WMU News

Three outstanding grads named Distinguished Alumni

Sept. 27, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Three outstanding Western Michigan University alumni will be honored at the annual Distinguished Alumni Awards Dinner Friday, Oct. 20, kicking off WMU's first Homecoming of the 21st century.

During the event, set for 6:30 p.m. in the West Ballroom of the Bernhard Center the WMU Alumni Association will present this year's Distinguished Alumni Awards to: Ronald E. Hall of Detroit, chairman and chief executive officer of Bridgewater Interiors LLC; Marin Mazzie of New York City, Broadway actress and three-time Tony Award nominee; and Samuel J. Simmons of Washington, D.C., president and chief executive officer of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged Inc.

Hall and Simmons will attend the dinner to personally accept their awards, but due to the continuing success of her current Broadway hit, "Kiss Me Kate," Mazzie will accept her award via a taped video presentation.

"The awards dinner is a most fitting start to this year's Homecoming celebration," says Jeanne Carlson, WMU Alumni Association president. "Honoring these three alumni who have made so many contributions to their respective professions is a perfect beginning to a special weekend."

The Distinguished Alumni Awards program, initiated in 1963, is the Alumni Association's most prestigious honor. This year's three recipients, join 107 other alumnae and alumni who have received one of these awards.

To make a reservation for this year's awards dinner, call the WMU Alumni Association at (616) 387-8777 before Oct. 6. The cost to attend is $30 per person.

Ronald E. Hall

Hall is a longtime business and civic leader who has been instrumental in formulating policies and promoting economic development for minorities in Michigan. He received a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from WMU in 1965 and a master of business administration degree from Wayne State University in 1968.

Coming to Kalamazoo for his undergraduate studies turned out to be a good idea, according to Hall, who was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and an active member of the Interfraternity Council.

"WMU seemed perfect because of its location, size--not too big--and excellent educational reputation," he says. "It provided me with the tools and discipline that I have carried all my life."

Hall began his business career as an entrepreneur, owning and operating two franchise restaurants for eight years. He also served the Ford Motor Co. for 16 years as supervisor of systems analysis and New Detroit Inc., the nation's first urban coalition, for more than four years as director of minority business development.

In 1992, Hall was named president of the Michigan Minority Business Development Council, a nonprofit advocate for the minority business community and one of the primary voluntary minority certification bodies in Michigan. He is credited with transforming the council into one of the premier minority business organizations in the country as well as with developing the process it uses to grant minority business status.

Now he also is blazing new trails at Bridgewater. The automotive supply company is a joint venture with Johnson Controls Inc. and a group of minority operators and investors. It employs 220 people and is located in a new state-of-the-art facility in Detroit's Empowerment Zone. Hall was tapped to head this first-of-its-kind initiative in 1998 when the company was founded. It already has a five-year contract with General Motors Corp. worth an estimated $900 million--the most that GM has ever awarded to one minority supplier--to assemble interior seats for the new Cadillac Deville.

"I'm blessed to have been selected to head this venture," he says. "It's a great opportunity and I thank Johnson Controls and General Motors for their faith in my leadership."

But Hall also notes that he has a special fondness for the job he left to join Bridgewater.

"My six years as president of the Michigan Minority Business Development Council were the most rewarding years of my life," he says. "Not only did it lead me to the business opportunity I have today, but it also allowed me to make a difference in the lives of those I was advising."

Hall, an elected delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business in 1995, continues to make a difference through active involvement in a variety of business and civic organizations.

That volunteer service has earned him numerous awards and honors, including the U.S. Small Business Administration's Advocate of the Year Award, Junior Achievement's Bronze Leadership Award, the Amateur Athletic Union's Outstanding Association Volunteer Leadership Award, Michigan's Minority Business Advocate of the Year Award and the Wayne State Alumni Achievement Award.

Marin Mazzie

Mazzie, who is known for her outstanding singing voice and versatility as an actress, debuted on Broadway in 1985 and has risen to the top of her profession. She graduated from WMU in 1982 with a minor in music and a major in theatre and received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from the University earlier this year.

"I really knew what I wanted to do from the time I was 5 years old," she said in the spring 2000 issue of Show Music magazine. "I knew I wanted to be on Broadway even before I knew what Broadway was. My path was a straight line. No deviations."

As a youngster growing up in Rockford, Ill., Mazzie's theatrical-minded parents encouraged her to pursue her dream of a career in show business. She began by performing in school productions and singing in church choirs and at age 10, joined a local YMCA theatre group.

Years later, fate intervened and brought the family to Kalamazoo, where Mazzie discovered WMU's highly regarded arts curricula. Impressed with the School of Music, she began her studies as a music major, then switched to theatre in her sophomore year.

Mazzie says her professors, especially Lyda Stillwell and Dr. Russ Grandstaff in the theatre department, have had a major influence on her career.

"The classes, guidance and direction still hold for me. I'm still close to both of them," she says. "WMU has always been so supportive of me--through thick and thin," she adds. "It is an honor to receive something (the Distinguished Alumni Award) so special. It means a lot to me that the arts are recognized and supported as they are at WMU."

Mazzie entered the professional acting ranks in her junior year, apprenticing at the Barn Theatre in nearby Augusta, Mich. While performing at the well-known summer stock theatre, she earned her Equity card and, with the help of actor Tom Wopat, a Barn alumnus, even found an agent.

It was sort of like the plot of an MGM musical, Mazzie noted in the Show Music article. At the time, she still had never been to New York, let alone seen a Broadway show.

That changed in 1982, though, when the aspiring young actress graduated and moved to the Big Apple. Mazzie landed an acting job within two weeks and soon was performing in the Broadway productions of "Big River," "Into the Woods" and the City Center Encore! production of "Out of this World," as well as in numerous off-Broadway shows and national touring and regional productions.

Her first Tony Award nomination came in 1994 for her portrayal of Clara in the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical "Passion," a role she repeated in the film version for PBS. In 1998, she received a second Tony nomination, in addition to Drama Desk and Outer Critic's Circle award nominations as Best Actress in a Musical, for her portrayal of Mother in "Ragtime."

Mazzie struck Broadway gold again just this year, garnering a third Tony nomination as well as the Outer Critic's Circle award and yet another Drama Desk nomination for her performance in the dual role of Lilli Vanessi/Kate in the current hit revival of the musical comedy "Kiss Me Kate." The play, directed by Michael Blakemore, features music and lyrics by Cole Porter and an all-star cast.

Samuel J. Simmons

Simmons has long been an advocate for the elderly as well as a key player in developing federal housing programs and training policies. He received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from WMU in 1949 and an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from WMU in 1970.

With Simmons at the helm of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged since 1982, the NCBA has become the nation's major service and advocacy organization for the black elderly. It provides employment to more than 2,000 low-income seniors citizens in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, its various housing corporations serve as consultants and managers to sponsors of nonprofit housing throughout the country.

The organization's current projects include helping to reform the nation's health care system and to improve the Supplemental Security Income program. NCBA is one of about 40 organizations that comprise the Save Our Security Coalition, which Simmons has served since 1991 as SSI Committee chairperson.

"The magic of Samuel Simmons, and the reason that he gets things done, is that he understands that organizations are built and that change takes place not only through dedication and conviction, but also through systematic planning, perseverance and attention to detail," a former coalition colleague says.

According to Simmons, some of those skills were enhanced while attending WMU.

"My educational experiences at Western consisted of more than academic training," he says. "They also exposed me to opportunities for participating in many activities in the community and for being involved in honing my leadership skills.

"Above all," he continues, "I came to realize that average students can excel if they are dedicated and committed. Any goal can be achieved as long as you are clear on your objectives and are determined to succeed."

Prior to his current post, Simmons was president of the National Center for Housing Management, which was created by presidential executive order to provide leadership in meeting the nation's housing management training needs.

Under Simmons' direction, the center developed the only certification system for managers of housing for older Americans as well as created professional development systems and materials for managers of all types of housing. More than 3,000 managers from every state in the union, Israel and Canada are graduates of the center's systems.

In addition, Simmons has served as assistant secretary for equal opportunity in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, directed field operations for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and held other federal and state posts. He also served 16-year stints on the Federal National Mortgage Association's corporate board of directors and its foundation board of directors.

Simmons has earned several awards for his services on behalf of the elderly, including the Arthur S. Fleming Award from the Joint Conference on Law and Aging, the Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, and the Senior Advocate Award from the United Seniors Health Cooperative.

For more information about the Distinguished Alumni Awards, contact the WMU Alumni Association at <alumni@wmich.edu> or visit them on the Web at <www.wmich.edu/alumni>.

Media contact: Jeanne Baron, 616 387-8400, jeanne.baron@wmich.edu

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