northwest. Their daughter, Kimberly Johnston (’01, Marketing, Psychology), is chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district includes Bellingham.

Distinguished Alumnus, College of Sciences and Technology

Robert Matson

('69, Chemistry; '71, M.S., Chemistry)

Matson is president and co-founder of QuantiScientifics, LLC, a Southern California-based company specializing in life science clinical research and in vitro diagnostics. The company provides products that enable multiple, simultaneous tests for biomarker discovery, clinical research, vaccine screening, allergy testing and other processes.

Distinguished Alumnus, Woodring College of Education

Bill Wright

('60, Elementary Education)

More than 50 years ago, Wright won the U.S. Amateur Public Links tournament, winning the title with the help of seven birdies in the first nine holes. He also smashed a race barrier that day in 1959 by becoming the first African-American to win a U.S. Golf Association title. The following year, he was the first Western athlete to bring home a title in any sport when he won the 1960 NAIA national golf title – he was also the first African American to win that title, too. Wright’s skill made a powerful statement in an era when many golf courses – including public courses in Seattle – refused membership to black people. Wright later appeared in the U.S. Open in 1966 and in five Senior U.S. Opens in the 1980s and ‘90s. He continues to teach golf in Los Angeles.

Distinguished Alumna, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Kirby M. Larson

('76, Broadcast Communication)

Before she was a famous children’s book author – her “Hattie Big Sky” was a 2007 Newbery Honor Book – Larson was a college student working two jobs while earning her degree. She persevered through more than 200 rejection letters before publishing her first book. She’s now the author of 19 titles, from picture books for American Girl to historical fiction to true-life adventure tales about animals. Larson and her husband, Neil Larson (’76, Accounting), also serve on the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Advancement Council and support student scholarships and writing programs in Western’s English Department.

Distinguished Alumnus, College of Business and Economics

Jason Warnick

('94, Accounting)

Western students who enjoy the networking opportunities in Western’s chapter of Beta Alpha Psi have Warnick to thank. He was instrumental in establishing Western’s student chapter of the international honor society for accounting, finance and information systems professionals. Today he is at, where he is the vice president of Finance, Internal Audit/Competitive Analysis. He still returns to Western to speak or to recruit top students for internships – watch for him at Beta Alpha Psi meetings.

Distinguished Alumna, Huxley College of the Environment

Roberta Riley

('82, Environmental Science)

Riley has worked tirelessly at the intersection of empowering women and achieving environmental sustainability. In 2001, as Legal Counsel for Planned Parenthood, she argued a landmark federal court decision that prompted American companies to cover prescription contraception in worker health plans. She later led the World at 7 Billion Project, emphasizing the connection between women’s health and dignity and achieving sustainability. She continues to advocate for health as a fundamental human right in her current role as communication director for Northwest Health Law Advocates.

Distinguished Alumnus, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies

Tom Thornton

('78, Fairhaven Interdisciplinary Concentration)

Thornton and his wife, Cheryl Thornton (’78, Marine Resources), a graduate of Huxley College of the Environment, started Cloud Mountain Farm in Everson soon after graduation and have built it into a thriving center for farming practices. In 2011 they turned their business into a nonprofit educational farm center with the goal of providing hands-on learning opportunities to the next generation of farmers as well as providing regional information to the gardening community. The farm center recently added a vegetable processing facility that will prepare products for schools and is involved in building up local organic salad production capabilities. Tom Thornton has participated in many boards including the Whatcom Land Trust, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement and was a founding board member for the Whatcom Community Foundation. Now he sits on the boards of Whatcom Farmers Co-op and Northwest Agricultural Research Foundation.

Campus Volunteer Recognition Award

Tamara Belts

('76, History)

Belts manages Western Libraries Special Collections, which is where Western keeps its historical artifacts, from academic publications by faculty, staff, students and alumni to campus memorabilia and photographs. Belts is also a major contributor to Special Collections’ Oral History project and has interviewed 88 people, gathering stories from alumni and retired faculty and staff. And she’s an active volunteer for many campus events, including commencements and Viking Night.

Campus School Recognition Award

Rob Brand

('59, Elementary Education; '66, M.Ed., School Administration)

A longtime teacher and principal in Bellingham, Brand got his start in schooling at Western’s Campus School. After completing his education degree at Western, Brand taught in Oak Harbor and returned to Western for a master’s degree. He then spent 26 years in Bellingham schools, including service as a principal in five elementary schools. And he keeps returning to Western, most recently as an adjunct faculty member. In 2009, the Elementary Education Department established an annual scholarship in his name. The award goes to an Elementary Ed major who exemplifies hard work and caring – qualities Brand is well known for.

Community Volunteer Recognition Award

R. Emil Hecht

The founder and past director of Bellingham Ear Nose and Throat and Hecht Aesthetic Center, Hecht is a longtime supporter of Western’s Communication Sciences and Disorders Department. He has provided countless audiology and speech-language pathology students opportunities for professional mentoring, research and hands-on patient care. He provided free evaluations for Western’s vocal rehab patients and referred some of his own patients to Dr. Barbara Mathers-Schmidt at Western for therapy. Hecht and his wife Tannia are also supporters of the Don Cole Graduate Fellowship and of Viking Athletics.