The University of St. Thomas celebrated its annual St. Thomas Day Wednesday, May 7. The event honors recipients of the Monsignor James Lavin Award, Professor of the Year, Humanitarian Award, Tommie Award and Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna Award.

St. Thomas Day recognizes the extraordinary contributions that members of the St. Thomas community have made to the university and the wider community. The awards that are presented on St. Thomas Day were instituted over a period of 60 years.

St. Thomas Day events began with a 5:30 p.m. Mass in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas led by the Most Rev. John Nienstedt, archbishop of the Diocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A dinner and awards program followed in Woulfe Alumni Hall, Anderson Student Center. Dr. Julie Sullivan, president of St. Thomas, presented the awards. More than 500 members of the St. Thomas community attended.

Nominations for the Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna, Humanitarian and Lavin awards are welcome throughout the year but are required by July 1 for consideration for the following year’s St. Thomas Day. For forms and more information on how to submit a nomination, visit the Alumni Association website.


Distinguished Alumnus Award

The Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna Award honors an individual for leadership and service to St. Thomas, the community and in his or her field of endeavor. This year’s recipient is St. Thomas trustee Ron Fowler ’66 of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

Two years after graduating from St. Thomas with a B.A. in business administration, Fowler began working as a district manager for the Theodore Hamm Brewing Co., St. Paul’s beloved, then-independent beer brewer. After two years with Hamm’s he took on a few roles with brewing companies in California and Washington, ascending in responsibility with each transition. Today he is owner, chairman and CEO of California-based Liquid Investments Inc., a wholesale beverage distribution company that represents more than 30 international, national and local beer, energy drink and water suppliers. He created Liquid Investments in 1983 as a holding company for Mesa Distributing Co., which he founded in 1978. Fowler also is principal owner and executive chairman of the San Diego Padres and part owner of Beer Capital Distributing Co. Inc., based in Sussex, Wis.

His accomplishments outside of the workplace are just as prolific. An avid sports fan, Fowler is a trustee and executive committee chair on the San Diego Sports Commission. His past community contributions include serving as treasurer and a trustee for the U.S. Olympic Training Center in San Diego, director of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, chairman of 2003 San Diego Super Bowl XXXVII Task Force, as well as a member of the 2003 Super Bowl Host Committee. Currently he is chair of the University of San Diego’s Board of Trustees, on which he has served as a trustee since 1996. He also is executive committee chair and a trustee of the San Diego Sports Commission, and an advisory board member of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, San Diego Chapter.

Fowler’s history of St. Thomas involvement dates back more than a decade and includes posts on the Board of Trustees (2009 to 2014), the Athletic Advisory Board (2011 to 2014) and the President’s Council (2004 to 2011 and 2013 to 2014). In 2008 he received the Cade Award from the Opus College of Business. He is the namesake behind the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship’s Fowler Business Challenge Competition, hosted every fall for aspiring St. Thomas entrepreneurs, as well as O’Shaughnessy Stadium’s Fowler Veranda, built in 2010 on the east side of the stadium and made possible by a gift from Fowler.


Professor of the Year

Dr. Matthew George, professor of music, John Ireland Distinguished Professor, director of Bands and Orchestra and chair of the Music Department, is this year’s Professor of the Year.

Established in 1961, the Professor of the Year award recognizes a St. Thomas faculty member for excellence in teaching, scholarship and inspiration to students.

George’s regular travels as a conductor and clinician/lecturer have taken him across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica, continental Europe, Ireland and the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, China, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and India. His lengthy resume includes work as artistic director of several international music festivals, and he also has collaborated with professional bands. He currently is music director of Grand Symphonic Winds, a Twin Cities-based wind ensemble that has, according to its website, “championed new music, including dozens of unique compositions from across the globe that have rarely or never been performed in Minnesota previously,” for the past 25 years.

A participating member in several professional scholarly organizations, he served as president of the College Band Directors National Association North Central Conference and was on the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Band Directors Association. He also is an elected member of two honorary fraternities, Pi Kappa Lambda and Phi Beta Mu, and an active member of the Conductor’s Guild, American Composers Forum, National Band Association, Music Educators National Conference, the Minnesota Music Educators Association and the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles.

George’s degrees include a D.M.A. in conducting from the University of North Texas, an M.M. in music education from Southern Methodist University and a B.M. in music education and trumpet performance from Ithaca College.


Humanitarian of the Year

Sondra Elizondo ’92, a Benson, Minn., native, is this year’s Humanitarian of the Year for her contributions to the betterment of the spiritual and material welfare of the less fortunate.

Elizondo, who earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, is co-founder and director of VIDA (Volunteers for Intercultural and Definitive Adventures), a nonprofit volunteer program. VIDA offers premedical, predental and preveterinary college students the chance to work with local doctors, translators and guides in underserved remote areas of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala. It provides free medical and dental care and low-cost animal care.

Founded in 2007 on a $5,000 personal loan, VIDA has continually grown. In the last four years alone, VIDA volunteers have treated 43,448 medical patients, 18,890 dental patients and 21,057 small animals and 15,164 large animals.

In the story “Living Pura Vida,” from the fall 2010 St. Thomas magazine, she said, “VIDA lets me express my spirit of giving. I love working with children, and I love health care and that’s why I once was a medical social worker.”

The seeds of VIDA may have first sprouted while Elizondo was in the Peace Corps, stationed in Cartago, Costa Rica, between 1994 and 1996. When she returned to the Twin Cities, she worked as a social worker at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale and later, as director of social services at a nursing home.

Elizondo lived in Costa Rica for 10 years and recently moved to Florida. She oversees VIDA operations and does fund raising for the organization. Local clinic directors work in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala.


Monsignor James Lavin Award

Michael Heffron ’57, retired executive vice president and CEO of the Minnesota State Fair, is the recipient of this year’s Monsignor James Lavin Award. This award honors an alumnus/alumna of St. Thomas for outstanding contributions and service to the University of St. Thomas Alumni Association, its programs and services.

Heffron’s alumni involvement with St. Thomas dates back to 1971, when he served as an Annual Fund co-chair. For two decades he has served as a member of the Old Guard Reunion Planning Committee and continues to meet informally with members of his class. Additional St. Thomas involvement includes vice president of the Alumni Association Board, from 1983 to 1989, and from 1999 to 2001; a member of the Class Reunion Committee in 1997 and co-chair of the same committee in 2007; as well as the Communication Journalism 50th Anniversary Committee in 2009.

As an undergraduate at St. Thomas, he was named the sports editor of the Aquin, a position that, he said, “changed everything” for him and “taught me that I could write.”

Heffron lives in St. Paul with his wife, Patricia, with whom he has four children.


Tommie Award

Brandon Miranda, a senior double major in political science and Catholic studies, was voted the recipient of the 2014 Tommie Award. The Tommie Award is presented each spring semester to a University of St. Thomas senior who, according to St. Thomas students, faculty and staff, best represents the ideals of St. Thomas Aquinas through scholarship, leadership and campus involvement.

Miranda serves across a vast roster of extracurricular activities while maintaining a 3.0 GPA. He has been a member of the Undergraduate Student Government since fall 2011, serving on the finance and student organization committees, and as sophomore class president. Tommie Ambassadors, Sigma Tau Omega, Theology Club, KUST Campus Radio (as co-host of Block Rockin’ Beats), Concert Choir, Summit Singers, Students for Human Life and Knights of Columbus are also among the clubs and organizations in which he is involved. Since 2010, he has worked as an admissions tour guide and a volunteer Latino Leader for the Joseph and Edith Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership at St. Thomas.

Miranda will continue his studies by pursuing a Master of Divinity degree with the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.