One Special Night

It is a night where Marshall University has an opportunity to shine the brightest.

A yearly spectacle honoring talented and accomplished individuals from around the globe that lay claim to a picturesque campus on the banks of the Ohio River as their alma mater. It is a night for reverence and for remembrance. But most of all, it is a night to recognize what Marshall means to the community and to the alumni who have graced its hallowed halls.

Of course, we are talking about the annual Alumni Awards Banquet, part of a larger alumni weekend that dates back nearly 100 years honoring outstanding alumni of Marshall University.

Held each spring on the Huntington campus, the Alumni Awards Banquet, preparing to celebrate its 83rd iteration in 2022, recognizes alumni, supporters, faculty, and students of Marshall on a night dedicated to showcasing the best of the university. Awards range from the Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna award recognizing individuals for outstanding national achievements, to individual Awards of Distinction presented by each of Marshall’s colleges, to scholarships designed to recognize student athletes and academic success.

The event presents a yearly opportunity to honor those individuals who have achieved great successes, along with individuals who have given so much to their communities and to Marshall University.

2018 Distinguished Aluma Marilyn Johnson gives her acceptance speech at the 81st Alumni Awards Banquet on Saturday, March 31, 2018.

“This event is extremely important to me on a personal level,” said Matt Hayes, Executive Director of Alumni Relations at Marshall University. “At this time each year we press pause and celebrate individual and collective achievements on a local, national and global scale. The achievements of a fellow son or daughter of Marshall is cause for celebration for us all because we are a family.

“I’ve been moved by fellow alumni receiving awards for doing amazing and extraordinary things in their particular field of expertise and receiving their awards with tremendous grace and humility. We all share the common bond of beginning our professional pursuits right here at Marshall University and it makes the celebration of these outstanding achievements so special for us all.”

Held nearly without pause for much of the past century, the annual awards banquet had to be postponed in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic but plans to resume with an event to be remembered on Saturday, April 9, 2022.

Highlighting the list of more than a dozen honorees when the event resumes next year are Brad and Alys Smith. Brad Smith has been selected as the recipient of the Marshall University Distinguished Alumnus award while Alys Smith has been selected as the recipient of the Distinguished Service to Marshall University award, two of Marshall’s highest honors. William Joseph Kehoe and Cathy Burns have been selected as co-recipients of the Outstanding Community Achievement award, and Jeff McKay will receive the Distinguished Young Alumni award.

When the event resumes, those individuals will join a who’s who list of outstanding alumni dating back to the days before Marshall was even recognized as a university.

Through the years, many recognizable names have been etched into the virtual Hall of Fame. From athletic stars and titans of industry to medical professionals, military leaders, entertainers, and NASA engineers, the list of past national awardees in the categories of Distinguished Alumni, Outstanding Service to Marshall University, Outstanding Community Achievement and Outstanding Young Alumni is truly worth taking pause.

Former Marshall University Alumni Association President Bernie Coston presenting the Distinguished Alumnus award to hand surgeon Eric George at the 77th Alumni Awards Banquet on Saturday, April 26, 2014.

“It scares me to name names because I always leave someone out that I do not want to overlook. Over the years there are many awardees that come to mind. U.S. Army General, Anthony Crutchfield and his wife Kim have such an amazing Marshall story and the General’s pride is infectious every time he shares how they met and how much Marshall means to them personally,” Hayes said. “Dr. Eric George is an amazing Son of Marshall who overcame numerous obstacles to earn degrees from MU then go on to become a world-renowned hand surgeon and entrepreneur. Mrs. Donna Harbour and Mrs. Missy Morrison stand out as fellow alumni leading and serving their communities in ways that undoubtedly make the world a better place.

“So many more come to mind and I could go on and on, but one of my fondest memories is from our 2014 banquet surprising then first lady, Mrs. Jane Kopp with our Unsung Hero Award. She was so surprised, and I’ll never forget the look on her face and the gracious humility with which she received the award.”

One of those individuals forever immortalized as a past awardees is Jim Farley. Farley has been actively involved with Marshall University for more than five decades, serving in a number of leadership roles which began in the early 1970s. Specifically, Jim has served as President of the Marshall University Alumni Association Board of Directors and in various capacities with the Board of Trustees of Yeager Scholars, Board of Directors with the Marshall University Foundation and the Marshall University Board of Governors.

Professionally as a health care administrator, Farley, a native of Rock Creek, West Virginia, was selected as the 2011 recipient of Marshall University’s prestigious Distinguished Alumnus Award.

2011 Distinguished Alumnus Jim Farley posing with 2015 recipient Lieutenant General Anthony Crutchfield at the 78th Alumni Awards Banquet on Saturday, April 25, 2015.

“It made me proud without a doubt. I never did things for Marshall to gain recognition, but it still makes you feel good to be honored,” Farley said. “To know that all of the things you have done throughout the years is appreciated is rewarding. I’ve worked with some really good people through the years. And what I am most proud about is that I have been consistent. I have been doing something, and sometimes two or three things, for Marshall for more than 50 years.”

Together, Jim and his wife Bobbie have been instrumental in starting several alumni chapters while also supporting various MUAA initiatives across the country. The Farleys are responsible for helping establish the MGM Chapter in the late 1970s and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Chapter in the 1980s. They were also pivotal in the creation of chapters in Florida and other regions of West Virginia.

And he vividly recalls what it meant to get the call that he would be immortalized by his alma mater.

“We drove down from Cincinnati and when we walked in, it was just like ‘oh my goodness.’ People were coming up to me and patting me on the back and thanking me. It was a really special feeling,” Farley said. “I had been (to the banquet) several times for other people, but I never thought that someday Jim Farley would be receiving an award. I think of all the people in front of me and since that received awards. It is a special group, and I am humbled to be listed alongside them.”

Throughout the years, awardees have been recognized for incredible achievements over a lifetime, while others have seen their recognition serve as a springboard to even greater things in the future.

Take for instance 2015 recipient of the Outstanding Community Achievement Award, Missy Clagg-Morrison.

A two-time Marshall graduate, Morrison is known for her volunteer efforts and passion in serving the homeless and addiction recovery communities. She has hosted and organized community-wide collections, programs and events designed to help others in need.

Missy Morrison and her daughter Lexi at the 78th Alumni Awards Banquet on Saturday, April 25, 2015.

Morrison added to her philanthropic recognitions in 2021 when West Virginia First Lady Cathy Justice presented her with the Rhododendron Award. The award recognizes West Virginians who have “demonstrated goodness and worked for the betterment of their communities.”

She recalls what that recognition from Marshall in 2015 meant to her.

“After meeting so many distinguished alumni at the banquet and hearing about their personal and professional accomplishments, I remember feeling simultaneously undeserving and honored to have been invited and nominated for my community service efforts,” Morrison said. “I was so excited and grateful to be recognized, and even more so that my daughter, Lexi, was with me at the banquet. She was a sophomore at MU at that time and had volunteered alongside me for many hours in the years leading up to the event. It meant so much to me that I was able to share that night – and the recognition – with her.”

Now, after years of volunteering on the side while serving as a Program Administrator for the Psychiatry Residency and Fellowship Programs at Marshall, Morrison will turn her community service efforts into a fulltime gig beginning later this year.

“Since (the awards banquet), I’ve continued to pursue outreach and volunteer opportunities, and I’ve met so many good people on both sides of the serving table. I believe the recognition from the MUAA opened the door for me to expand my circle of influence and likely was why I was later nominated and selected for numerous other community service awards,” Morrison said. “After 11 years of volunteering, and recognition like the MUAA’s that allowed me to shift the light to the needs of those I serve, I’m blessed to be able to make the leap to non-profit as my day job. I’ll be leaving Marshall’s School of Medicine and stepping into a new role as the Director of Development and Community Engagement at the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless.

“I’m looking forward to collaborating with the university as well as through my role on the MUAA board, to better provide for and better serve those experiencing homelessness.”

The banquet is also a time to recognize students and showcase what being an alumnus of Marshall University is all about. Numerous scholarships are presented each year at the awards ceremony as the current student experience is highlighted in front of graduates from nearly every class year.

While the annual event is a great opportunity for awardees to have their time in the spotlight, it is also a great opportunity for returning alumni to meet with friends and colleagues. Bernie Coston, a past president of the Marshall University Black Alumni Association and Marshall University Alumni Association, spoke about what the awards banquet meant to him as the face of the alumni association national board.

Former Marshall University Alumni Association President Bernie Coston posing with an alum during the 2014 Alumni Weekend festivities.

“The awards banquet is important in recognizing the outstanding achievements of alumni, but to me it goes even further. The banquet has transformed into a premier event for the Huntington area and it showcases achievement from alumni and current students,” Coston said. “To me, this is the board’s weekend to shine and while it was busy and hectic, we all made time to enjoy ourselves. Under the vision of past alumni relations staffer Nancy Pelphrey, this event has grown to a capacity crowd and highlights the achievements of Marshall students, past and present.”

Of course, one of the most memorable moments for Coston was when he had an opportunity to surprise his late wife, Pota, with a family scholarship.

“That moment was so special because it established a legacy for our family that will continue for a long time,” Coston said. “Plus, past awards banquets would usually fall on my birthday weekend, so that would make it really special.”

Most of all, Coston said that it is important for events like this to exist to showcase the best of what Marshall University has to offer.

“It is important to annually recognize alumni because we are part of the heartbeat that makes up the university,” Coston said. “Our accomplishments serve as a catalyst to recruit future sons and daughters of Marshall. The long list of those who have walked the halls of Old Main reflects our fortitude. Our graduates have had so many accomplishments and I’m extremely thrilled that alumni are also giving back financially to aid future students.”

While little is known about the earliest years of the annual recognition of outstanding Marshall alumni, the event would eventually gain steam and became a yearly function in the early 1960s. Of the dozens of individuals to actively touch the event throughout the years, perhaps none has been as instrumental as former Alumni Relations staff member Nancy Pelphrey. Pelphrey spearheaded the Alumni Awards Banquet for nearly 30 years before her retirement in 2014.

Former Alumni Relations staff member Nancy Pelphrey posing with a student selected for one of two scholarships presented each year in her name at the 81st Alumni Awards Banquet on Saturday, March 31, 2018.

Starting her career at Marshall in 1968 as a student, she has been connected to the university in some way for more than 45 years. During her time at Marshall, Pelphrey saw the reign of 12 university presidents and oversaw more than two dozen banquets.

“So many times, the athletes at Marshall get all of the recognition, but there are so many incredible alumni out there that people don’t even stop to think about that are very deserving of being recognized by the university,” Pelphrey said. “The event is a great opportunity to meet new alumni and to hear their stories. It was always a pleasure to meet alumni from different class years, show off the alumni center, show off campus and let them see what is happening and the evolution of campus.”

In addition to the awards banquet, Pelphrey oversaw a larger Alumni Weekend that included class reunions, dinner theatres, campus tours and more. Through it all, Pelphrey recalls several special moments, from an anniversary celebration that saw the serving of cakes topped with sparklers to each of the banquet tables, to time with special members of the Marshall family, but it was a banquet in 2006 that housed the most special moment for her.

“In 2006 we recognized Broadway actor and singer Mark McVey. Before the event, I asked him if he would consider singing and we had a piano brought over. Nobody knew he was going to perform and when he did, people left in tears,” Pelphrey said. “I always liked to have a wow factor that surprised everyone. Little touches like that made the event so special because when people are happy, that is when all of the hard work is made worth it.”

Another person that has been a part of numerous awards banquets through the years is former Alumni Director and current Director of Development and Alumni Affairs at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, Linda Holmes.

Holmes served as the director of alumni relations at Marshall from 1984 until beginning her current position in 1998 and even recruited Pelphrey to join her staff.

Current Executive Director of Alumni Relations Matt Hayes poses for a photo alongside former director Linda Holmes and 2019 Award of Distinction recipient C. Douglas Phillips at the 82nd Alumni Awards Banquet on Saturday, April 13, 2019.

“It pleases me to see how successful alumni weekends have become and that I had a part in making that possible. I would be remiss if I didn’t share the best part of serving as the alumni director for the university was the many, many graduates and friends of the university that I was able to meet,” Holmes said. “That weekend allowed me to meet or reconnect with a fellow alumnus or supporter of the university that accomplished greatness and how they always credited their Marshall experience as molding them. There is such passion in being a part of the Marshall family.”

While there wasn’t one particular moment that stands above the rest, Holmes admits that the opportunity to welcome alumni home and provide them a brief step back in time to their years as a student was the most rewarding part of events such as this.

“I truly cherish all of the people that returned for their reunions and the amazing graduates that were award winners,” Holmes said. “Annual recognition allows another stellar graduate to be showcased for their accomplishments in their field of endeavor while serving as a role model for what a Marshall education and experience can allow someone to do.

“As the person ultimately responsible for the banquet from start to finish, I think the best memory is when the final event ended, and another successful alumni weekend was in my rearview mirror!”

Now preparing to celebrate its 83rd year, the Alumni Awards Banquet has withstood the test of time as one of the premier events on the university calendar. It is a special time to reflect on where the university has been while looking toward the future. And it is an opportunity to showcase Marshall University and the thousands of sons and daughters that have called Marshall home.

“This may sound strange, but I love the moments we have in the room right before we open the doors for the awards banquet once everything is in place and the tables are set,” said Hayes about the excitement surrounding the banquet each year. “The silent anticipation of the special moments and emotions in store for the evening come to mind, as do the very special moments we have shared in the past.

“There is an incredible energy in the space waiting to release and it is exciting to see all the planning come together in preparation for the Marshall family to celebrate together.”

Another chapter in this storied event will be entered into the history books when the awards banquet resumes after a brief interruption in April of 2022.

“There are so many alumni of Marshall University worthy of recognition. The fellow Sons and Daughters of Marshall that are recognized each year during the awards banquet are the fortunate ones that stand out because of having been nominated by a family member or colleague,” Hayes said. “We strive to provide proper recognition for all members of the Marshall family, and it is truly special to recognize fellow alumni with our highest honors. While we are here, if you know of an alumni worthy of recognition, please contact the office of alumni relations at alumni@marshall.edu or (304) 696-3134.”

2017 awardees Red Dawson and Brandy Barkey Sweeney pose with their awards at the 80th Alumni Awards Banquet on Saturday, April 22, 2017.