The Murray State Alumni Association is proud to announce that five outstanding Murray State alumni have been selected as the 2019 recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award. They will be honored during the Distinguished Alumni Awards Dinner on April 12 at 6 p.m. in the Murray Room of the CFSB Center.

Established in 1962, the Distinguished Alumni Award is presented annually to alumni who have made meaningful contributions to their professions on a local, state and national level. This award is the highest honor an alumnus can receive from the Murray State Alumni Association and stands to recognize alumni who have excelled personally and professionally. Among the recipients of the award are Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and renowned authors, research scientists and physicians, executives, educators, military leaders and Emmy Award-winning broadcasters. Joining them this year will be Dr. Jay Akridge, Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, Felecia Dixon Henderson, Bill Beard and Ernie Vande Zande (posthumously).

Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson

Murray State University Alumni Association recently named Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson, ’80, one of the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients. Johnson is a retired director of Operational Capability Requirements at Air Force headquarters.

Murray State presents the Distinguished Alumni Award annually to alumni who have made meaningful contributions to their profession on a local, state and national level. Established in 1962, the award is the highest honor granted by the Murray State University Alumni Association. Among the recipients of the award are award-winning journalists, renowned authors, research scientists, physicians and educators.

Johnson was born in Alabama, but grew up in Dresden, Tennessee. After initially enrolling in Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee, he transferred to Murray State to pursue a degree in agriculture. For him, making the decision to attend Murray State was easy.

“I always felt the professors and students weren’t just concerned about getting a degree, but to get a good understanding of the rural communities and agriculture,” Johnson said. “Murray State has deeply embedded relationships with regional communities that remain a large agricultural area.”

Upon graduation in 1980, Johnson moved back to Tennessee with his wife, Patricia, and began looking for opportunities to farm on his own.

“We moved out to Somerville, Tennessee, where I began working for a hog farmer in Fayette County,” Johnson said.

It was then that a retired Air Force officer encouraged Johnson to join the Air Force. In 1984, he

applied for the Air Force’s Officer Training School. He was accepted and later sworn in Jan. 2, 1985, five years after graduating from Murray State. He successfully completed Undergraduate Pilot

Training at Laughlin Air Force base in Del Rio, Texas, and was later selected to attend the Air Force Fighter Weapons School, where he was the outstanding graduate of his class.

For most of his career, Johnson flew the A-10 Warthog. He flew this aircraft in several missions, including two significant missions during Desert Storm.

“Learning to fly technical aircraft is a hard thing to do, but comes with a huge sense of accomplishment,” Johnson said.

During Desert Storm, he participated in a search-and-rescue operation where he and his team were able to locate, protect and assist in the recovery of a downed Navy Flyer. The mission was a success and he was awarded the Air Force Cross.

While on a separate mission in Kuwait during Desert Storm, one of the wings on Johnson’s aircraft was struck by an enemy missile.

“I was leading four A-10s and we were attacking an enemy surface air missile,” Johnson said. “The weather was interfering and I made one final attempt to attack the target. I was [flying] too low and we believe it was a solar-fired air missile that hit my airplane.”

Although Johnson originally thought he would have to jump out of his aircraft, he managed to make a safe landing. It was repaired a month later and he was able to fly it back home to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Johnson said that airplane is now a member of his family. He was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission.

Johnson retired from the Air Force in 2016 and moved back to Henderson, Tennessee. He has since moved to Alexandria, Virginia, after accepting a job with Grant Thornton, a management consulting firm in Washington D.C.

“They are wanting to expand their presence in the Air Force and defense marketing,” Johnson said. “They were looking for a retired officer and I took the offer.”

Johnson encourages anyone who is considering joining the military to talk to a variety of people that have served, including those who are currently on active duty.

“Be prepared to go anywhere in the world and do anything that is called of you,” Johnson said. “Don’t expect to have too much say in where you go and what you do. I encourage people to consider the military, but know it is not simply an occupation.”

Maj. Gen. Johnson will be honored at the Distinguished Alumni Dinner on April 12, at 5:30 p.m., in the CFSB Center’s Murray Room. During the banquet, he will have a chance to speak about his military and civilian career experiences, as well as memories of Murray State. The banquet is open to the public and tickets are available for $40 per person at murraystate.edu/distinguishedalumni.

Dr. Jay Akridge

The Murray State Alumni Association recently named Dr. Jay Akridge, ’82, one of the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients. Akridge currently serves as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity at Purdue University.

Murray State presents the Distinguished Alumni Award annually to alumni who have made meaningful contributions to their profession on a local, state and national level. Established in 1962, the award is the highest honor granted by the Murray State University Alumni Association. Among the recipients of the award are award-winning journalists, renowned authors, research scientists, physicians and educators.

Dr. Akridge became a student at Murray State in the fall of 1978, with a double major in agriculture and business administration. As a student participating in the Presidential Scholars Program, Akridge had a highly individualized academic experience.

“Looking back, the Presidential Scholars Program was special,” Akridge said. “There were 12 of us in a class, and you took on subject matter you would not have on your own. I got to know amazing people across campus who weren’t agriculture or business majors.”

Upon graduation in 1982, Akridge enrolled at Purdue University, where he earned his master’s degree and later his doctorate in agricultural economics.

“My plan was to go back into business with my father, but I never left Purdue,” said Akridge, whose family owned a farm supply business in Western Kentucky.

Akridge was a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue for 20 years before serving as the Glenn W. Sample dean of agriculture, and then moving into his current position as Provost.

Although his decision to pursue his master’s degree at Purdue University eventually led him to his career, Akridge admits that graduate school wasn’t part of his original plan.

“I would not have gone to graduate school if (former professor) Dr. Bill Payne hadn’t pulled me aside and suggested that I look into it,” Akridge said. “My plan was to go into business with my father. I’m quite confident that I wouldn’t have taken that step without Dr. Payne’s mentoring.”

An award-winning teacher at Purdue, Akridge says Murray State shaped his success in higher education in important ways.

“I had really great teachers at Murray State,” Akridge said. “And when I started teaching, they became role models for me. and certainly influenced how I taught,. I give them much credit for demonstrating highly effective teaching styles.”

Akridge is not the only member of his family that attended Murray State. His father, Dean, brothers Paul and Lance, Paul’s wife Jill, and his nephew, Logan, are all Racer alumni.

“My dad earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degree from Murray State,” Akridge said. “He played on the basketball team in the early 1950s and later served on the Board of Regents. My mom attended Western Kentucky University, an arch rival at the time, but now she is a huge Murray State fan.”

Akridge, along with his brothers, recently established an endowment in honor of their parents, the Dean and Nona Akridge Family Scholarship, for students in Murray State’s Hutson School of Agriculture and Arthur J. Bauernfeind College of Business.

“My brothers and I set up the scholarship to recognize [our parents],” Akridge said. “Dad was not only a huge fan, but was constantly recommending students to look into Murray State. Given how much he loved Murray State and how much my mom does too, and the fact that all three of us are graduates, we decided to create the scholarship a year or so ago.”

Akridge encourages current students to get involved on campus.

“I hope students take full advantage of the opportunities Murray State presents,” Akridge said. “Take advantage of the close connections to faculty at MSU and extracurricular activities such as clubs, organizations and intramural sports. All these things create a wonderful educational experience and will help prepare you for whatever career path you take.”

Dr. Akridge will be honored at the Distinguished Alumni Dinner on April 12 at 6 p.m. in the CFSB Center’s Murray Room. During the banquet, he will have a chance to speak about his career at Purdue University, as well as memories of Murray State.

Felecia Dixon Henderson

The Murray State Alumni Association recently named Felecia Dixon Henderson, ’83, one of the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients. Henderson recently retired from The Detroit News, where she was assistant managing editor and a member of the senior management team that oversees newsroom operational planning.

Murray State presents the Distinguished Alumni Award annually to alumni who have made meaningful contributions to their profession on a local, state and national level. Established in 1962, the award is the highest honor granted by the Murray State University Alumni Association. Among the recipients of the award are award-winning journalists, renowned authors, research scientists, physicians and educators.

Following in the footsteps of her mother, Henderson began her undergraduate career at Murray State in the fall of 1979. Her mother, Ilah Perry Grant, was among some of the first African-American students to attend Murray State. She graduated in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science in education before earning her MA in vocational education in 1978.

“I am a very proud graduate of Murray State and I do a lot of recruiting for the University,” Henderson said. “I always tell potential students how great Murray State is. It is a gem in the state of Kentucky.”

Henderson graduated with a degree in journalism in May of 1983. She then moved back to Louisville and took a job as a clerk reporter with The Courier-Journal. She later worked in Cincinnati as a copy editor before moving on to Detroit, where she worked for 29 years.

“Detroit makes a lot of news nationally and internationally,” Henderson said. “When I was hired there, I was told ‘There’s never a dull thing in Detroit,’ and that is absolutely true.”

While working at The Detroit News, Henderson managed a department that was made up of 45 reporters, columnists, editors and page designers.

“To be able to manage a talented team of journalists every day and produce the award-winning work that we did was one of the highlights of my career,” Henderson said.

Henderson attributed her managing style to the environment of her classes at Murray State.

“Being on a smaller campus with one-on-one interactions shaped how I managed my own staff,” Henderson said. “The individualized attention I received and one-on-one conversations I had with my professors was important to me, and that is the type of interaction I tried to give the members of my staff. Even though it is a big paper and we were a big department, I tried to give everyone individual attention.”

Although Henderson is an accomplished journalist with many career highlights, her road to success was not always easy.

“I once had an editor that asked me what my career goals were,” Henderson said. “I told her that I one day hoped to work for a large newspaper as copyeditor and she told me that I was aiming too high. After she said that, I was determined to prove her wrong.”

Henderson encourages current journalism students to stay determined and never give up as they start to look for their first jobs.

“You cannot let what people say to you determine your future,” Henderson said. “If someone says no and doesn’t hire you, start your own project. Use the different platforms available to you to start your work. There is a way to accomplish the dream.”

Henderson will be honored at the Distinguished Alumni Dinner on April 12 at 6 p.m. in the CFSB Center’s Murray Room. During the banquet, she will have a chance to speak about her career as a journalist, as well as memories of Murray State.  

Bill Beard and Ernie Vande Zande

The Murray State Alumni Association recently named Bill Beard, ’71, and Ernie Vande Zande (posthumously), ’71, two of the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients. Beard and Vande Zande competed on the Murray State University Rifle Team together and helped lead the Racers to four National Championships.

Murray State presents the Distinguished Alumni Award annually to alumni who have made meaningful contributions to their profession on a local, state and national level. Established in 1962, the award is the highest honor granted by the Murray State University Alumni Association. Among the recipients of the award are military leaders, renowned authors, research scientists, physicians and educators.

Bill Beard started school at Murray State in the late 1960s. His brother, Bob, who was four years older than him, was also part of the rifle team.

“When he was graduating, I was about to start school,” Beard said. “He told me what the ropes were as far as the rifle team.”

During his sophomore year at Murray State, Beard met Vande Zande through the rifle team. Vande Zande came to Murray State as a sophomore after transferring from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

Vande Zande was raised by his mother. Knowing he was unhappy during his freshman year at Old Dominion, she applied to Murray State on his behalf without his knowledge. After learning he had been accepted, Vande Zande transferred to Murray State with two other members of the USA Shooting National Junior Team. Beard and Vande Zande instantly became friends.

“We hit it off very well,” Beard said. “I grew up 50 miles from Murray. He would come home with me on the weekends. My mom treated him like one of her own and had a soft spot for him since he didn’t have a dad.”

Upon graduation in 1971, they both joined the Army after participating in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Murray State. Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army, Beard traveled the world competing with the International Rifle Section of USAMU and the USAR International Rifle Team. Vande Zande joined the Army as an ordnance officer and was part of the Army’s Marksmanship Unit until he left service in 1981. He competed for the Army Reserve shooting team until 1994 and was later inducted into the U.S. Army Athletic Hall of Fame.

Beard was a member of the U.S. Olympic Shooting Team in 1984 and won gold in the World Cup Prone Championship in 1991, guaranteeing Team USA a slot in the 1992 Olympic Games.

Vande Zande won a gold medal in rifle in the Pan American games in 1975 and followed that with a gold and two silvers in the 1979 games, in addition to countless other medals in competitions all over the world. He missed qualifying for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team by four-tenths of a point. Over his career, he set more than 200 national records.

“Ernie stayed active in coaching programs and donated so much time, energy and funds to coaching,” Beard said. “He traveled a lot to coach. He was very generous with his time.”

Vande Zande even coached Beard’s daughter Sarah, a four-time NCAA All-American in both air and smallbore rifle, when she started shooting.

“He lived in Mesa, Arizona, but flew out to Indiana after offering to coach my daughter,” Beard said.

Vande Zande was inducted into the Racer Hall of Fame in 1988 and Beard was later inducted in 2012.

Beard is still shooting competitively. For four out of the last five years, he has been the shooting National Senior Champion.

On Sept 29, 2018, Vande Zande passed away at the age of 70 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Beard and Vande Zande are credited with leveraging their relationships within the shooting industry and a partnership with Midway USA, a foundation that supports youth shooting sports, to establish an endowment valued at more than $1 million to fund the needs of the Murray State University Rifle Team.

Bill Beard and Ernie Vande Zande will be honored at the Distinguished Alumni Dinner on April 12 at 6 p.m. in the CFSB Center’s Murray Room. During the banquet, Beard will have a chance to speak about his career, his friendship with Vande Zande and his memories of Murray State.




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