First 10 members inducted to Hall of Saints

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College will name cohort of 50 total alumni during 2019-20

LIBERAL, Ks. — Seward County Community College celebrates 50 years serving students throughout this academic year, 2019-20, and the kickoff weekend included induction of the first 10 members of the SCCC Hall of Saints.

“For the past three years, we have focused on Moving Seward Forward. But tonight, we pause to look back and to honor the Saints who made the most of the opportunities offered at SCCC,” said college president, Dr. Ken Trzaska. 

Over the 50 years of SCCC and the Vo-Tech, which joined the Saints family in 2008, more than 10,000 graduates have received professional credentials, certificates and associates degrees, Trzaska noted.

“We estimate an economic impact of $3.5 billion through our graduates since 1971.”

The first 10 of 50 Hall of Saints inductees were honored at the 50th Anniversary Gala Sept. 1. Through the year, Trzaska said, “we will announce 40 more honorees. This award for alumni of SCCC — including the vo-tech in its various forms over the years — will be continued annually as we move forward.”

Valerie Baldwin (1982) received her Associate’s degree from SCCC in 1982 and went on to earn  a Bachelor’s degree from Wichita State University, Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and law degree from the University of Kansas School of Law. Baldwin was Assistant Secretary of the Army, Financial Management and Comptroller, where she served for two and a half years at the request of President George W. Bush.

She came to that position from the Appropriations Committee of the United States House of Representatives, where she served three years as Clerk of the Military Construction Subcommittee and four years as a staff assistant on the Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies Subcommittee. Ms. Baldwin also served as Legislative Counsel to the Housing Subcommittee of the Financial Services Committee and a Trial Attorney at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 2013, Ms. Baldwin returned to the House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations, as a staff assistant on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. She was responsible for multiple accounts of the Department of Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship Immigration Services. She also served as Vice President Congressional Affairs, Army and Special Operations Forces Programs at Lockheed Martin Corporation. This year, she was named senior VP of government affairs at Leidos.

The consummate civil servant, Baldwin is also the proud godmother of six children. To read more about her achievements, visit the Leidos webpage. 

Odessa Lewis (1971), proves you don’t have to let anything stop you.

“We talk a lot about first-generation students, and the barriers that sometimes block our students from success,” noted the nomination committee, and Lewis epitomizes triumph over challenges. Originally from Arkansas, Lewis was first in her family to attend college. She was a member of the first class to enroll at SCCC, and part of the first cohort to graduate. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Oklahoma Panhandle State University, two master’s degrees, one from Fort Hays State University and one from the University of Kansas. Lewis put her education to work for the greater good. She worked at the social welfare office. She taught in Liberal until 2000, and educated around 29,000 people. She served on the Human Relations Commission, worked for racial integration and started the first and only black 4H club in Liberal.

“All over town, you will meet people who sat in Ms. Odessa Lewis’ classrooms over the years, and came through that experience with a strong sense of personal potential,” the committee noted.

RH and MCRenae (Bell) Hickert (1982) is that rare administrator who keeps a vivid experience of elementary school teaching in mind while overseeing a large district, the committee observed. She was named Superintendent of USD 480 schools by the school board in January 2016, following her employment by the district in 2012.

Originally from Moscow, Hickert attended SCCC, graduating in 1982, and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma Panhandle State University. She received a master’s degree from Fort Hays State University. From 1985 to 2003 she was a classroom teacher, and while she moved into administration in 2003 she has not lost her connection with that teacher’s heart. Renae is married to Tim Hickert, and both their children are SCCC graduates: Tim Hickert (2013) and Ragan Hickert (2015). She enjoys repurposing old furniture, reading mystery novels, watching old movies (especially John Wayne), collecting items for Operation Christmas Child boxes, and … spending time with her dogs. Hickert’s calling is to take care of the whole child, and truly believes it takes a village to do that. She is proud of the way the school district, local organizations and the community work together to meet the educational, emotional, and physical needs of students. She agrees with Nelson Mandela’s statement that “children are our greatest treasure. They are the future.”

DSDonna Shank (1995) is “a shining example of what non-traditional students can do with access to higher education,” the committee wrote. A licensed insurance agent since 1984, Donna returned to college as a mother of three, and — as the students these day would say, “she killed it!” During her time at SCCC, she was named an All Kansas Academic Team scholar, and graduated summa cum laude from both SCCC and Wichita State University. Donna immediately threw herself wholeheartedly into making the world better, serving on boards for the Kansas Action for Children, Kansas Children’s Cabinet, the (state) hospital closure commission, the Business Hall of Fame, the Kansas Council for the Future of Post-Secondary Education, and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce Board. She also served on and chaired the joint Liberal/Seward County Health Board, and the Leadership Liberal Board. As part of her work with the Kansas Health Foundation, she also contributed to the creation of the Kansas Leadership Center, which continues to empower leadership at all levels.

SMSteve Merz (1975) may be the most loyal and vocal supporting of the “good old vo-tech” you can find in Liberal, according to the committee’s biography. After all, it’s the reason he calls this community home.  As he will tell you in his own words, his family chose Liberal to settle “because of the Liberal Area Vo-Tech School and Seward County Community Junior College. I graduated from Liberal High School in 1973 and enrolled in SCCJC. While at the college, I enrolled in a concurrent class in Drafting at the Vo-Tech School. The fall of 1973 was the first classes in the current college buildings. I remember trying to listen to the instructors while carpet layers and finish carpenters were working to complete the office pods.”

Steve completed his degree at SCCJC in 1975, transferred to OPSU, and moved back to Liberal to work for Beech, Northern Natural Gas, went back to OPSU again to learn CAD, and then began working at the Liberal Area Vocational Technical School in 1992. He stayed 24 years.

Merz is married to Lori; the couple has two grown sons and their families. Grandson Kyle Benton is currently enrolled in the Drafting Program at SCCC.

Gabe RamirezGabe Ramirez is the laboratory manager at Southwest Medical Center, where he not only provides high-value data for healthcare providers, he also provides a critical hands-on component in training the next generation of Medical Laboratory Technicians.

“MLT is one our signature programs at SCCC, and perhaps its best-kept secret — online for 15 years, serving healthcare providers in a 200 mile radius, high-demand, high wage job,” noted presenter Rachel Coleman.

“Gabe is a little bit like that. His first job at the hospital was not in the lab, it was in housekeeping. And his first class at Seward County Community College was not directly related to Allied Health — it was English as a Second Language,” the committee wrote.

“He was in my very first class at SCCC,” recalls Dr. Suzanne Campbell, Dean of Allied Health and MLT coordinator. “Gabe worked very, very hard to complete the program and to get where he is today.”

In addition to his SCCC degree, Ramirez attended Friends University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in science.

Kathy Williams Wyer (1998) is another small-town overachiever who started her college education in Southwest Kansas and never stopped, “although we cannot say she “never looked back” because she is one of our Outreach Instructors, teaching in Ulysses,” said SCCC Outreach director Mike Bailey. Kathy kept busy as she completed her nursing credentials at SCCC, and was active in student, music, academic and nursing clubs. She represented SCCC and the state of Kansas as the regional president of PTK. She married Paul Wyer, who graduated from the SCCC RT program in 1999, and the couple has three children, TIffany, Ethan, and Eyan.

Kathy kept going and earned a BSN from FHSU, MSNP from the University of Kansas, and a post-master’s certificate in midwifery from KU.

In 2009, she and her family moved to Yuma, Ariz., where she continued working in neurology, Emergency Medicine and general surgery, and earned kudos a “Yuma’s Most Recommended Nurse Practitioner.”

Kathy WyerThese days, Kathy is back in Kansas where she provides high-quality healthcare to the community of Ulysses and educates the next generation of healthcare workers as a adjunct instructor for SCCC.

SFShannon Francis (1979) embodies the gritty, hardworking ethos of this area, and has continually reinvested his energy and resources in the community. He graduated from LHS and SCCC before going on to  K-State where he earned a business degree. Shannon got his start in business working in his family’s electrical business, and later built his own housing and mortgage business from the ground up with a partner — Marvin Chance — who also has roots in the area and a commitment to the college. Shannon continues to help with the family farm in the Plains Kismet area. He has served on the Seward County Commission, started a new business, Spencer Browne’s Coffee House, and, maybe most important of all, raised a family with his spouse, Carol. In 2015, Shannon was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives.

Martin Lewis (1995) Martin Lewis played one season at Seward County C.C. in 1994-1995, where he led the Saints to a NJCAA Region VI Tournament championship The Saints went 32-5 overall and received the programs first-ever NJCAA No. 1 national ranking during the regular season. Lewis averaged 22.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He was named First Team Jayhawk West All-Conference and First Team NJCAA All-Region VI after a dominating season at Seward County . Lewis scored 838 points in his only season at SCCC, ranking him third all-time in single-season scoring. Lewis also recorded 202 free-throws that season, ranking him second all-time in single-season free-throws.

Lewis became the first player ever from Seward County to play professional basketball in the NBA when he was selected No. 50 overall (second round) by the Golden State Warriors in the 1995 NBA Draft. Immediately after being selected, Lewis was traded to the Toronto Raptors. Lewis played two seasons with the Raptors where he played in 25 games averaging 9.6 minutes, 3.6 points and 1.4 rebounds per game. Lewis scored a career-high 17 points, grabbed five rebounds and played in 28 minutes vs. Minnesota Timberwolves on April 8, 1996.

But aside from all the hype about his athletic achievements, “there’s something worth applauding when a person can come back home and quietly go about living, working to support a family,” noted the nomination committee. “We are thankful to call Martin one of our own, and to honor him as a valuable part of this community.”

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Photo credit: Roy Allen

Kelby Tomlinson (2010) Kelby Tomlinson became the first Saint in Seward County baseball history to reach Major League Baseball when he got the call from the San Francisco Giants in 2015.  Tomlinson hit .303 as a rookie in 2015, starting more than 40 games in the second half of the season.

He burst onto the scene for the Saints in 2010 as a sophomore, earning 1st Team All-Jayhawk West and 1st Team All-Region VI honors before being named an NJCAA All-American.  During his sophomore campaign, Tomlinson scored a school record 90 runs and stole 28 bases which is 4th most in a season in school history.   

Former Athletic Director Roy Allen wrote that “Kelby’s story is one that we will continue to tell over and over and over; a kid that was lightly recruited, came in here and played a reserve role for us as a freshman and then worked so hard over the next year that we couldn’t keep him out of the lineup, turning himself into an All-American, signing at Texas Tech, and becoming a 12th round pick in the draft before reaching the Major Leagues in 2015.”

Again, we’ll step out of the sports world for a moment to point out that Kelby is not just a baseball player — he’s a really good person who you’d be honored to call your friend. He’s a family man, a hard worker, and an all-around nice guy.

“Throughout 2019 and 2020, we will be inducting 50 members to the Hall of Saints,” said SCCC President Trzaska. “This honor is designed to recognize SCCC alumni who have graduated from the college and the technical school (with its various names over the years).”

At the ceremony, Coleman noted that “we are excited about all 50 of these Saints, and haven’t scored or sorted them … so there’s no need to attach comparative ranking. We simply want to acknowledge that all 10 epitomize excellence.”

In addition to award trophies, the 50th anniversary committee, the SCCC alumni office, and SCCC Foundation plan to introduce incoming Saints to those who’ve gone ahead of them, and inspire them to follow in the tradition of excellence.

“Each person inducted to the Hall of Saints will have a portrait photo taken and displayed on campus, along with a summary of their achievements,” Coleman said. “This ongoing exhibit will not be static, but, we hope, a kind of conversation between our students and our graduates.”

Nominate Your Favorite Saint!

As we honor these first 10, you might be thinking of someone you feel belongs among them. We want to know!

Each person inducted graduated from the college, and contributed positively to the reputation of the institution while enrolled or employed. All these inductees are successful, in diverse fields and pursuits. They may have received awards from their peers, from academia, or from the public. And all of them have chosen to serve the communities where they might live.

Nomination forms are available at the information desk at SCCC, or according to these instructions: Hall of Saints nomination criteria

Please fill out a card and be sure to include contact information so that we can follow up. We appreciate your help, as the number of graduates numbers more than 10,000 in all.

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