Outstanding McKendree University Alumni are Honored

Akers Award, Loyal Service, Academy of Excellence, Rising Stars, Sports Hall of Fame

(LEBANON, Ill., October 8, 2019) — McKendree University gave awards to several outstanding alumni and a special surprise honoree during a homecoming weekend awards dinner on Oct. 5 at Bellecourt Manor in Belleville, Ill. Chosen by the alumni board, the 2019 recipients have made exceptional contributions to the university, their professions and communities. Photos from the event are posted at mckendree.edu/photos.

Peter Akers Award

Nicholas “Nick” Tropiano,
of Maple Glen Pa., received the highest alumni honor, the Peter Akers Award for professional success, outstanding service and loyalty.

The 1969 graduate majored in business administration at McKendree, where he was active in the Phi Rho Chi (Ferox) fraternity and played baseball. He was recruited to McKendree with other classmates from New Jersey in the 1960s. They grew to be a close-knit group who remain connected because of Tropiano’s efforts to keep them in touch with each other and their alma mater.

He is president of Tropiano Transportation Services, Inc., a company he founded in 1982. He grew the business from a sole proprietorship with three vehicles to a multimillion-dollar corporation offering limousine, motor coach, bus and van services. He has also served as the president, owner and manager of Tropiano Development Company, which has purchased and rehabilitated vacation properties on the Ocean City, N.J., shore since 2003.

He was chosen the “Pennsylvania Businessman of the Year” by the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2001 and 2002. He is a member of the Philadelphia Regional Limousine Association, serving as president from 1999 to 2003; the Mayor of Philadelphia's Board on Ground Transportation at the Philadelphia Airport; the National Republican Congressional Committee Businessman's Advisory Council; and the Valley Forge Visitor’s Convention Bureau.

In 2000, he established the Anthony P. Tropiano Memorial Scholarship Fund at Mercy Vocational High School to support a graduating high school senior planning to the culinary arts. In 1998, he helped to establish the Joanne Creed Memorial Foundation for Breast Cancer in honor of a Philadelphia area schoolteacher.

Although he resides almost 900 miles from the Lebanon campus, Tropiano has remained a loyal McKendrean for decades. He joined the Board of Trustees in May of 2004 and has served on the Resource Development Committee. Before serving on the board, he was a member of the Alumni Association Board. He was inducted into the Academy of Excellence for his achievement in business at McKendree’s 2006 homecoming.

Tropiano has worked tirelessly to recount the history of Ferox and to unite its alumni with each other and the university. In addition to hosting an annual Jersey Shore retreat each summer and arranging gatherings at homecoming, he also served on the Ferox 50th Anniversary Reunion Committee in 2013, an event that reunited more than 50 members on campus.

He is a member of the William McKendree Society and has supported the University’s Heritage, Heart and Hope Campaign and FORWARD: The Campaign for McKendree University.

Loyal Service Award

Maria (Stallings) Page,
of Fairview Heights, Ill., received the 2019 Loyal Service Award. She is a Friend of the Hett, William McKendree Society member, and donor to the FORWARD Campaign and the Annual Fund. She served as a member and officer of the Alumni Association Board for 25 years, including more than seven years as president.

Page majored in English and participated in student government and A Learning Program to Heighten Awareness (ALPHA), now known as the Black Student Association. She graduated in 1989 went on to earn a master’s degree in education in 2006.

An educator for the past 19 years in St. Louis’ Ladue School District, she teaches eighth grade English, language arts and video journalism. She serves on the Character Education and Professional Development committees and created a mentoring program for African-American girls. She has also served in the Alton and Edwardsville School Districts.

Page is active at Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Ill.; volunteers for the National Council of Jewish Women Back to School giveaway; and is on the Parent Committee of Cub Scout Pack 586.

The Alumni Association also surprised Dr. James Dennis with a Loyal Service Award in recognition of his accomplishments throughout 25 years as president of McKendree University. He has announced he will retire in 2020. Guided by his leadership since 1994, McKendree has transitioned from a college to a university; increased the academic strength of its faculty, students, and programs; grown in enrollment, on-campus residence, construction and renovation, athletics and co-curricular activities. The number of faculty and staff has nearly tripled, the campus community has become more diverse, and fundraising has increased dramatically. The university has received national attention from prestigious publications and organizations including U.S. News & World Report and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Academy of Excellence

Four alumni entered the Academy of Excellence for achievement, leadership and character in education; the humanities; language, literature and communication; and math and science. Each has contributed to the honor and prestige of the university and has demonstrated in their professions the values imparted by a liberal arts education.


Dr. Steve Webb, of Tunnel Hill, Ill., superintendent of Goreville Community School District #1, has been named a “Leader Among Us” by the Southern Illinois Business Journal and a “Superintendent of Distinction” by the Illinois Association of School Administrators. He received the Award of Excellence from the National School Public Relations Association Illinois. He was elected to the American Association of School Administrators Governing Board, and has served as president of the Illinois Association of School Administrators and the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools.

His book, “Education in A Violent World,” uses research on bullying, harassment and intimidation to identify the mindset needed in schools and communities to combat a growing threat to children. He has traveled the nation speaking about school safety threat mitigation tactics. He developed the School Safety 101 Program and in 2015 started Safe School Systems, a consulting agency to help train schools to conduct quality threat assessments. He also serves in a variety of organizations including the Goreville Law Enforcement Office, Illinois Terrorism Force School Safety Commission, Department of Children and Family Services Child Death Review Team, Southern Trust Bank Board of Directors, and Friends of Ferne Clyffe State Park Board of Directors.

Webb graduated from McKendree in 1992 with a degree in biology before earning his master’s and doctorate. He teaches in the university’s educational administration program and served as a founding member of its Education Advisory Committee.


Thomas Helfrich of Godfrey, Ill., is a retired accountant who worked for several firms including the Lutheran Church Extension Fund and Missouri Synod. During his career, he was a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Missouri Society of Certified Public Accountants. He was a finalist for St. Louis Dispatch Chief Financial Officer of the Year, and received the Christus in Mundo award from Concordia University for exemplary Christian service.

The 1977 McKendree graduate majored in accounting and history. Helfrich has served as an elder, Bible teacher, facilitator, Sunday school director, and children’s church leader in churches he has attended over the years.

Language, Literature, and Communications

Natalie Jablonski, of Swansea, Ill., manages internal communications for Schnuck Markets Inc., and serves on its Culture and 100 Neediest Committees. She is the former president and chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwestern Illinois, and has taught at McKendree’s Center at Scott Air Force Base. Earlier in her career, she directed community relations at St. Andrew’s Resources for Seniors.

She has been the networking chair for Small Business Week of Southwest Illinois, an Illinois Performance Excellence examiner, and participated in Toastmasters International, the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce and St. Louis Planned Giving Council boards, Art on the Square, Parish School of Religion, the American Cancer Society’s “Wine for Witches” fundraiser, and the Yorktown women’s golf league.

Jablonski graduated in 1999 with a degree in organizational communication and earned a master’s degree from Webster University. As a long-time volunteer for the McKendree Admissions Department, she helps to engage new students.

Math and Science

Dr. Michelle Starke, of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, is the science and environmental outreach lead for Bayer Crop Science in Hawaii, where she helps others learn how Bayer operates and what it produces in the state. In previous roles, she prepared and contributed to four major biotechnology crop product petition submissions to the USDA and FDA. She was on a team that won a Monsanto Pledge award and a Stewardship Spotlight Award. She is also part of a team that was issued a patent for cropping systems for managing weeds.

The 1992 McKendree graduate majored in biology and minored in business. She earned a master’s degree in plant and soil science from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and a doctorate in crop science from the University of Kentucky.

Rising Stars

Rising Stars are McKendree University graduates of the past decade who have made significant achievements in their professions or chosen fields, and who have been highly involved with the university or their communities.

Victoria “Tori” Galle Gale, of Marissa, Ill., graduated in 2009 with a degree in communication and vocal music performance minor. In 2016 she completed a master’s degree from Walden University. At McKendree, she interned at the Hettenhausen Center for the Arts for two years and after graduation, began working for the Center for Creative Arts (COCA) in several roles. She has also served as the executive director of the Gateway Men’s Chorus. Currently she is the director of partnerships and administration for Wyman Center’s National Network, a St. Louis-based youth development organization.

Gale is an executive board member for the Missouri Courage Scholarship and a supporter of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri Planned Parenthood organization. She also supports St. Louis Pet Rescue, PROMO, St. Louis Effort for AIDS, Represent Us and the ACLU. She was named a Focus STL Emerging Leader and one of the St. Louis Business Journal’s 2015 “30 under 30.”

Dr. Stephen Kissel, of Princeton, Ind., graduated summa cum laude in 2009 with a history major and a speech communication minor. He graduated with honors from Saint Louis University, where he earned a master’s degree in history and a doctorate in American history. He has received many academic scholarships, awards and research grants.

He recently accepted a position as a full-time assistant professor of history at Oakland City University in Indiana. He has served as a blind community enrichment associate for St. Louis Lighthouse for the Blind, an academic intern for the Gateway Arch National Park, a committee member for the City Arch Riverfront Universal Design Group, and on the board of directors for Mind’s Eye Radio. He has also written a book, “Press, Religion and Emerging Midwest: Faith and Community in America’s Old Northwest.”

Entering the McKendree Bearcat Sports Hall of Fame in 2019 are Eric Palm, Class of 2010, basketball; Sharon (Huffman) “Huffy” Marquardt, Class of 2001, softball; Wade Lowe, Class of 2012, wrestling; Wendell Johnson, Class of 1969, basketball and baseball; and Chris Mitchell, Class of 1999, professional. Read more about the new Hall of Famers at mckbearcats.com.