Awards presented for distinguished service, alumni achievements

Award recipients and presenters get together following the annual Chancellor’s Brunch and Alumni Awards Ceremony, which is part of Homecoming activities at WCU. They are (from left) Ed Holland, president of the Alumni Association; Pat Kaemmerling, recipient of the Distinguished Service Award; Matthew Hickey, recipient of the Academic Achievement Award; Chancellor Kelli R. Brown; Danita Johnson, recipient of the Professional Achievement Award; Tyler McKenzie, recipient of the Young Alumni Award; and Marty Ramsey, director of Alumni Engagement.

Patricia B. Kaemmerling, a Western Carolina University alumna and longtime friend of the university, received one of the top honors bestowed by the institution, the Distinguished Service Award, and three alumni were recognized for their achievements as part of Homecoming activities on campus Saturday, Oct. 26.

During the annual Chancellor’s Brunch and Alumni Awards Ceremony, Chancellor Kelli R. Brown presented the service award to Kaemmerling for her dedicated leadership as a member of both WCU’s Foundation Board and Board of Trustees, serving as the latter’s chair the last two years of her term, which ended July 31.

Ed Holland, president of the Alumni Association, presided over presentation of three awards given by that group. Tyler McKenzie, who just ended a two-year stint performing in the Broadway and touring productions of “Hamilton,” received the Young Alumni Award. Danita Johnson, the new president and chief operating officer for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, was honored with the Professional Achievement Award, and Dr. Matthew Hickey, interim associate dean for Research and Graduate Education in Colorado State University’s College of Health and Human Sciences, was recipient of the Academic Achievement Award.

Before Brown introduced Kaemmerling as this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Service award, she took note of some of the many guests who were attending the ceremony in support of Kaemmerling: a couple who had flown in from Texas, unbeknownst to Kaemmerling, to surprise her; a cousin; her former college roommate; and friends of Kaemmerling’s for the past 40 years.

“I think these all tell you something about this very special woman, Pat Kaemmerling, who is our past Board of Trustees chair, who is winning this award,” Brown said.

Kaemmerling earned her bachelor’s degree in education at WCU in 1971, arriving as a first-generation college student fresh from her family’s farm in Caser. She taught school for several years before heading to Atlanta to try her hand at business. It worked. But, she eventually left the corporate world for life as a small-business owner with her husband, David. Together, they have owned and operated Access Computers, a network integrator with a nationwide client base, and Ultimate Security Solutions, where she serves as chief financial officer.

In support of WCU, Kaemmerling served on the university’s Foundation Board from 2008-2011 and on the Board of Trustees from 2011-2019. She also served as co-chair of the Chancellor Search Committee, which brought Brown to Cullowhee, and on the university’s 125th  anniversary celebration steering committee. Kaemmerling also helped lead the naming of Levern Hamlin Allen Hall and shepherd the WCU family through the passing of Chancellor David O. Belcher.

“Pat may have graduated from WCU in 1971, but she never really left,” Brown said. “Her fingerprints are everywhere — and fresh ones, too.”

After she accepted the award, Kaemmerling said she never imagined being honored in such a way. “But, perhaps that’s what a college education is supposed to do, help you to achieve things you could not imagine,” she said.

Kaemmerling credited her parents and farm life with teaching her a work ethic that has never let her down. “My parents were good, hardworking people,” she said. “Looking back, if I had to pick the most important lesson from each, I would tell you my mom taught me ‘you don’t quit when you’re tired, you quit when you’re done!’ My dad taught me that you do each job to the best of your ability, no matter how large or small, as if you had to sign your name to it publicly.”

Kaemmerling also thanked WCU for preparing her for a successful career. As such, she and her husband, David, are committed to helping other students succeed. “David and I both know the value of an education,” Kaemmerling said. “We know how it transforms lives, not just for the student, but for their families and for future generations to come. With no children of our own, we decided to contact Western and create a legacy gift to help other children get an education.”

Tyler McKenzie

Tyler McKenzie, recipient of the Young Alumni Award, graduated in 2013 from WCU’s School of Stage and Screen with a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theater. Although McKenzie was raised in Charlotte, he was born in New York, and New York is where he returned following graduation from WCU, to find work on Broadway, which he did. In August, McKenzie ended his stint in “Hamilton,” which won 11 Tony Awards and was nominated for 16, making it the most Tony Award- nominated Broadway musical in history to date. He also has toured with the musicals “Mamma Mia!” and “Matilda.”

Upon receiving his award, McKenzie praised WCU’s Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts for preparing him for his Broadway success. “I always make room in my 30-word maximum bio in Broadway playbills to highlight my alma mater, Western Carolina University,” McKenzie said. “When high school students see that name in playbills and show programs, they put the school on the list of places they need to audition for and hope they can get in. We need more people to say they’re proud to be from Western Carolina. And, I believe that if they believe they’re significant here, they’ll feel significant out there.”

McKenzie said he hopes his success on Broadway and his Young Alumni Award keeps the spotlight on the Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts. “I hope that with new administration and new leadership here, that we’re always asking the question ‘What about the College of Fine and Performing Arts?’ I believe that we serve a mission to create happiness and to create an escape for people everywhere in the United States and throughout the world. I believe that if we continue to make the College of Fine and Performing Arts a priority, I think it will also create a happiness and a positivity for everyone at the university, and we’ll have more people like me who are on Broadway and educating and spreading the good word that is musical theater.”

With “Hamilton” behind him, McKenzie is currently back in New York preparing to direct the musical “Mamma Mia!” at the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson, Florida, in February. He also is producing WCU’s Black Theater Ensemble’s production of “Songs For a New World.”

Danita Johnson

Danita Johnson, president and chief operating officer of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, received the Professional Achievement Award. A 2005 WCU graduate with a degree in sport management, Johnson worked her way to the top of the Women’s National Basketball Association with stints at the NBA and with several development leagues, an accomplishment she said she could not have achieved without her experience at WCU, a “magical place that not everyone is meant to discover.”

“I learned my value here,” Johnson said through tears, after accepting her award.  “I walked across that stage in 2005 understanding my value, and it’s propelled me to experience and live a life that I couldn’t even dream. But right now, I’m living it every single day.”

Johnson grew up in Fayetteville and returned there her final semester at WCU to serve an internship with the Fayetteville Patriots of the then-NBA Development League, who then hired her. Johnson first joined the Sparks as their senior vice president from 2014-2017. She left to work briefly as director of business operations for the Los Angeles Clippers in 2018, before returning to the Sparks as their president.

“Each day I wake up knowing I am blessed. At the age of 36, I am the president of a professional basketball team. I’m one of the few in my industry to do it across all league levels from the NBA, to G league, WNBA, every bit, not to mention I’m a black woman in this industry, which is a whole other story,” she said. “What I know is real is that I worked for these moments. Starting as an intern, working my way through every single level, moving from city to city, leaving behind my friends, my family. The journey was not easy, but nothing is great that comes easy. It requires dedication, discipline, humility and at times tough skin, I tell you. But when you see value in yourself, those attributes come to life.”

Under Johnson’s leadership, the Sparks have increased media coverage and social media engagement, which helped lead to a home-opener that drew more than 12,000 fans to Staples Center. She has helped the Sparks lead the league in corporate sponsorship dollars earned and has overseen the team’s signing of the largest community-based partnership in WNBA history with the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and California Mental Health Services Authority. The yearlong campaign, called “Spark The True You,” is centered on spotlighting military women and their families and raising awareness about mental health.

“I feel this award represents me graduating to a new level in my life. My journey is not over and I can’t say it’s just beginning, but whoever knew that being right in the middle could feel so good,” Johnson said.  “I can truly say that my college experience was one of the best times of my life. I learned about myself, I became stronger, and here is where I built the foundation to be the woman standing before you today.”

Matt Hickey

Matt Hickey, one of 12 Colorado State University faculty members with a lifetime appointment as a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar, received the Academic Achievement Award. Hickey, who graduated summa cum laude with an undergraduate degree in sport management from WCU in 1988, was born and raised in New York and attended SUNY-Cortland in New York for two years before following a friend to WCU who was transferring to play football.  “He said, ‘Do you want to transfer?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ So, all part of my long-term strategy,” Hickey said after receiving his award.

Hickey credited his former WCU professor Art Pilch for nudging him into a life of academia, even though Hickey wasn’t sure that’s where he wanted to go. Pilch even set up an interview for Hickey at Virginia Tech for graduate school without his knowledge. “Art planted the seeds, opened the door, shoved me through it,” Hickey said. “I think I still might have his footprint located somewhere.”

Hickey earned his doctorate in bioenergetics at Ball State University in Indiana before returning to North Carolina for a four-year post-doctoral fellowship at East Carolina University. He accepted his first tenure-track position in the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State University in 1997. At CSU, Hickey has served as director of the Human Performance Clinical Research Laboratory in the department of health and exercise science for the past 20 years, as chair of the sole institutional review board and, more recently, of the biomedical institutional review board. He also is a member of the Bioethics Advisory Committee and has chaired several special emphasis panels for the National Cancer Institute. As of August, he became interim associate dean for Research and Graduate Education in the College of Health and Human Sciences at CSU.

Hickey also thanked his now deceased father for his influence on him and others. “I bear his fingerprints and I always will,” Hickey said. “For all of his life my dad was an educator and a mentor and a friend to me and to many other people. I certainly wouldn’t be standing here without him and without his influence on me. He was called home to be with the Lord a few years ago. Part of my commitment to education and my journey through the academy is a commitment to his legacy and to continue to carry that on.”