MISSOULA – The University of Montana will award honorary doctorates to Academy Award-winning actor J.K. Simmons and former U.S. Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas during its May 14 Commencement exercises.
On March 4, the state Board of Regents approved the plan to present Thomas with an Honorary Doctorate of Science and Simmons with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. In addition to receiving the doctorate, Simmons will serve as Commencement speaker for the 2016 graduating class.
"It’s our honor to reward two such remarkable individuals,” UM President Royce Engstrom said. “Both have risen to rarified heights in their respective careers, and both have contributed a great deal to the University of Montana.”
The family of Jonathan Kimble (J.K.) Simmons has many ties to UM and Missoula. His father, Don, was a UM music professor and music department chair for years, and his mother, Pat, was active with many community organizations. J.K. graduated from UM in 1978 with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, and during his college days appeared in productions of the Missoula Children’s Theatre and Bigfork Summer Playhouse.
Simmons began his professional acting career with several professional theatres in Seattle, and then in 1991 launched a career on Broadway with roles in “Peter Pan,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Das Barbecu.” His television character roles include “Law and Order,” “Oz” and “The Closer.” His film credits include memorable appearances in “Juno,” three “Spider-Man” movies, “The Mexican,” “The Cider House Rules” and more.
In 2015, he won dozens of awards for his intense performance as Terence Fletcher in “Whiplash,” including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe Award.
In his commercial work, Simmons is the face of Farmers Insurance and the voice of the yellow M&M.
UM’s College of Visual and Performing Arts honored Simmons for his lifetime of achievements during the 2002 “Odyssey of the Stars” gala. In 2011, he received a Distinguished Alumni Award and interacted with UM students. He has been a staunch supporter of “Odyssey of the Stars,” and he and his siblings recently endowed a generous music scholarship in memory of their family.
Simmons’ honorary doctorate nomination was supported by letters from Hollywood luminaries such as director Sam Rami, Emmy-winner and UM alum John Shaffner, actor Bill Fagerbakke, director Damien Chazelle, director Jason Reitman and producer Tom Fontana.
Jack Ward Thomas earned his forestry doctorate from the University of Massachusetts before starting a lengthy career as a research wildlife biologist. He rose through the ranks of the U.S. Forest Service in West Virginia, Massachusetts and Oregon, where he became one of only two research scientists to attain grade 17 in the agency’s history.
During his time with the Forest Service, Thomas dealt with some of the most difficult issues faced by wildlife biologists, including landscape-scale conservation in the Pacific Northwest and the spotted owl. In 1993, he was named Forest Service chief by President Bill Clinton.
K. Norman Johnson, a University Distinguished Professor at Oregon State University, wrote in his nomination letter: “Rarely has a scientist risen to such high levels of policymaking. Rarely has a scientist been so completely trusted by a president.”
Thomas went to serve as the endowed Boone and Crocket Professor of Wildlife Conservation at UM from 1996 to 2005. He mentored graduate students and mesmerized students in his undergraduate classes with the real story of how conservation happened in North America from the perspective of someone who was there for many of the issues of the last half of the 20th century.
During his lengthy career, Thomas produced about 600 publications, including “The Elk on North America – Ecology and Management,” “Wildlife Habitats in Managed Forests – the Blue Mountains of Oregon and Washington” and “A Conservation Strategy for the Northern Spotted Owl.” His many honors include the Aldo Leopold Award from The Wildlife Society, and he is involved with many professional societies and wildlife organizations.
Thomas is now retired and writing books from his home in Florence.