Six alumni and friends of the university will receive UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association awards Dec. 16 at an event in conjunction with winter 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 December graduates.
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.
Dang Yang '08, bachelor's degree in public communication
Dang Yang has emerged as an outstanding leader in advising, recruitment and retention of diverse and underrepresented students in higher education.
In 2016 he was named diversity manager at Chippewa Valley Technical College. Yang previously had served since 2008 as multicultural recruitment and retention coordinator in the School of Education at UW-Stout. In 2012, he earned a master's degree in multicultural college teaching and learning from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
In 2015 Yang received two prestigious awards: the Ann Lydecker Educational Diversity Award from the state Council on Affirmative Action and the Friend of Education Award from the state Department of Public Instruction. Both awards recognized Yang's commitment to recruiting and retaining students from diverse populations pursuing careers in the teaching profession.
Yang’s parents came to the U.S. as refugees in 1979 as a result of the Vietnam War. His family's experience has had the greatest impact on his motivation and career path.
"From the ashes of this historical trauma, I am driven by a burning desire to help people,” Yang said. “As such, I inadvertently — and most happily — found the starting point of my career."
Dr. Judy Sims, UW-Eau Claire professor emerita of communication and journalism, remembers Yang as a student who had a sincere respect for education, which he demonstrated both inside and outside of class.
"Dang is a young leader with vision and great promise — and a serious force for diverse, low-income and underrepresented students,” Sims said. “He inspires and motivates; his actions, which challenge the status quo, serve to strengthen our community and enlighten academia."
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.
Randall Larson ’79, bachelor’s degree in accounting
After graduating from UW-Eau Claire and earning his MBA at UW-Madison, Randall Larson began what would be a more than 20-year career with the audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG.
Larson spent his first nine years with KPMG in Denver, Colorado, and then moved to the firm's national office in New York City. He was nominated by KPMG for a professional accounting fellowship at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C., where he served for two years before returning to KPMG in New York as a national office partner. He then transferred to San Jose, California, where KPMG ultimately promoted him to the role of western area risk management partner and a member of the firm’s Risk Management Committee.
In 2002, he left KPMG to become the chief financial officer at TransMontaigne Inc., a Fortune 500 company in Denver that is a leading distributor of unbranded refined petroleum products. In 2006 he was promoted to chief executive officer at TransMontaigne, a position he held until his retirement in 2009. Larson currently serves on the boards of directors of two public companies involved in the energy business.
Larson has been a donor to faculty advancement and scholarship funds in UW-Eau Claire’s College of Business. This November, he returned to campus to share his expertise with College of Business students. He also volunteered as a judge in the college's Swim with the Sharks event.
Shawn Pfaff ’94, bachelor’s degree in social studies education
Shawn Pfaff’s love of government and politics has taken him on a path from middle school civics teacher, to aide in Congress and the Wisconsin governor’s office, to mayor of his community, to sought-after government relations professional with his own public affairs firm.
Pfaff credits his drive to participate in democracy to his two favorite UW-Eau Claire political science professors, Mort Sipress and the late Dr. Sylvia Sipress. Following college, he was a middle school civics and industrial arts teacher for three years in Holmen and Mt. Horeb, where he also coached high school football and softball. He then pursued an opportunity to work as a legislative aide in Congress for three years, focusing on agricultural and trade issues.
After earning his master’s degree in public affairs from UW-Madison, Pfaff joined the administration of then Gov. Jim Doyle as an agency affairs advisor, and he served as deputy manager for Doyle’s successful 2006 re-election campaign. He then became a senior associate with Capitol Consultants Inc., a bipartisan lobbying firm. In 2013, he opened his own government and media relations firm, Pfaff Public Affairs, and works with several leading statewide organizations, primarily agriculture related, advising and advocating for his clients with state lawmakers and agency officials.
Pfaff also served as the mayor of Fitchburg from 2011-15. As a former member of the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association board and current member of the Chancellor’s Council, he has provided strategic advice to university officials regarding legislative advocacy at the State Capitol.
The President’s Award recognizes outstanding professional and personal achievements and service to UW-Eau Claire.
Mitchell Bleske '97, bachelor’s degree in finance and economics
Mitchell Bleske has had a successful career in banking and finance, including leadership positions for U.S. Bancorp, United Community Banks, Trustmark National Bank and Bremer Financial Corp.
Bleske, who earned an MBA from the University of St. Thomas following his graduating from UW-Eau Claire, is now executive vice president and chief financial officer with Bremer Financial Corp. Recognized by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal as the 2017 CFO of the Year in banking and financial services, he has been described by colleagues as “a leader who is guided by both head and heart together.”
He also has been commended for his established track record of strategic leadership, and says he is most proud of his impact on employees.
“There is no better satisfaction than watching an individual or team learn, develop and succeed,” Bleske said. “While competence is a necessity, a well-functioning team is truly what separates the great from average.”
In addition to his professional successes, Bleske is proud of the progress he and his wife, Erin (a 1997 UW-Eau Claire accounting graduate), have made raising awareness and more than $75,000 to help fight Rett Syndrome since their daughter was diagnosed with the rare neurological disorder in 2008.
Bleske appreciates the education he received at UW-Eau Claire, citing Dr. Duane Oyen, professor emeritus of economics, for challenging him with a number of research projects and Dr. Paul Vanderheiden, professor emeritus of accounting and finance, for helping him “become enamored” with finance fundamentals.
RG Conlee ’78, bachelor’s degree in music education
RG Conlee says his life after graduating from UW-Eau Claire has been “a tale of two careers … so far.”
For the past 20 years, Conlee has worked in technology management and innovation, working as an IT contractor, application development manager and then in several operational roles until being named chief innovation officer for Xerox Business Services, a position he held from 2011-17. He recently retired from his CIO role and has started a new consulting firm specializing in automation and analytics.
Before his success in the business and technology sector, Conlee spent two decades as a teacher and administrator in both public and private schools. He was a junior high and high school band director for 13 years before founding a nonprofit corporation and private school that grew to 215 students before he left and is still in operation today. While an educator, Conlee taught himself computer programming and started a computer music lab as well as a small computer business, which eventually led to the start of his second career.
Conlee, who met his wife, Wendy, when they were both music education students at UW-Eau Claire, has been an advocate and financial supporter of the arts at the university. He will deliver the “Charge to the Class” during commencement ceremonies Dec. 16.
Honorary Alumnus Award
The Honorary Alumnus Award is presented to non-alumni who have demonstrated great love of and service to UW-Eau Claire.
Since 2002, Nick Meyer has been the editor, publisher and owner of Volume One, a culture and entertainment publication, website and event production company in Eau Claire. Volume One produces large-scale community events including a riverside concert series, a chalk art festival, a film-screening series, winter-themed events, and many more, attracting tens of thousands of attendees every year.
Meyer reimagined a historic downtown Eau Claire building into The Local Store and Volume One Gallery. Each year the store's gallery plays host to more than 100 events, including book readings, film screenings, concerts, community discussions and civic meetings. The upstairs of the building is Volume One’s World Headquarters, where the magazines and websites are ideated and created. In 2016 Meyer and a handful of local partners created a 30-room boutique hotel in downtown Eau Claire called The Oxbow Hotel, with a farm-to-table restaurant, bar and jazz venue called The Lakely.
Meyer also serves on the boards of directors for Visit Eau Claire, the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce and the North Barstow Business Improvement District.
“Nick was an early and vocal supporter of downtown redevelopment and was integral to the success of the referendum on the Confluence project, as well as securing the state funding for the Confluence Arts Center,” said Kimera Way, UW-Eau Claire Foundation president. “Nick is fond of saying, ‘The most important transformation has been this community’s attitude toward itself.’ Nick has been an integral figure in creating that positive attitude.”