The University of St. Thomas will hold its third annual Faculty and Staff Recognition Awards Celebration on Friday, March 19, and present special awards for outstanding service by its staff to the university and the community.

The celebration begins at 3:30 p.m. in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center, with a reception to follow in the third-floor lounge of Murray-Herrick Campus Center. All St. Thomas faculty and staff and guests have been invited, and RSVPs are due to Alumni and Constituent Relations, Mail# ACR, on Wednesday, March 10. Questions about the event?  Contact Colleen Casey-Simonson in ACR or Gina Zitzer in Human Resources.

The celebration honors everyone who works at St. Thomas, especially service award-winners, recent retirees and those celebrating hiring anniversaries.

A highlight of this year’s event is the presentation of Distinguished Citizen and Lifelong Learner awards to two staff members and a Diversity Leadership Award to an academic unit, recognizing outstanding achievements beneficial to the St. Thomas community.

Individual awards carry with them a professional development budget or paid leave time to engage in community activities.  Committees review nominations each year. Commemorative plaques also are given to the winners.

Congratulations to the winners of these awards:

Michael Elwell (2006 photo)

Michael Elwell (2006 photo)

Distinguished Citizen Award:

Michael Elwell, a Minneapolis campus building service worker who is also known by many children as the “real” Santa Claus, will receive the Distinguished Citizen Award.

The award honors a St. Thomas staff member whose contributions reflect the qualities of good citizenship, such as providing service to others and advancing the common good for the campus and broader communities. Elwell will receive a 40-hour, paid recognition leave to engage in community activities with a nonprofit organization of his choice.

Elwell, of Cottage Grove, began working at St. Thomas in 2005. With a soft spot for children, he is a member of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas and has volunteered his time for nearly 40 years, spreading Christmas cheer at nursing homes and hospitals, companies, benefits and parties. He even bleaches his hair and beard all year long to best play the role. He also doubles as a clown for the Shrine Circus and volunteers at Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Three years ago, Elwell lost his son, Jeffrey, to cancer. During his hospitalization at the University of Minnesota-Fairview Hospital, Jeffrey asked his father if he could do something special for kids hospitalized during the Christmas holidays. The suggestion inspired an annual toy drive that not only provides Christmas gifts but birthday gifts for hospitalized children. Elwell also organizes an all-night walk in Cottage Grove as a benefit for kids with cancer.

Over the years Elwell also has been a Newport, Minn., volunteer police officer, has taught a self-defense class for women and archery safety to young hunters.

“It is nearly impossible to tell you all the wonderful things he’s done over the years,” wrote Craig Bonine, a building services supervisor at St. Thomas who also happens to be Elwell’s next-door neighbor. “A couple of neighbors and I play a game we call ‘Stump the Mike.’ We ask Mike for a tool or something we would like to borrow. He never fails to have it or find what we need. We have yet to ‘Stump the Mike.’”

Susan Spray

Susan Spray

Lifelong Learner Award:

Susan Spray, director of corporate and foundation relations in St. Thomas’ Development Office, will receive the university’s Lifelong Learner Award.

The award recognizes a staff member who has demonstrated a commitment to continuous learning, self-renewal and professional development that transcends the individual’s job responsibilities. Spray will receive $2,500 in professional development funds, which she may use to fund future professional development activities or donate to a St. Thomas scholarship fund.

Spray, who has three children and lives in Minneapolis, has spent more than 20 years in school. And that’s not even counting the days she spent in kindergarten, elementary school and high school.

After earning a B.A. in English, secondary education and journalism from the University of Northern Iowa in 1977, Spray didn’t stop studying. In Chicago during the 1980s, she took more courses in broadcast newswriting, speaking and editing at Columbia College, participated in certificate programs in manuscript editing, book production and design management at Northwestern University, and took courses in graphic design and illustration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the 1990s, she earned an M.B.A. at the University of Iowa, took courses in education and biology at the College of DuPage in Illinois and took graduate courses in art history at the University of Illinois School of Art and Design. Since coming to St. Thomas in 2001, Spray has nearly completed the coursework for her doctorate in educational leadership from the UST School of Education and is working on a master’s degree in counseling psychology.

“Susan’s curiosity and pursuit of knowledge … epitomizes the spirit and definition of the Lifelong Learner Award,” said Steve Hoeppner, executive director of development. “The fact that she has pursued these formal learning opportunities over a stretch of four decades is impressive in and of itself, but the fact that she has done so while building a career and raising a family makes her accomplishment truly inspirational.

Diversity Leadership Award: The admissions team in the UST School of Law will receive a Diversity Leadership Award for demonstrating “an active role participating in diversity and inclusion efforts and has helped to create a campus climate that values, respects and affirms members of diverse groups at St. Thomas.”

Led by Cari Haaland, the law school’s admissions team was nominated for extraordinary efforts to recruit law students from a wide variety of backgrounds. They attend a host of events, programs and conferences and host an annual conference, “Diversity Matters,” to generate ideas for recruiting, enrolling and retaining students of color. They also have worked within the law school community to write a Minority Affairs Strategic Plan, among other efforts.

According to Scott Swanson, director of academic achievement in the law school, the admissions team has been very successful. The number of minority applicants to the law school has risen from about 19 percent of total applications in 2001 to more than a quarter of all applications in 2009 – a “fairly stunning achievement for a law school in the Upper Midwest,” Swanson adds. “Similarly, the law school’s student body reflects this success. In 2001, slightly over 8 percent of students were members of minority groups; in 2009, over 15 percent of newly matriculating students were members of those same groups.”