Nine alumni and friends of the university will receive UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association awards May 24 at an event associated with spring commencement. The awards recognize the recipients' professional and personal successes as well as their contributions to their alma mater, their communities and their professions.
Learn more about the Alumni Association honorees below. (Also read their words of advice for UW-Eau Claire's May graduates.)
Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award
The Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award recognizes distinguished service to the community, state or nation in a manner that brings credit upon the recipient and the university.
Debra Monroe '80, bachelor's degree in English
Dr. Debra Monroe has had a distinguished career as an author, professor, teacher and mentor. She has had six books published and has been honored with the Flannery O'Connor Award for Fiction. Her books have been reviewed in major American newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and others, and have been cited on popular recommended reading lists.
Monroe was the first person in her family to attend college — an achievement she still considers as one of her proudest accomplishments.
Monroe enrolled at UW-Eau Claire but dropped out after one semester because she felt "uneasy, unprepared, tongue-tied and badly dressed." She returned six months later and was encouraged and supported by a number of faculty members, including Bruce Taylor, Dr. D. Douglas Waters and Douglas Pearson (all professors emeritus of English).
"Professors at UW-Eau Claire literally changed my life," Monroe says. "I left a small town where few high school graduates went to college, and I became exactly what I'd dreamed of becoming — a writer."
Monroe, now a professor of English at Texas State University in San Marcos, went on to earn a master's degree in composition and rhetoric from Kansas State University and a doctorate in creative writing and the history of the novel from the University of Utah.
"I had a lot of job offers," Monroe says. "But I wanted to teach at a public university where I could be the sort of professor I had at UW-Eau Claire — one who knows that generous teaching and individualized attention can change the trajectory of a life."
Suzannah Sundby '94, bachelor's degree in biochemistry/molecular biology
Suzannah Sundby completed her degree in biochemistry/molecular biology in 1994 and joined the Drosophila Genome Project at the University of California, Berkeley, as a cytogeneticist. As a member of this team, Sundby helped to successfully map the genome of this common fruit fly, a project cited since 2000 as a major milestone in genetic research.
After completing her juris doctorate and master’s degree in intellectual property law, Sundby joined the Washington, D.C., firm of Canady + Lortz, where she practices all aspects of intellectual property law across diverse technological fields, including the preparation and prosecution of patents, licensing, nondisclosure agreements and other IP concerns.
“I love what I do,” Sundby says of her work in IP law. “Helping to bring life-saving technologies to market and accessible to the public is the reward and success in and of itself.”
Sundby earned the 2017 Trailblazer Award from Young Women in Bio, a national nonprofit and volunteer organization that encourages young girls to explore opportunities, education and careers in STEM. She serves as chair or life science expert for multiple agencies and associations in the field of biotechnology and intellectual property. Sundby has also been an adjunct law professor at Franklin Pierce Law Center, teaching biotech patent law courses.
Bill White '61, bachelor's degree in history
As a college student at UW-Eau Claire (then Wisconsin State College at Eau Claire), Bill White’s future of leadership was clear. Before graduating, White was voted Winter Carnival king, vice president and then president of the Lutheran Student Association, chief justice of what was then known as the Student Court, and student body president.
After college White grew his passion for leadership in the Lutheran ministry, attending Luther Seminary in St. Paul, where he married his bride who he met while they were both Blugolds. Sally White is a 1964 elementary education alumna.
White enjoyed a 46-year career as an ordained minister, the last 19 of those at Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison. Under his leadership, the Bethel congregation grew and the staff expanded to include six full-time ministers, making Bethel one of the largest Evangelical Lutheran Church in America churches in the state. During his time there, White brought the total number of weekly services from three to seven, reaching many diverse and underserved populations. White also expanded Bethel’s TV ministry from three to seven stations and 30,000 weekly viewers across the state of Wisconsin.
White retired from the pulpit in 2011 and continues volunteer ministry work and writing. A skilled and avid storyteller, White has published six nonfiction books that focus on Christian storytelling, and he has been a guest speaker on the topic across the U.S. and in England. His seventh published book is a novel, “Little Oslo,” which tells the story of a teenage athlete in a small town facing the challenges surrounding an unsolved local murder.
In retirement, White also directs “Partners for Puerto Rico,” a program that matches ELCA churches in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, in recent years working to get supplies to those in need in the devastating wake of Hurricane Maria.
The President’s Award recognizes outstanding professional and personal achievements and service to UW-Eau Claire.
Kurt Mueller '79, bachelor's degree in marketing
Kurt Mueller recently retired from Hormel Foods Corporation as senior vice president of sales for the Consumer Products Sales Division. His career with Hormel extended over 39½ years, during which he lived in seven different U.S. cities and held positions in sales, product management, sales management, logistics and customer service, as well as in leadership as a director, vice president and senior vice president.
Known for his ability to develop a team, Mueller was given numerous assignments developing and leading new business segments at Hormel. For his outstanding brand management work, he was recognized nationally by Brandweek Magazine as Marketer of the Year.
Mueller has had extensive engagement with UW-Eau Claire, coming to campus to speak to classes and recruit potential candidates for employment. Today Hormel Foods employs more than 60 UW-Eau Claire alumni in sales, marketing, operations, research and development, accounting and operations. Mueller has served as a member of the College of Business Advisory Council for the last 15 years, including two years as chair, and he was part of a team of Blugold alumni at Hormel who convinced the company to support a dedicated learning lab in the College of Business. He also assisted Dr. Robert Erffmeyer in developing a sales competition, the Great Northwoods Sales Warm-Up, which is held each fall and brings students to campus from across the U.S.
Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award
The Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award acknowledges the special achievements and great promise of alumni who are within 15 years of their graduation from UW-Eau Claire.
Beatris Mendez-Gandica '13, bachelor's degree in information systems and international business
Passion, contagious energy, inspiration, insatiable curiosity: These are just a few of the words repeated frequently in letters recommending Beatris Mendez-Gandica for the Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award. Following her UW-Eau Claire graduation, Mendez-Gandica, originally from Venezuela, moved to Seattle and began employment with Microsoft, where she is now a security program manager. At Microsoft, “the impact of the work I do in security has implications in almost every product we ship as a company,” she says.
Mendez-Gandica’s nominators also describe her as a lifelong learner. In 2018 she earned her master’s degree in management information systems from the University of Arizona. She also has earned multiple certificates through such organizations as the Kellogg School of Management, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Harvard Extension School.
In and outside the workplace, Mendez-Gandica is motivated by a passion to help others. Her volunteer activities are many, including serving as one of 10 ambassadors for TECHNOLOchicas, a national initiative to raise awareness among young Latinas about careers in technology. She also has founded her own nonprofit, the Nuevo Foundation, whose mission is to give back to underrepresented students across the U.S., introducing them to the opportunities in the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). In 2018, through her foundation, Mendez-Gandica collaborated with UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Beginnings program and Beta Alpha Psi honors organization to host a “Latinas in STEM” workshop at UW-Eau Claire for middle school Latina girls.
Daneille Strong Skibness '05, bachelor's degree in criminal justice
Daneille Strong Skibness, the first in her family to graduate from college, earned her law degree from Hamline University School of Law. After earning a summer associate position at Weld Riley S.C. in Eau Claire, Strong Skibness accepted a full-time position at the firm, where she has practiced for the past 10 years. Elected shareholder in 2014, Strong Skibness' practice focuses on creditors' rights, collections and foreclosures, and worker's compensation defense.
Her recognitions and accomplishments include being named the 2011 Mover and Shaker by Leadership Eau Claire, the 2015 Networker of the Year by the Young Professionals of the Chippewa Valley and a Super Lawyers Rising Star in the state of Wisconsin from 2016-18. She has served on the Youth Leadership Eau Claire curriculum committee; Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs and Good Government Council committees; and the Junior Achievement Titan Business Challenge Committee.
Strong Skibness describes being a mom as her most valuable accomplishment. She and her husband, Adam Skibness, met at UW-Eau Claire and are the parents of four daughters. Their first daughter was stillborn in November 2012. They then welcomed their three identical triplet daughters, born at just over 25 weeks’ gestation and each weighing under two pounds, in July 2013. The triplets lived through countless health challenges and emergencies and are now 5 years old and thriving — a fact that "may be my greatest accomplishment of all,” Strong Skibness says, "always believing they could not only survive but thrive in this world, never giving up or accepting what the black-and-white science book says, and using my voice to advocate for their needs."
Honorary Alumnus Award
The Honorary Alumnus Award is presented to non-alumni or non-degreed alumni who have demonstrated great love of and service to UW-Eau Claire or the greater community.
John Behling, an attorney with the Eau Claire law firm Weld Riley S.C., was appointed to the UW System Board of Regents in 2012 and served as board vice president in 2015 and 2016. In 2017 he was elected president — the first Board of Regents president from the Chippewa Valley. Behling also serves as president of Weld Riley and chairs the firm's government and administrative law practice.
A champion of UW-Eau Claire for many years, Behling was instrumental in garnering support for the Confluence Project, including the $15 million non-state agency grant for the Pablo Center at the Confluence. He also advocated for inclusion of a new UW-Eau Claire Science and Health Sciences Building in the Regents 2019-21 capital budget request and the 2019-21 state budget.
A proponent of international partnerships, Behling traveled with Chancellor James Schmidt to Oman in 2018 to sign a UW Systemwide collaboration agreement with the University of Nizwa. That partnership has enabled UW-Eau Claire faculty visits to the University of Nizwa and continuing exploration of partnership opportunities.
Behling, a member of the American Bar Association, Wisconsin Bar Association and Eau Claire County Bar Association, holds a bachelor's degree from UW-River Falls and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School.
At 103 years young, Blugold athletics fan Harry Boehm exemplifies “great love of and service to UW-Eau Claire” and has earned honorary alumni status in return.
Boehm was born in Marathon County in 1915 at the rural family home where he and his seven siblings developed a strong work ethic while living through the Great Depression. He graduated from college in 1936 and pursued a career in insurance sales. His wife, Rose, was an alumna of UW-Eau Claire, then known as the Eau Claire State Teachers College. She graduated with honors in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in teaching English and history, and she went on to a successful teaching career at Eau Claire Senior High School.
The couple were married in 1939 and raised seven children, all of whom attended UW-Eau Claire and became educators. Both former youth and college athletes, the couple were avid fans of Blugold athletics. Following his wife’s death in 2013 and until very recently, Boehm attended nearly all volleyball, women’s basketball and softball games, even after requiring the use of a wheelchair. He has become part of the Blugold athletics family, and during a recent hospitalization, some favorite visitors were members of the volleyball team, who made several stops to cheer him to recovery.
Along with his wife and family, Boehm's favorite topic of conversation has consistently been UW-Eau Claire and the Blugold athletes he supported through many decades.
Michael Holloway studied journalism and other subjects at UW-Eau Claire from 1970-74 and earned 80 percent of his undergraduate credits there before completing his degree at another university.
"UW-Eau Claire has remained near and dear to my heart, a feeling that allows me to consider myself part of the Eau Claire family," Holloway says.
Curiosity developed in his UW-Eau Claire journalism courses led Holloway to learn about real estate while employed in his first job in Milwaukee’s Department of City Development. “I knew little, but curiosity led to questions, and questions led to answers, and answers led to my starting Homebuyer Associates,” he says.
Homebuyer Associates was Wisconsin's first residential real estate exclusive buyer agent firm. Since 1985, Holloway’s firm and its guiding principle of “serving homebuyers and not selling homes” has helped more than 1,600 people buy homes in Milwaukee, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties.
Holloway says his guiding philosophy is to work hard, have fun and be curious. “As a former student, basketball player and coach it's my belief that lessons learned in the classroom and on the court translated into my taking on jobs and responsibilities others wouldn’t,” he says. “I wanted to win. That’s the hard work part. The fun part was creating the concept and the business. I remain curious.”
To honor his mother’s legacy, Holloway created the Peg Dewane (Holloway) Scholarship, which will provide support to underrepresented students from the Milwaukee area in their pursuit of a UW-Eau Claire education. Through both annual gifts and an estate plan that includes a commitment to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Holloway has ensured that his passion for impacting lives in Milwaukee and his pride in UW-Eau Claire come together to make a difference now and into the future.