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.

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. Read more about the criteria and nominating procedures.

For questions, contact Jodi Moreau by phone 877-UM-ALUMS or email jodi.moreau@umontana.edu. 

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

2023 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipients

Susan B. Adams, Ph.D. ’99

Susan B AdamsDr. Adams is an international expert on fish and crayfish ecology. Her research has ranged from cold water fish and amphibian ecology in Montana's mountain streams to discoveries about crayfish on the Gulf of Mexico coast. She is a recognized local, regional, national and international expert on crayfish and is regularly invited to speak and collaborate on international projects. She has described new crayfish species, documented the effects of land management on crayfish, and authored more than 70 scientific papers. She has made science accessible to a variety of audiences and has been described as the “Jane Goodall of crayfish.” She was elected to serve as president of the International Association of Astacology (study of crayfish). The state of Montana turned to her when they needed an expert to lead their recent statewide crayfish investigations.

Paul Carpino ’54

Paul CarpinoPaul Carpino is a social work graduate, but describes himself as “more a social justice and peace activist than a traditional social worker.” He worked for decades on behalf of underrepresented and underserved populations in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and across the country. He preferred systemic changes that addressed the root causes of hunger and homelessness and viewed direct service programs as ineffective. He taught low-income people how to speak up for themselves and press their issues with those in power at the local and statewide levels. He was instrumental in organizing the Montana State Low Income Organization (MSLIO) which became a force in changing laws so that programs to assist the poor became more accommodating to them. He and two other runners founded the “Run for Peace,” a relay from New York City to Seattle. Their mission was to promote nuclear disarmament. Paul believed the nuclear weapons industry unfairly affected low-income residents of the manufacturing and testing sites.

Arnold “Smoke” Elser '64

Bill JohnstonSmoke Elser is a legendary packer, author, teacher, conservationist and UM education grad. For 60 years, Smoke ran an outfitting business from his historic barn in Missoula’s Rattlesnake Valley and became an important voice in the U.S. conservation movement. He testified in the U.S. Senate for the Lincoln-Scapegoat Wilderness in 1972 and was instrumental in the designation of the Great Bear Wilderness in 1976 and the Wild and Scenic River Act in 1968. He literally wrote the book on horse and mule packing (“Packin’ In On Mules and Horses,” Mountain Press, 10th edition) and many handbooks and informational materials on light-on-the-land backcountry travel with horses and mules, all of which became standards for the recreationist and the outfitting industry and the basis for the Montana accreditation exam for professional outfitters.

Michael Munson ’04, M.A. '08

Michael Munson

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Dr. Munson is an expert in the field of Indian education, not only in Montana but nationwide and around the world. Her vast knowledge and expertise were invaluable resources for the state of Montana with the Office of Public Instruction’s Indian Education efforts. She assisted with the development and publication of high-quality Indian Education for All model lesson plans and curriculum resources that are still being used throughout Montana classrooms. Michael has provided highly engaging, effective and culturally relevant professional development for educators in Montana. She brings an insider perspective to the unique issues facing American Indian students and is committed to the goal of providing all students, both on and off the reservation, a high-quality education. Michael plays an integral role in the historic work of Salish language revitalization efforts and her influence will be felt hundreds of years from now.

Steve Nelson '70

Steve NelsonNelson is a driving force in business development in Missoula. After graduating from UM, Nelson joined the army. In his military career, he reached the rank of major before retiring. He took on a second career, owning and operating several small businesses in Missoula, as well as purchasing and developing the Bonner Mill Industrial Park, which now houses several locally-owned businesses that are mainstays of Missoula’s economy. Additionally, Nelson gives back to his community and alma mater through service. He is a member of the National Board of Grizzly Athletics and serves as the co-chair of the YMCA’s Capital Campaign board.

Lawrence Pettit '59

Lawrence PettitDr. Pettit served as the first Commissioner of Higher Education in the Montana University System after the position was created in the 1972 Montana Constitution. During his time as commissioner, his accomplishments include curriculum development and reform, and implementation of uniform fiscal policies. Under his leadership, the Board of Regents approved a partnership with the University of Washington School of Medicine that allowed Montana students opportunities to attend medical school. He also worked to develop better relationships with Montana’s Native American community. Lawrence has served in a number of academic positions, including president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He served in various positions at Southern Illinois University, American Council on Education, Southern Illinois University and the University System of South Texas and in the Texas College and University System. He was both a student and professor of political science and worked in the Montana administrations of Gov. Tom Judge, Sen. Lee Metcalf and Sen. James Murray. He has mentored dozens of political science students and candidates.