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5 to Receive Homecoming Alumni Awards

Five individuals will receive Alumni Association awards at a Friday, Oct. 11, noon luncheon in the Conference Center Ballroom on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University.

The event is part of Southwest Minnesota State University Homecoming activities, with a theme of “Mustangs Unite.”

Alumni Achievement Awards are presented to alumni in recognition of professional success and the positive reflection made on the university and fellow alumni. Alumni Achievement Award recipients include Phyllis (Ostergaard) Hitchcock, a 1977 alumna who taught for 40 years in the Centennial School District; Brian Luke, a 1975 alumnus now in his 44th year as the boys’ and girls’ swimming and diving teams coach at Stillwater High School; and Kristi Mukomela, a 1980 alumna and the president and CEO of Novation Credit Union, based in the Twin Cities.

Honorary Membership Awards are presented to individuals who are not SMSU graduates, but who give their time, talent and enthusiasm to the university. The Honorary Lifetime Membership Award recipient this year is Karen Sweetland, an avid SMSU supporter and the wife of the late SMSU President Doug Sweetland.

The Graduate of the Last Decade (GOLD) Award is presented to an individual who has distinguished him/herself in the last 10 years since graduating. This year’s recipient is Megan Seppmann, vice president of Sales for the Wisconsin Center District, Milwaukee’s premiere event campus.

Phyllis (OsterGaard) Hitchcock

When Phyllis (Ostergaard) Hitchcock went looking for a teaching job in 1977, classroom positions were hard to come by.

“Those were tough years to find a teaching job,” she said. “I sent out a lot of applications. I decided to pick up the telephone and start calling schools. Today you can’t do that. I happened to call Centennial Junior High School in August, thinking I wasn’t going to find a full-time job. A teacher had just resigned so they were looking for someone with water safety instruction. My resume happened to be on the principal’s desk.”

Thus began a successful 40-year teaching career for the Arco native who attended Ivanhoe High School. She retired in 2017.

She graduated from what was then SSU in 1977 with a double major in health and physical education. Within two weeks of starting at Centennial Schools, located in Circle Pines, she accepted the position of girls varsity swim team coach.

She taught PE and health at the junior high and high school levels during her career. She also coached junior high basketball.

Her involvement in athletics was on a whim.

“I was standing in line to register my sophomore year and decided I’d go out for volleyball, and played JV for two years. I grew up swimming, climbing trees, and played some softball. There wasn’t much for girls organized high school sports back then. For me, playing women’s sports in college was a big step. There were girls that came from Iowa and other places that had more formal training in sports. I enjoyed my participation at SSU,” she said.

She was also on the swimming and diving team, and the tennis team. She played three years of tennis, and swam for two years.

She was inducted into the Centennial School District Hall of Fame last year, and in 2013 was awarded the Exceptional Teacher Technology Award for Centennial High School.

She looks back at her time at SMSU with fondness, and mentions Jeri Madden, Don Palm, R.A. Colvin, Lew Shaver, Glenn Mattke, Jean Replinger, Mike Sterner and Jody Mohr as influential individuals during her academic career at the University.

“SSU was close to home, and education was important to my parents,” she said. “My mother went to college one year, and my dad did not. SSU fit financially with what we could do.”

She has been married to David Hitchcock, a 1976 alumnus, for 41 years. They have two married children: Stephen, and Sara Henrikson.

“I’m very humbled to receive this honor,” she said of the Alumni Association award. “There are a lot of other individuals who are also deserving. Thank you.”

BRIAN LUKE

You’d be hard pressed to find a more accomplished and decorated swimming and diving coach in Minnesota than Brian Luke.

The 1975 alumnus has been the Stillwater High School girls’ and boys’ head coach the past 44 years. He took over before that school became synonymous with swimming and diving excellence, and has built it into a perennial power.

He taught junior high science for 35 years before retiring 10 years ago, and continues to coach.

The late Don Palm recruited Brian from Hopkins Lindbergh High School where he swam primarily the butterfly and individual medley. He became an important part of the SMSC Swim Machine, which hosted the national NAIA meet twice during his career, in 1972 and 75.

In fact, it was swimming which was the reason he met his wife, Jane, an SMSU alumna. She had a work-study job in Palm’s office and served as his secretary for four years. She was instrumental in coordinating the home swim meets at SMSC.

The campus pool was state-of-the-art in 1975, and Palm’s ability to recruit brought in many talented swimmers and divers who helped the Mustangs earn conference titles during Brian’s sophomore, junior and senior seasons.

Brian has been a fixture at Stillwater since graduating from SMSU. His girls’ teams have won 11 state, 19 section and 26 conference titles. His boys’ teams have won 15 section and 21 conference championships. Stillwater swimmers and divers have earned All-State honors 360 times, and All-American honors 180 times. Team members have been named Academic All-American 113 times.

Individually, he’s been Minnesota State High School Coach of the Year five times, and is in the High School Swim Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He’ll be inducted into the Minnesota State Coaches Association Hall of Fame the weekend of Homecoming.

He believes in classroom excellence for his athletes so much that he’s changed the name of his program to Stillwater Swimming, Diving and Education.

“When I step on the deck of a practice there are many objectives for the day, the week, the season. The overall objective is to get better and try to be as successful as possible. But there is so much more going on than that — there are the intangibles we emphasize like self-discipline, team-discipline, punctuality, empathy, academics, maturity, honesty and respect,” he said.

Brian has been able to stay in the sport so long, he feels, because of the support of his wife Jane, who announces at all the meets and is the liaison between the program and the team members’ parents. She also takes the lead with the youth swim club activities.

“A lot of young coaches get started and in six or eight years they’re not in it anymore. I’m lucky my wife is supportive. She has kept involved. So, therefore, I haven’t disappeared into the mist for former coaches.”

He names Palm and Science Professor Dr. Ed Carberry as major influences during his time at SMSU.

Brian and Jane, are the parents of four children: Melanie, Taylor, Maggie and Marnie. Brian enjoyed coaching all of them as members the Stillwater High School swimming and diving team. His father, the late Elmer Luke, was a legendary swimming and diving coach at Hopkins High School.

He has warm memories of his time at SMSU, and is grateful to have been part of such a dominating program.

KRISTI MUKOMELA

Kristi Mukomela has seen SMSU from many perspectives.

First, as a daughter, then student, employee and finally, an active alumna.

The 1980 graduate is president and CEO of Novation Credit Union, the 15,000-member credit union for 3M employees and family members, a position she’s held for 22 years.

She came to Marshall in 1968 when she was 10 years old and her father, Ken, got a job as a business professor at what was then Southwest Minnesota State College. Ken and his wife Gwen raised Kristi and her four siblings in Marshall. She witnessed the college’s growth from those early years.

She graduated with an accounting degree after initially starting in the hotel restaurant Administration program.

After her freshman year she took an internship at Quadna Mountain Resort, south of Grand Rapids, and enjoyed the north woods so much she attended Itasca Community College as a sophomore where she gook general courses.

She returned to SMSC her junior year and pursued an accounting degree.

“My interest was in more general business management than pure accounting but I realized an accounting degree was going to be useful for either direction,” she said.

After graduation she worked as an admissions counselor (recruiter) in the Office of Admission. Her territory was South Dakota and some of the counties in southwest and Greater Minnesota.

She’s seen Marshall and SMSU through several lenses, each unique in its perspective.

“Growing up in Marshall you have a certain perspective as a high school and then a college student,” she said. “Coming back on board as an adult and serving in a volunteer capacity has given me a different perspective on the community. I see things in a fuller context and that’s been rewarding.”

“I think SMSU provides value to the community as well as the region. The students receive a quality education and there’s plenty of experiences outside the classroom. Being on the Foundation Board, I have a better understanding of the significant financial support the community gives to the University and of the important role that SMSU plays in the region,” she added.

Influential professors during her time at SMSC included Jim Babcock, Al Blitstein, Emil Milacek and Mike Boedigheimer. She also recalls the many “arm punches” she received from Glenn Mattke.

Kristi continues to give back to the University. She’s on the SMSU Foundation Board of Directors and chairs its Finance Committee. She is also a past member of the Alumni Association Board.

Kristi and her husband Mark Everson have a blended family of three children and eight grandchildren.

“I’m very flattered and honored to receive this Alumni Association honor,” she said.

KAREN SWEETLAND

Karen Sweetland has lived in five states during her lifetime. She feels that Marshall, Minnesota, is her favorite location.

She is a familiar face within the Mustang Family, first as the wife of the late SMSU President Doug Sweetland, and, more recently, as an active member on several boards and committees and an avid supporter of the University. Her commitment to SMSU has not waned since the death of her husband on July 21, 2009.

She grew up in Clear Lake, S.D., and received a teaching certificate from Northern State before going on to teach in Huron for two years. She would then return to Northern for her BS degree. It is there that she met Doug Sweetland, who attended Northern after being discharged from the Navy.

“We were both juniors, and non-traditional students when we met,” she said.

A student in her early teaching years who suffered a brain injury from a horseback fall drew her into special education. She earned her undergraduate degree in special ed, and her master’s in learning disabilities.

Doug was interim president from 1994-97, and permanent president from 1997-2000. Karen continued to teach, first with the RTR district in Ruthton for three years, and later, teaching special education for the Marshall district, at Holy Redeemer School. She taught for 30 years before retiring.

Doug was at LaCrosse, Wis., and, later, Winona prior to coming to SMSU. The move from the river bluffs to the prairie “felt like coming home to me — the wind and the prairie,” she said.

“I was familiar with Marshall, traveling between Wisconsin and Clear Lake, plus I had visited campus with my son Shane, who graduated from SMSU,” she said.

Karen has been active on many boards over the years, including the SMSU Gala, SMSU Foundation, Lynd School and Marshall-Lyon County Library boards. She has been an avid supporter of GOLD College since its inception, and she was recently paired with a Little Buddy, as well.

“I remember when Doug was president, we attended so many functions — games, plays, speakers. We were so involved with the community. Marshall and SMSU have a very unique relationship, and we made so many friends at the university, in the community, and the region,” she said.

Karen is able to see her three children often. They are Angela, Shane, and Celine Nelson. Her five grandchildren bring her joy, she said.

The Alumni Association award is unexpected, she said.

“I’m very surprised, and honored,” she said.

MEGAN SEPPMANN

Ten years ago, Megan Seppmann didn’t know what the future would hold when she received her degree from SMSU.

The 2019 Graduate of the Last Decade (GOLD) Award winner is the vice president of sales for the Wisconsin Center District.

“This is one large feat for a woman in size 7 1/2 heels,” she said.

The Wisconsin Center District is Milwaukee’s premier event campus, home to the largest convention center in the state as well as the University of Milwaukee Panther Arena and Miller High Life Theatre. She oversees sales and revenue strategies for all three venues.

When Megan arrived at SMSU in 2005, she was disappointed to find out the hospitality management degree had been temporarily discontinued. Then Michael Cheng arrived and revived that program, while starting the culinology program.

When it comes to Megan’s biggest SMSU influencers, she said Cheng taught her how to think with a global perspective; Professor Glenn Bayerkohler was always patient in accounting class; and Director of Development Stacy Frost inspired her to keep pushing forward and be confident in her decision-making.

Milwaukee was named host of the Democratic National Convention on March 11, 2019, beating out Houston and Miami. Now Megan’s city is in the international spotlight, and she’s immersed in the myriad of details surrounding the DNC, as her venues will be host to tens of thousands of people.

Milwaukee is no longer the Midwest’s best-kept secret.

“When any Democratic candidate is announced, is followed by a statement, ‘The road to the presidency goes through Milwaukee.’ I have the honor of being in the center of it all,” she said.

The Mankato native and 2009 hospitality nanagement major — hotel and restaurant concentrations — has held several hospitality-related positions since graduating. She has worked her way through the hospitality industry, starting in operational roles including being food and beverage manager, then transitioning into sales in 2013. Her sales career has taken her to four different Midwest cities in five years, and landed her in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2016. She has managed and mentored teams ranging in size from 1 to 50, and is an inspirational lead-by-example mentor for many of them.

In addition to managing these three facilities, Megan serves as a board member for both Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Milwaukee and Playworks Wisconsin. She spends countless hours volunteering for the United Way of Greater Milwaukee, the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, Go Red for Women, YMCA and Habitat for Humanity.

As it turns out, she crossed a smaller stage back in 2009, one that has led her to a much larger stage in 2019.

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