Alumni Seal Awards Presented at Reunion Weekend
An Oscar-winning movie producer, the founder of a prison hospice, a mathematician-turned-high school principal, and a beyond-the-call-of duty volunteer were presented with the Occidental College Alumni Association’s highest award at a June 13 ceremony held during the college’s annual Alumni Reunion Weekend.
Each year, the Alumni Association presents the Alumni Seal Awards to recognize outstanding alumni contributions in four areas: outstanding young alumnus or alumna; service to the community; professional achievement; and service to the College.
One of the best forms of training to become good movie producer, says Lindsey Collins ‘94, winner of the outstanding young alumni award, is working as the head resident in an Occidental residence hall. Mediating roommate conflicts and the other disagreements that inevitably arise in that setting develops the kind of negotiation and diplomatic skills needed to manage the creative chaos that is a major motion picture.
How well Collins learned from her experience in Wylie Hall was demonstrated earlier this year when the Pixar movie she helped produced, WALL-E, won the Oscar for the year’s best animated film. While this was her first Oscar, it was not her first successful movie. Since starting as a production assistant at Disney after graduation 15 years ago, Collins has worked on such box office and critical successes as Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, Cars, and Ratatouille.
Winner of the service to the community award was Denise Taylor ’84. Shortly after she graduated from Occidental, Taylor’s 19-year-old brother was shot and killed during an armed robbery. Six years ago, Taylor founded one of the nation’s few inmate hospices at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo – a place where terminally ill patients do not have to die alone.
As Taylor points out, the families of inmates are among their victims. The families committed no crimes and still love the person behind bars. To be able to call a family and tell them that their son died in a hospice setting is a small measure of peace that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Taylor traces her unusual career in part to a Buddhist thought class she took with Gamble Professor in Religion Dale Wright – a mindset that followed her through medical school at UC San Diego and a residency at Contra Costa County Medical Center. It was at Contra Costa that she first had the chance to treat inmates at the country jail, and where she first contemplated the idea of working in the correctional system.
Once a shy, 15-year-old immigrant from Guadalajara, Luis Lopez ‘88, winner of the professional achievement award, is today principal of his alma mater, Franklin High School, a mile from the Occidental campus. An Oxy grad three times over, having graduated from the Occidental Upward Bound program and received both his BA and his master’s in teaching from Oxy, Lopez is one of the youngest principals in Los Angeles Unified School District and one of the few with a math degree.
But what is remarkable about Lopez is the way he has used math to dramatically reduce the dropout rate at Franklin. As at most Los Angeles high schools, one of the biggest obstacles was many ninth graders’ failure to pass algebra, a district requirement. Thanks to a new collaborative “beyond the book” approach to teaching math developed by Franklin and Occidental faculty together with Oxy students, Franklin’s retention rate between the ninth and tenth grade has improved significantly.
In the 35 years since he graduated from Occidental, Jon Merksamer ’74, winner of the service to the College award, has worked in a number of volunteer capacities for Oxy. He has served on the Alumni Council, chaired the President’s Circle, been a member of the National Alumni Fund Committee, and acted as a yield reception host for students just admitted to Occidental.
However, it’s in his role as national chair of the Alumni in Admission program that Merksamer is best known. For five years, he has coordinated hundreds of requests for interviews from prospective students with a nationwide network of 300 alumni volunteers. It is unusual for an Admission office to rely on an alumnus to coordinate alumni interviews, a responsibility usually entrusted to an admission officer. But the Admission Office considers Merksamer to be an adjunct member of its staff, and praises his sense of devotion, humility, and loyalty.