Distinguished Alumni Award

Each Homecoming, the University of Montana Alumni Association honors outstanding alumni with Distinguished Alumni Awards. University alumni and friends are invited to nominate, on an individual basis, a graduate or former student for this award. Deadline to submit nominations and materials is February 23, 2018. 

Recipients of the award are individuals who have distinguished themselves in a particular field and who have brought honor to the University, the state or the nation. The University of Montana Alumni Association Board of Directors Awards Committee focuses on career achievement, professional honors, professional membership/directorship, community service and UM or UMAA recognition or service in selecting recipients.

This year's Distinguished Alumni Awards recipients will be honored during Homecoming week with an awards ceremony and reception in the University Center Ballroom. The honored alumni also will participate in a panel discussion. 

The Office of Alumni Relations and Alumni Association strongly encourage nominations that reflect the diversity of our alumni.

See a complete list of past Distinguished Alumni Award recipients

Distinguished Alumni Award nomination criteria, procedure and form

2017 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipients

William Finnegan ’78, M.F.A. Creative Writing

Picture William Finnegan ’78, M.F.A. Creative Writing

An award-winning journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker since 1987, William Finnegan of New York City has spent the majority of his career writing in-depth features on conflicts at home and abroad. 

Over the last several decades, he’s traveled to some of the most hostile locales across the world to report on topics that include apartheid in South Africa; the aftermath of the Sandinista revolt in Nicaragua; the civil wars in Mozambique, Sudan and the Balkans; and the drug wars in Mexico. His reporting has also tackled a wide range of social issues in America, from an in-depth examination of the nationwide fast-food workers’ movement to features and commentary on the politics of immigration reform. 

In 2016, Finnegan’s surfing memoir, “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” won the Pulitzer Prize in the biography/autobiography category. The New York Times best-seller chronicles his “youthful obsession” during his formative years as he traveled the world looking for the next big wave. Finnegan has earned numerous accolades for his reporting as well, including two John Barlow Martin Awards for Public Interest Magazine Journalism and two Overseas Press Club awards. He’s also a two-time finalist for the National Magazine Award. 

Finnegan’s research and reporting have resulted in several nonfiction publications, including “Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country,” which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1998, “A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique,” “Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid” and “Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters.”

Harry Fritz ’62, M.A. History

Picture of Harry Fritz ’62, M.A. History

An active and respected scholar and a generous colleague and mentor, Harry Fritz of Missoula is known, above all, as an engaging and dedicated teacher who shared his passion for history with thousands of students as a professor at the University of Montana for 50 years.

Multiple generations of Montanans – entire families, even, have taken Fritz’s courses over the years, and he served as the public face of the Department of History until his retirement last spring. Few historians are able to bring to the lectern as much energy, good humor and sheer love of storytelling as Fritz; fewer still can do so with his democratic unpretentiousness. Many a UM student has a vivid memory of Fritz reciting the Gettysburg Address – from memory and dressed as Abraham Lincoln, beard and all – or recounting the travails of Lewis and Clark on their journey westward.

Fritz’s service to the state of Montana has been recognized by a host of awards and commendations, including the Governor’s Humanities Award, the Montana Historical Trustees’ Award and the Robert T. Pantzer Award. In 2005, Gov. Brian Schweitzer selected Fritz to serve as Montana’s state liaison to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

Extending his public service beyond the classroom, Fritz also served two terms in the Montana House of Representatives and one in the Senate. It was he who, on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1991, introduced in committee the bill that would establish MLK Day as a state holiday in Montana.


Ramakrishna Nemani ’87, Ph.D. Forestry

Picture of Harry Fritz ’62, M.A. History

A pioneer in satellite-driven ecological forecasting technology, Ramakrishna Nemani of Sunnyvale, California, has served as the founder and director of NASA’s Ecological Forecasting Laboratory since 2003. His work, which he started at UM, is the basis of the current weekly monitor of global plant production produced by the NASA Earth Observing System, a unique global dataset used by scientists worldwide.

Nemani developed and leads a modeling effort called the Terrestrial Observation and Prediction System, which produces ecological nowcasts and forecasts using satellite and climate data. TOPS monitors Earth’s terrestrial productivity by integrating satellite data, meteorological data and ecosystem simulation models. A crucial tool used in global carbon monitoring, the system has been used to address issues related to water, natural hazards, carbon emissions and sequestration, agricultural productivity, public health and urban planning. 

Nemani continues to break ground in global ecological forecasting with the NASA Earth Exchange project, an extension of TOPS that adds a collaborative computing platform for providing direct access to data, models, analysis tools and scientific results to various research and resource management communities. NEX connects users to cloud computing environments and a supercomputing platform to foster knowledge sharing, collaboration and innovation.  

Nemani’s rank at NASA of Senior Research Scientist is attained by only one in 1,000 of the agency’s employees. He also has received several awards from NASA, including the 2012 Outstanding Leadership Medal, the 2008 Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal and the 2006 Scientist of the Year Ames Honor Award.  

Dr. Robert “Bob” Seim ’59, B.S. Microbiology and Public Health

Picture of Harry Fritz ’62, M.A. History

Since graduating from UM, Dr. Robert “Bob” Seim, Missoula, has distinguished himself as a physician, community leader, nonprofit board member and mentor.

Seim earned his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Washington in 1964 and became board-certified by the American Board of Orthopedics in 1971. During this time, he also served in the U.S. Army before establishing a long career in orthopedic surgery in Missoula and at the Kalispell Veterans Administration Hospital. Following his retirement in 2015 after three decades practicing at Missoula Bone and Joint, Seim continued to serve Montana veterans through his work with VA orthopedic clinics in Missoula and Kalispell.

Seim has served his profession in leadership roles as a member of the National Board of Councilors of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the pre-eminent orthopedic surgeon membership organization; president of the North Pacific Orthopedic Association; president of the Montana chapter of the Western Orthopedic Association; and president of St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. .

Seim has also demonstrated steadfast commitment to his community and the University over the years. In 1986, he received the Ray Rocene Award for providing sports medicine coverage to Missoula high school athletes. He’s also a longtime and active member of the Missoula Rotary Club and has served on the Missoula Neighborhood Board and the Missoula Parks Board. His continued involvement with UM includes service on the boards of the Grizzly Scholarship Association, UM Alumni Association and UM Foundation. He was also a guest lecturer in UM’s School of Physical Therapy for nearly two decades.

James “Scott” Wheeler ’69, B.A. History

Picture of James “Scott” Wheeler ’69, B.A. History

After graduating from UM, James “Scott” Wheeler of Kalispell joined the U.S. Army and was commissioned a second lieutenant, beginning what would become a long and distinguished military career. .

Wheeler served a number of years overseas, including as a helicopter combat pilot in Vietnam and a Armor commander in Germany. Returning stateside, he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in history at the University of California-Berkeley. He then combined his passions into a career of remarkable accomplishments.

In 1984, Wheeler was one of 12 applicants out of 500 selected to spend a year as a White House Fellow, working in the U.S. Department of Energy. He then spent many years as a history professor at West Point, and earned a second master’s degree from the Naval War College during that time.

Following a 30-year career in the Army, Scott returned home to Montana and pursued his lifelong love of history. As a historian, Wheeler is a prolific writer and the author of several books, including “Cromwell in Ireland” and “Jacob L. Devers: A General’s Life.”

Also following his retirement from the military, Wheeler served as a senior military analyst to the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe for five years. The Department of Defense takes advantage of his historical and military expertise to conduct “staff rides” for its senior leadership, in which Wheeler leads tours of historic battlefields throughout Europe for generals and other top military officers.

The Distinguished Alumni Award Recipients also have their names engraved in bricks on the University's Oval.

Bricks on the Oval