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Bearcats share stories, relive memories at Alumni Reunion Weekend

by Paul McKean BA'11, MBA'23,

“So, what have you been doing since college?”

The blunt question elicited a range of answers from a group of Willamette College of Arts & Sciences alums standing together on Winter Street.

For one, a career change from ministry to the technology sector. For another, a brief and restless retirement gave way to a second late-in-life career path.

While these Bearcats each took different career and life paths, all roads lead back to Salem June 15-18, 2023 for another memorable Alumni Reunion Weekend. Over the course of a conversation, this group of alums — spanning five decades of Willamette’s history — went from strangers to friends.

At parties, reunion dinners and faculty lectures, friendships were formed and connections were reforged across campus, all based on one thing: a shared love of a liberal arts university in Salem.

Sharing Stories

Maria Chitsaz, Elizabeth Kellman Castro and Elaine Shuckman Fox, all from the class of 1993, stopped over and over again to take selfies together on their way to Saturday’s All-Class Reception on Winter Street.

In an Alumni Reunion Weekend first, a section of Winter Street was closed for two nights of epic street partying. Alums and their families played games of inflatable ax throwing and relaxed near fire pits under the setting sun.

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Maria Chitsaz BA'93, Elizabeth Kellman Castro BA'93 and Elaine Shuckman Fox BA'93 enjoy the Party on winter street.

Earlier in the day, the three classmates were able to visit Baxter Hall, where they first met on the fourth floor. To properly recreate the experience, the three walked past the elevator — a new addition since 1993 — and took the stairs all the way up instead.

“We went to visit our old room, sat on our old bed, and hung out,” the friends said, laughing. “The layout was a bit different, but the vibe was the same.” The three swapped stories about the momentous occasions that happened during their time on campus, from an epic Salem flood to a winter storm resulting in a rare cancellation of classes.

“Like Coming Back to a Dream”

After a rejection from Julliard School of Music, John West BA’73 came to Willamette in 1969. “That rejection from Julliard was the best thing that ever happened to me,” West said.

John West BA'73 playing a piano

John West BA'73 leads the 50th reunion class in their Glee song.

After studying piano performance at Willamette, West’s career included singing with Bette Midler, performing in a Broadway show with Patti Lupone, producing for Motown Records and more.

“The friendships I’ve made here have been life-enduring,” West reflected. “As the years went on, Willamette became a home.”

West returned to campus for his first reunion to help lead the class of 1973 in their Glee song.

“It’s like coming back to a dream I once had. It’s real, but also a little unreal,” West said. “I don’t feel fifty years older. I just don’t.”

“The Motto Has Been With Me All This Time”

During the 2023 Alumni Awards ceremony, seven distinguished alums were recognized for their exceptional work in public policy, scientific research and entrepreneurship. The awards were given for professional accomplishments, service to the Willamette community and for living out the Willamette motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

The ceremony was far from a dry affair, as award winners expressed their appreciation for their Willamette experience and the people who connected them to their futures, in touching ways.

Among the honorees was Mary K. Hughes JD’74, who received the Sparks Medallion in recognition of her exceptional legal and political career and her decades of service focused on turning Willamette into “Alaska’s Law School.”

Mary Hughes with President Thorsett

Mary K. Hughes JD'74 accepts the Lestle J. Sparks Medallion from President Steve Thorsett

“I can’t almost go a day, especially when I talk to law students, without thinking of the motto,” Hughes said. “It has just been with me all this time.”

Mary Louise VanNatta BA’86, winner of the Distinguished Alumni Citation, represented four generations of her family who have graduated from Willamette. VanNatta reminisced about the pride her parents felt upon her graduation and the profound emotions she experienced dropping off her child on Willamette’s campus on the first day of the term.

Another beloved tradition was marked at the annual celebration of the Athletic Hall of Fame, where five alumni were inducted in recognition of their exceptional performance as student-athletes.

A Wonderful Experience

A cleansing rain began to fall as the weekend’s activities drew to a close. Friends hugged and said their goodbyes as staff rushed around in golf carts to put away tables and chairs.

With another successful Alumni Reunion Weekend in the books, the memories of hundreds of alumni from across the decades hung in the air.

“It’s been 45 years since returning to campus,” said Shirley Tims Dunbar BA’78 as she made her way to the train station en route to Oakland, CA.

“Being able to remember my opportunity to get an education and find lifelong friends was a wonderful experience.”

All Willamette alumni are invited to next year’s Alumni Reunion Weekend, June 13-16, 2024.

View Photos from the Weekend

Alumni Award Recipients and videos

Mary K. Hughes JD’74 - Lestle J. Sparks Medallion

Mary K. Hughes has been instrumental in establishing Willamette as “Alaska’s Law School.” Her consistent volunteering, networking and service have made a legal education possible for decades of students.

 

Jamal Raad BA’08 - Distinguished Alum Of The Year Award

Jamal Raad’s Evergreen Action group helped design and pass the largest federal climate investment in American history.

Mary Louise VanNatta BA’86 - Distinguished Alumni Citation, Professional Achievement Award

Mary Louise VanNatta’s public relations expertise has benefitted groups such as the NFL, NBA and Alamo Car Rental, and she has worked with figures including Barbara Bush and Jane Goodall.

David Martinez BA’90 - Distinguished Alumni Citation, Non Nobis Solum Award

David Martinez is a significant voice in the Latino and gay communities in the Pacific Northwest.

Himalaya Rao-Potlapally MBA’19 - Recent Alumni Leadership Award, Innovative Achievement

Himalaya Rao-Potlapally has created access to significant finance and entrepreneurship opportunities for BIPOC and rural communities.

Alfredo Zuñiga BA’12 - Recent Alumni Leadership Award, Innovative Achievement

Alfredo Zuñiga’s neuroscience research focuses on how learning and memory play a role in addiction relapse, especially in alcoholism.

Carina Comer MBA’15 - Recent Alumni Leadership Award, Non Nobis Solum

Carina Comer’s Central Beaverton storefront creates community through food and provides a place to celebrate heritage and beliefs from different cultures.

Willamette Athletic Hall Of Fame

Carrie (Bellandi) Weatherbie BA'94, MAT '96 - Women’s Tennis

Bellandi played three years of tennis at Willamette after transferring from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She was named Northwest Conference of Independent Colleges (NCIC) Player of the Year three times, earning the award in 1993, 1994, and 1996. Bellandi won the conference singles title each year she competed and claimed the doubles title in 1994 and 1996, helping the Bearcats win team championships during those two years. An NAIA National Championship qualifier in 1993 and 1996, Bellandi reached the third round in singles in 1993 and partnered with Brooke Gannon to reach the third round of doubles in 1996. Also an outstanding student, Bellandi was named an NAIA District 2 Scholar-Athlete all three years and an NAIA National Scholar-Athlete in 1996.

Inducted by: Kalee Weatherbie

Michael Cho ’78 - Football

Cho's Willamette football career came to an end as a first-year player in the fifth game of the 1974 football season when an in-game injury left him paralyzed. After initially picking up the sport of table tennis, Michael went on to compete as a Paralympic athlete in the sport of air rifle after joining the U.S. national team in 1984. He was the United States Champion in 1985, 1986, and 1987, placed third at the 1985 World Championships in Germany, and placed second at the 1986 Pan American Games. In 1988, Cho competed at the Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, and finished seventh, eighth, and ninth in the three events in which he participated. After finishing his competitive career, Michael turned his focus toward being an advocate for people with disabilities.

Inducted by: Steven Turner, BS'76

Marcie (Hagen) Myers BA'04 - Softball

Hagen was chosen First Team All-Northwest Conference at third base all four years she played for the Bearcats, from 2001-04. She also was named All-West Region in 2002 and was a 2004 National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American Scholar-Athlete. In 2003, Hagen led the conference with a .444 batting average, which currently ranks third all-time at Willamette. During her senior year in 2004, she also led the team in batting average, while ranking first on the squad in slugging percentage, walks, and on-base percentage. At the end of her senior season, Hagen held eleven individual career records for the Bearcats. At the time of her induction, Hagen held Willamette records for single season assists (158) and career assists (471). She ranks second all-time in career batting average (.400) and career hits (165), third all-time in career stolen bases (66), and fourth in career on-base percentage (.460).

Inducted by: Damian Williams

Kari (Holbert) Mooers BA'04 - Women’s Cross Country, Track and Field

A six-time individual conference champion, Holbert won the NWC Cross Country Championship in 2002, the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 2002, 2003, and 2004, and the 1,500-meter run in 2003 and 2004. Holbert qualified for five NCAA National Championships during her Willamette career. Three were in cross country, where she earned All-America honors in 2003 by finishing 23rd and in 2004 with a 34th-place finish, and two were in track and field. Holbert still holds all-time top-10 track and field times at Willamette in the 800-meter run, 1,500-meter run, 3000-meter steeplechase, 400-meter hurdles, and the 6-kilometer race in cross country. Holbert was a member of six championship teams - 2002, 2003, and 2004, in both cross country and track and field. Holbert continued running after leaving Willamette and has been a part of two co-ed championship teams in the Hood to Coast Relay and qualified for the Boston Marathon.

Inducted by: Bob Gray

Monica (Scott) Fiedler BA'01 - Women’s Track

Scott received All-America honors three times in the javelin by finishing in the top five at the NCAA National Championships in 1999 (5th), 2000 (3rd), and 2001 (2nd). She set the National Meet record in 2001 only to have the record broken later during that meet. At the time of her induction, Scott held the record for the best javelin throw in Willamette history at 147' 5". She was the Northwest Conference champion in the javelin in 1999 at 125' 6' and in 2001 at 137' 6".

Inducted by: Soren Sorensen

Watch a Video of the Ceremony

Alumni Board Of Directors Transitions

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Incoming Directors

  • May Best BA’09, MAT’10
  • Vanessa Briones BFA’19
  • Dan Hall BA’76
  • Sandi Collins Hildreth BA‘93
  • Juanita Lewis BA’81
  • Malayka Mottarella BA’17
  • Colleen Smyth CAS’15, MSDS’21
  • Jamie Timbrell BA’06, MBA’08
  • Shanbo Zhang MBA’18

Outgoing Directors

  • Jeff Sirginson BA’14 – served 2017-2023
  • Beth Dittman BA’02 – served 2020-2023
  • Kayley Abrams BA’15 – served 2017-2023
  • Cindy Sheaks-McGowan BA'87 – served 2017-2023
  • Amy Varga BA'97 – served 2017-2023

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