For more than 30 years, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has held elaborate event to raise scholarship funds for its students. The Chancellor’s annual scholarship gala was held April 27 at the Pine Bluff Convention Center with the theme of the evening, Prom of the Golden Era.
The galas are not just an opportunity to raise money, but also a moment the chancellor uses to honor individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to the university and the community.
This year’s honorees were a unique group of individuals ranging from a husband and wife duo, a seventy-one-year alum, bank chief executive officer, and a civil right icon.
The host for the evening was Calvin Booker, corporate vice president of public affairs for the southern area of Waste Management. He is a native of Arkansas and graduate of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Throughout the evening, he encouraged the crowd to reach into their wallets and “help make history.” Chancellor Laurence Alexander’s goal for the evening was $100,000. That goal was surpassed by $7,000.
For the last thirty years, the university has promoted visual and performing arts and various cultural programs through the chancellor’s benefit for the arts. In order to provide funding opportunities for students outside of the visual and performing arts programs, Alexander said the benefit became the chancellor’s scholarship benefit. Its first year under this scope was last year. Because the programs under the scholarship has been broadened, so did the benefit’s financial goal.
“Our institution is undergoing a change, improving each day in pursuit of the goals of our strategic plan,” Alexander said. “This change to a university wide, community wide scholarship gala is consistent with the change because the funds you contributed to this event will support the university’s needs for funding for student’s success which we define as recruitment, retention progression, and graduation of students.”
Honored for their hard work, dedication, and their effort of promoting growth of the community and university: Bunia Baxter, Wiley A. Branton, Marty Castell, Christy Walker M.D., Torrance Walker M.D.
Baxter is a 1948 graduate of Arkansas Mechanical and Normal College. She was recognized for her extraordinary dedication to “Dear Mother.” She spent forty years in education, teaching first and second grade in Paris, Arkansas, Stuttgart, West Helena, and Pine Bluff. She retired from Dollarway School District in 1987.
“It has been the most rewarding experience, with the support of AM&N class of 1948 to serve as class coordinator presenting the university with more than $120,000,” Baxter said. “At our 75th class reunion, we presented UAPB with a gift of $41,165.”
Branton was a posthumous honoree that was recognized as a fearless champion of civil rights. He was a graduate of Arkansas Mechanical and Normal College and the fourth black student to enroll in the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the third to graduate.
He was known for his role as chief counsel for the black plaintiffs in the Little Rock desegregation case which lead to the 1957 crisis at Little Rock Central High School. Even after his death in 1988 he continues to be acknowledged for his contribution to civil rights and education.
Each year, the Law Journal of the Howard University School of Law conducts a symposium in his name on an important legal subject. The national bar association has honored him with an award luncheon and symposium named in his honor. He was inducted into the Arkansas black hall of fame in 1988. His son, Wiley Branton Jr. accepted his father’s award.
“Later in my dad’s life, he became dean of Howard University School of Law,” Branton said. “He always took a special interest when he was a student there from Arkansas. He was one of those Deans where there was an occasion that he went into his own pocket to help some student with expenses, so he recognized the tremendous hardships that students go through when they go to school. He would’ve been on board for any effort to increase scholarships and make education, a college education more available, and particularly to help strengthen a black university, and any university for that matter. I think he would be enthusiastic about this even,t and the opportunity that it provides for students to achieve their education.”
Castell is the chief executive officer and president of Simmons Bank. He was presented an award for his extraordinary dedication to the betterment of Pine Bluff by George Makris, president of Simmons Bank. Castell has dedicated thirty-one years of his banking career to Simmons Bank. Makris said Simmons has gone from three million dollars in assets six years ago to 17 billion today under Castell’s leadership.
“Marty is the guy that people look to for leadership when others duck behind doors,” Makris said. “Marty’s leadership was certainly instrumental in the recent gift from Simmons Bank of two and a half million dollars to the university to upgrade. Marty has been sought out by many community organizations for his leadership skills. Just a few of those being United Way, Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, and Jefferson Regional Medical Center, where in all three he held the highest leadership roles.”
Dr. Christie Walker is a dual board-certified gynecologist by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Cosmetic Surgeon by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery. She is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Christie Walker Gynecology and Cosmetic Surgery in Plano, Texas. She was recognized for her outstanding career in the medical field. She is one of few gynecologists in the country who is fellowship trained in cosmetic surgery. Walker said she knew she wanted to become a doctor at the age of 12, after the death of her older cousin who had a brain tumor. She said the helplessness she felt during that time left a feeling of wanting to help burning in her spirit. Her first step in fulfilling her purpose was being a 1997 Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She said she believes being honored at the scholarship gala means that she is fulfilling her God given purpose.
“It feels good to be accomplished after receiving an education at UAPB -a historically black institution, Walker said. “I’m just proud that I have been able to have the opportunities to challenge myself and challenge others around me. I am proud that I have had the tools, the resources, the people who have helped to elevate me to where I am today. I didn’t get here on my own and its my responsibility now and all of ours to pass on the torch to the next generation. I am in the prime of my life -I’m not done yet, there is still work to be done and I’m looking forward to it.”
Christie’s husband, Torrance Walker M.D. was also recognized for his outstanding career in the medical field. He is double board certified in Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine. Like his wife, he graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He attributes his success to his family and his wife. He currently practices medicine in Fort Worth, Texas with Texas Healthcare Bone and Joint Clinic. Also like his wife, he too believes that he hasn’t done enough to receive an award, but he said it has him energized for all the things to come.
“I’m humble, but I’m also energized because the things I’ve accomplished so far are being recognized, so it energizes me to do more. I’m also reminded that I have a lot of work to do for UAPB -for future generations, students, and people who are interested in medicine and health. This honor is more of an inspiration to me as well. I think its inspiring to see people just doing what they are called to do. Being honored is just an inspiration for other people, students. Its good for the overall culture of UAPB. It makes me feel proud to be a part of this event, to know that what we put into this event will eventually grow into something much bigger. As an investor, you look for the return on your investment. I feel as though I am an investor in this university -this event. The time, energy, abilities, and money that everyone in this event puts into it will grow and the return on this investment is infinity.”
During his speech, Alexander highlighted the university’s retention rate, which could fall under the category of the investor’s return. He said the higher education boards data recently revealed that over the last five years, the university’s first year retention rate has gone from 56% to more than 70%. He said this number is a key indicator of the graduation rate. This retention rate ranks University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff fourth in the state among public four-year institutions. This puts UAPB behind the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, University of Arkansas of Central Arkansas, and Arkansas State University.
“Every dollar you invest in this event will go towards the retention and graduation of students at UAPB,” Alexander said. “Much of it will be invested in the summer Lion’s Program which encourages summer school attendance and contributes to the economy of Pine Bluff during the slow summer months. The rest attracts students and their families to Pine Bluff to experience the renaissance and the changes that are taking place for the better in our city of Pine Bluff under the leadership of Mayor Washington. Because of the vested interests of our alumni, faculty, staff, and community stakeholders, we continue on the path to greatness at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and there ain’t no stopping us now.”