Issues by Date: June 2019

Ford Auditorium Renovation

Current view of Ford Auditorium stage, with seats removed and scaffolding installed to provide access to the ceiling.

As a student, Betty Anne Rouse Bell (52H, 56C) performed in Ford Auditorium – and scrubbed its stage. In May, the alumna who counts the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan among the many she has entertained with her voice returned to the source of so many great memories, this time with mini-sledgehammer in hand, to celebrate the beginning of a $6.3 million renovation and restoration of the beloved Berry icon.

Bell – whose name will grace the interior recital hall thanks to a generous surprise gift from her husband, Robert – joined many other alumni and friends at the event, which featured performances by student vocalist Carrie Sturniolo, trumpeter Leif Atchley (19C) and the Ross Magoulas-led Alumni Choir.

President Steve Briggs commended the more than 400 donors who have contributed to the LifeReady Campaign project thus far, noting that they “have banded together, each playing a part like the members of an orchestra, to accomplish something beautiful that transcends their separate contributions.”

Fittingly, some of the most significant gifts have honored alumnae like Bell whose lives found expression through their experiences as students in Ford Auditorium and the surrounding Ford Buildings. They include Dr. Ouida Word Dickey (50C, FFS), whose 90th birthday challenge spurred significant support for the renovation last summer; and Margaret Weaver Faison (36C), whose family has named the entrance hall in her memory.

Dickey took her turn with a sledgehammer, as did Audrey Morgan, an honorary alumna and Berry Board of Visitors member whose late sister, M. Bobbie Bailey, will be remembered with the naming of the Ford stage.

Following a plan developed by Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago, one of the nation’s foremost acoustics consulting firms, workers are even now breathing new life into the facility. Highlights of the renovation include installation of an all-wood ceiling, wood-carved acoustical paneling, adjustable acoustical banners, and sound reflectors; a 1,086 square-foot accessible stage with curved front; a new arched seating configuration with room for 366; a redesigned balcony with improved sight lines; and restoration of historic elements, among other enhancements, including updates to adjacent music department spaces.

There’s still time to lend your voice to the chorus of donors ensuring that Berry students have a performance venue worthy of their talents. Click here to make your gift supporting the Ford Auditorium renovation today.

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Nathaniel PearsonThe evolution of the Berry Center for Integrity in Leadership continues with the appointment of Dr. Nathaniel Pearson as inaugural director.

Pearson, formerly executive director of the Nerney Leadership Institute at Cabrini University, assumed his new role June 1. He is the first person to hold the directorship, which is named in memory of Elvin (35C) and Fleta Patterson (35C) Sims. The position was endowed by a $2 million commitment from their son, retired Union Pacific executive John Edward Sims, who wished to honor their example as parents, educators and mentors in their home and community.

As director, Pearson will work to further BCIL’s impact through collaboration with faculty, staff, students and community partners. Current initiatives funded by gifts to the LifeReady Campaign include the Gordon and Joyce Carper Mentoring Program, which recently completed its sixth year pairing Berry students with community leaders; the Cecil B. Wright III Lecture Series, which this spring welcomed international journalist and former CNN executive Parisa Khosravi; and the Bowen and Barbara McCoy and Ted A. Owens faculty development grants.

In addition to his work as executive director of the Nerney Leadership Institute, Pearson has also served as assistant professor of leadership studies at Cabrini University and West Virginia University. His background is in child and family counseling, and he holds a doctorate in leadership studies from Gonzaga University.

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Alumni WeekendIf it’s true that home is where the heart is, then participants in Alumni Weekend were no doubt humming Homeward Bound as they returned to campus May 17-19. Highlights this year included reunion events for the classes of 1954, 1959 and 1964; a dinner for the college class of 1961; Golden Guard induction for the academy and college reunion classes of 1969; and recognition of this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award winners.

VIEW: Reunion Class and Event Photos


  • Alexander “Whit” Whyte Whitaker IV (81C, FFS), Distinguished Achievement: Retired Navy captain and former Berry chief of staff now serving as president of King University
  • Rebekah “Bekah” Fortney Baxter (18C), Distinguished Service: Founder of Chosen Vessels, a nonprofit seeking to encourage, equip and empower leaders around the globe; she has served abroad in Ghana and Romania and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in intercultural studies at Asbury Theological Seminary
  • Timothy Brian Lusby (84C), Entrepreneurial Spirit: Army veteran with a 30-year track record of entrepreneurial success; most recently, he was one of three founders of JRL Energy and its wholly owned subsidiary, JRL Coal, which last fall was named Tri-County “Business of the Year” in Harlan, Ky.
  • Adam Douglas Newton (07C), Outstanding Young Alumni: Former Berry cross country and track captain who is now one of the youngest associate partners at Aon Hewitt Investment Consulting, his professional home for 11 years


  • Frances Richey (83A, 87C), Virginia R. Webb Service Award, Berry Alumni Association
  • Frank Campbell (posthumous), Outstanding Faculty/Staff Award, Berry High Schools/Berry Academy


  • 1969A – Reunion Cup (percentage attendance)
  • 1959C – Viking Cup (highest giving percentage)
  • 1964C – Ford Cup (total giving)
  • 1969A – Martha Cup (percentage increase in giving)

Total reunion giving exceeded $634,000.

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Brothers Leon, left, and Joe Elder and familiar faces at Alumni Work Week.

The Elder brothers, Leon (left) and Joe, are familiar faces at Work Week.

Joe Elder (63C) works in the kitchen during Alumni Work Week, a job that’s reminiscent of his dining hall experience as a Berry student. These days, however, he’s sharing a suite with his wife and brother and whipping up desserts one current student called “life changing.”

Joe and brother Leon (54C) are two of nine children, six of whom attended Berry. Both are Work Week regulars: Leon has participated 14 times over a 20-year span, and Joe has joined him for seven or eight.

“He’s responsible for me being here,” Joe said. “But it worked out great because we get to spend a week together.”

A total of 135 alumni and friends participated this year, including several married couples and sets of siblings. Participants broke into 17 crews and worked on projects all across campus, including the ongoing restoration of Barnwell Chapel.

When they’re not working, the Elder brothers like to “ramble around” campus, Leon said, often driving up to the Old Mill and walking to the reservoir together.

Leon, like Joe, volunteers in food service, lending a hand on the snack wagon crew every year. He loves the opportunity it provides to meet and interact with other alumni.

“We get to work, play and eat around very pleasant people who, even though they have aches and pains, still have a smile on their face,” he said.

Ragsdales at Work Week

Work Week is an annual tradition for Nelda and Joe Ragsdale.

Nelda (64C) and Joe (65C) Ragsdale met as Berry students and married after graduation. More than a half-century later, they welcome the opportunity to return to Berry for Work Week each year. They have attended the event together 21 times since 1997, with Nelda participating one or two years before that.

Joe enjoys learning new things, just like he did when he attended Berry.

“So far I’ve been here 21 years, and I think I’ve done 21 different things,” he said.

Similarly, Nelda has done everything from office work to polishing the cars at Oak Hill. Both expressed an appreciation for the opportunities they’ve had to hear stories from other alumni.

“The early years when we came back, we were some of the youngest,” Nelda said. “Just to hear the stories that others told was a lot of fun.”

By student writer Cassie LaJeunesse; photos by student Matthew McConnell

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Berry 2019 Commencement

Mahmood “Momo” Abdellatif receives his diploma from President Steve Briggs before a huge crowd on the Evans lawn.

“Live life less filtered.”

This was the advice John Coleman (04C) offered to the class of 2019 at spring commencement.

Coleman – the 2012 recipient of Berry’s Outstanding Young Alumni Award – is no stranger to the Berry podium, having spoken at his own graduation and at Mountain Day. This time, he shared his insights with 410 undergraduates and hundreds of additional guests gathered on the Evans Hall lawn (20 graduate students received their diplomas at a separate ceremony).

Repeatedly referring to today’s social media society, the Harvard MPA/MBA graduate and Invesco executive addressed the dangers of the unrealistic expectations it presents.

“We keep our relationships superficial and unreal, so concerned with putting our best foot forward that we forget to extend a hand,” Coleman said, encouraging graduates to embrace the messier aspects of life, rather than constantly polishing and filtering the version of their story that they share with the world.

After his own graduation, Coleman faced a series of struggles: unsuccessful jobs, break-ups, small apartments and couch surfing. In sharing these experiences, he also touched on the lessons he learned and how he has grown since then. Living life less filtered, he said, means embracing and being honest about the good and the bad in life. He emphasized the importance of opening up to others, asking for and giving help when it is needed.

“Today, you’re Berry College alums,” he said. “I know that you can do this.”

Based on their accomplishments so far, we heartily agree! A quarter of this year’s graduates will move on to graduate/professional school, studying everything from law and epidemiology to computer science and poultry nutrigenomics. Others are starting work right away with companies like Nike, Chick-fil-A, The Home Depot and Disney. Our charge to them is simple …

STAY IN TOUCH! And be sure to drop us a class note for Berry magazine from time to time. Come to think of it, that goes for the rest of you as well! If you haven’t sent us an update lately, click here and do so today!

By student writer Cassie LaJeunesse

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Equestrian Commencement

COMMENCEMENT ROUNDUP: Chief of Staff Debbie Heida, center, presides over a special graduation ceremony for equestrian seniors Allie Robertson, left, and Sarah Cooper. The equestrian team was in Syracuse, N.Y., the weekend of spring commencement competing in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Championships.

Allie Robertson

Allie Robertson is all smiles after winning her second national championship as a member of Berry’s equestrian team. Photo courtesy of EQ Media.

Most students process into commencement to the strains of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, but it’s not usually played on an iPhone. Then again, graduation was anything but typical for Allie Robertson and Sarah Cooper.

As members of Berry’s varsity equestrian team, Robertson and Cooper found themselves in Syracuse, N.Y., the first weekend in May competing in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) National Championships.

Robertson walked with her Berry classmates before flying to New York for two events the following day. She ultimately won an individual national championship in Novice Western Horsemanship, her second national title at Berry, to pace a sixth-place team finish.

“It was kind of a whirlwind weekend,” she said. “I didn’t really have time to process that I had just graduated college and was going to nationals.”

Cooper’s competition schedule prevented her from walking with Robertson and the rest of her class, so Chief of Staff Debbie Heida brought graduation to her, flying to Syracuse once Berry’s commencement concluded to preside over a miniature ceremony for both equestrian seniors.

“It’s a privilege to go and be part of their nationals experience,” Heida said, adding that it means a lot to her to be able to “celebrate with someone the end of a four-year academic career.”

At the ceremony, which was held in a conference room at the event center, the students processed into the room as they would at a typical graduation.

“We had caps and gowns on top and boots and spurs on the bottom half, which was so perfect for us,” Cooper said. “It really made up for the sadness of missing the real graduation. It was the perfect way to wrap up nationals and my Berry College career.”

By student writer Cassie LaJeunesse

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Matt Schneider (02C) didn’t know when he watched The Terry Fox Story at age 7 that the movie would one day inspire his own cross-continent journey. Today, he is following the example set by his hero, who attempted to run across Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research after losing his leg to the disease.

Schneider’s goal is to drive his mobility scooter from Miami to San Francisco to educate others about the importance of organ donation. Born with Eagle-Barrett Syndrome, a condition which affects the kidneys and other bodily functions, he has been the recipient of four donated kidneys in his life, three from family members and the fourth from “a special angel in California” he didn’t know.

Schneider said that although 95 percent of Americans support organ donation, only 58 percent have registered to be donors. Scooting4Donors is meant to bring awareness to the issue and encourage others to register.

“I want people to learn how easy it is to register to become an organ donor,” Schneider said. “You can save up to seven peoples’ lives.”

Along the way, Schneider plans to visit all of his transplant centers, as well as the doctor in Texas who predicted that he would not live long after birth. He hopes to register hundreds of organ donors as he goes. Between legs of his trip, he volunteers at a camp for children who have had heart transplants.

Recently, his journey brought him to Berry, the place he says “changed my life when I attended school here.”

Schneider was a student at Berry when he underwent his third transplant, at one point taking a year off for dialysis treatments.

“When I came back to Berry,” he recalled, “everybody welcomed me with open arms. All of the professors were more than helpful. They made sure I got the best education I could. Berry helped me with my education and my well-being.”

Visit for more on Schneider’s journey. You can follow him on social media @Scooting4Donors.

RELATED COVERAGE: Can this cross-country trek increase organ donations? (AJC)

By student writer Cassie LaJeunesse

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Dr. Peter Lawler holds court in his famously messy office.

COLLECTIVE MEMORY: Decades of Berry alumni can close their eyes and call to mind this image of the late Dr. Peter Lawler holding court in his famously messy office. Last fall, that space was named in his memory, and this spring, Dr. David Ramsey (01C) delivered the first Peter Augustine Lawler Lecture in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

Rita Lawler and Dr. David Ramsey

Dr. David Ramsey, right, visits with Rita Lawler, widow of his longtime mentor.

It’s been two years since Dr. Peter Lawler’s unexpected death shocked the Berry community, but his influence continues to burn brightly in the lives of alumni and friends who were inspired by him.

Last fall, Lawler’s former office in Evans Hall was named in his memory – the result of an outpouring of gifts to the scholarship bearing his name – and this spring a former student and mentee, Dr. David Ramsey (01C), delivered the first Peter Augustine Lawler Lecture in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

Ramsey, who has followed in Lawler’s footsteps as a professor of constitutional law and political philosophy at the University of West Florida, said the beloved professor is second only to his parents in influencing his life.

“My vocation is an imitation of his,” he said. “Peter Lawler touched my life at Berry in the most amazing ways. He gave freely of himself to his students and taught me that’s what teaching is about.”

Lawler, who taught at Berry for 38 years, was a nationally renowned political scholar and a prolific author and editor of more than 15 books. Appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the President’s Council on Bioethics, Lawler was a recipient of the Richard M. Weaver Prize for Scholarly Excellence and was honored as the George Washington Distinguished Professor of the American Founding by The Society of the Cincinnati, among other distinctions.

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Abby Thomas

Abby Thomas, left, has found her calling with Special Olympics International. She is seen here with colleagues Meghan Meyers, middle, and Terrel Limerick.

When Abby Thomas (14C) first stepped onto the Rome Braves Miracle Field during a field trip with her Berry kinesiology class, she knew she had to be involved with the work being done there. It was there that she found the perfect source of experience to complement her academic preparation as a public health major with a concentration in disability studies.

Her subsequent experiences as a volunteer and intern fueled a passion for helping people to participate in sporting activities – regardless of physical or intellectual ability – that continues to flourish today through her work as manager of strategic partnerships for Special Olympics International in Washington, D.C.

“The work we do is really exciting and important,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to work with and for people with disabilities, and I’ve always had a passion for sports, so Special Olympics is the perfect marriage of those two things.”

In her role, Thomas is responsible for directing corporate fundraising efforts for an organization that serves more than five million athletes worldwide. Inspiration for her work comes from the athletes she gets to work with on a daily basis – people who serve as both colleagues and friends in her office at SOI Headquarters.

Recently, she returned to Berry to share the story of Special Olympics with students in an Exceptional Child course taught by Dr. Michelle Haney. During her presentation, Thomas noted the similarities between Martha Berry and Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver – two strong-willed, innovative and determined women who left a legacy that continues to change the world and benefit others today.

By student writer Kendall Aronson

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