MISSOULA – Five exemplary University of Montana graduates will receive 2017 Distinguished Alumni Awards during Homecoming weekend festivities on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 13-14. The awards are the highest honor presented by UM’s Alumni Association.
This year’s distinguished alumni are William Finnegan M.F.A. ’78 of New York City; Harry Fritz M.A. ’62 of Missoula; Ramakrishna Nemani Ph.D. ’87 of Sunnyvale, California; Dr. Robert “Bob” Seim ’59 of Missoula; and James “Scott” Wheeler ’69 of Kalispell.
Finnegan, who earned a master’s degree in creative writing from UM, is an award-winning journalist who’s been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1987. He’s spent the majority of his career writing in-depth features on conflicts at home and abroad, reporting on everything from apartheid in South Africa to the politics of immigration reform in the U.S. In 2016, Finnegan’s surfing memoir, “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” won a Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times best-seller chronicles his “youthful obsession” during his formative years as he traveled the world looking for the next big wave. He has earned numerous accolades for his reporting as well, and his research and reporting have resulted in several nonfiction publications, including “Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country.”
An active and respected scholar and a generous colleague and mentor, Fritz, who earned a master’s degree in history from UM, is an engaging and dedicated teacher who shared his passion for history with thousands of students during his 50-year career as a professor at the University. Few historians are able to bring to the lectern as much energy, good humor and sheer love of storytelling as Fritz; fewer still can do so with his democratic unpretentiousness. Fritz’s service to the state of Montana has been recognized by a host of awards and commendations, and he extended his public service beyond the classroom by serving two terms in the Montana House of Representatives and one in the Senate.
A pioneer in satellite-driven ecological forecasting technology, Nemani, who earned a doctorate in forestry from UM, is the director of NASA’s Ecological Forecasting Laboratory. His work, which he started at UM, is the basis NASA Earth Observing System’s weekly monitor of global plant production, a unique global dataset used by scientists worldwide. Nemani, whose rank of senior research scientist is attained by only one in 1,000 NASA employees, developed and leads a modeling framework called the Terrestrial Observation and Prediction System. TOPS produces ecological nowcasts and forecasts using satellite and climate data and is a crucial tool used in global carbon monitoring, helping address issues related to water, natural hazards, carbon emissions and sequestration, agricultural productivity, public health and urban planning.
Seim, who earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and public health from UM, has distinguished himself as a physician, community leader, nonprofit board member and mentor. After earning his medical degree and becoming board-certified, Seim served in the U.S. Army before establishing a long career in orthopedic surgery in Missoula and at the Kalispell Veterans Administration Hospital. Following his retirement in 2015 after three decades at Missoula Bone and Joint, Seim continued to serve Montana veterans through his work with VA orthopedic clinics. He’s also demonstrated steadfast commitment to his community and the University over the years as a longtime and active member of the Missoula Rotary Club and by serving on the boards of the Grizzly Scholarship Association, UM Alumni Association and UM Foundation.
After graduating from UM with a bachelor’s degree in history, Wheeler joined the U.S. Army and was commissioned a second lieutenant, beginning his long, distinguished military career. He served several years overseas, including in Vietnam, before earning advanced degrees in history at the University of California, Berkeley. He then served a year as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Energy before becoming a history professor at West Point. Wheeler retired from the military and returned to Montana to pursue his love of history, publishing several books, including “Cromwell in Ireland.” He’s also served as a senior military analyst for the U.S. Army in Europe, and he leads tours of historic battlefields throughout Europe for the Department of Defense.
The public is invited to attend a panel discussion featuring the Distinguished Alumni Award recipients at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, in the University Center Ballroom. An awards ceremony and reception will follow.