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90+ Years of The AU Alumni Family

by Sara Nieves-Grafals, CAS/BS '75, CAS/MA '79, CAS/PhD '80

During 1927, the same year that construction began at Mount Rushmore and Charles Lindbergh completed his first solo flight across the Atlantic, the Alumni Association of American University was created. The organization had a total of 71 alumni.

James D. Buhrer, the first president, guided the commencement prayer for the 59 graduates that year. In 2023, the association's 53rd president, LaTanya Sothern, SOC/BA '92, three other executive committee officers, and 22 members at large of the Alumni Board lead a group of more than 145,000 alumni worldwide. More than 95 years into the life of the alumni association, AU awards bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from eight schools and more than 150 programs.

Keeping abreast of alma mater news has always been a priority for alumni. The year the Stock Market crashed (1929), AUAA funded the dissemination of The Eagle student newspaper to all alumni. Car radios had just been invented, and the first telephone booths appeared in London.

By 1974, when Harry Ballman, Kogod/BSBA '61, Kogod MA '63, was president, alumni relied on telephone calls and "snail mail" to be in touch. There was no internet, of course. George Margolies, SPA/BA '68, WCL/JD '71, and his peers pioneered the alumni audit program by 1979 to help connect alumni with AU. Jonah Gitlitz, Kogod/BS '55, was an Alumni Board Member from 1993 to 1997. He says, "We started the Golden Eagles Reunions, case competitions at Kogod. We voted ourselves out of office. At first it was hard to get people involved but later with more people, we set term limits." While many of the activities started by earlier leaders continue to bring alumni to AU, today social media also updates alumni on campus developments in seconds.

Another way to connect to AU has been through philanthropy. The tradition of giving back arose after the Great Depression and World War II. In April 1945, an alumni committee worked to "assist the National Service Officers, veterans of World War II studying at the university." By 1949, alumni sponsored two scholarships ($500 each) and one student prize. At a time when the average annual salary was $3,600, the association donated $1,700 (the cost of a car) to create a campus garden. The 1950s saw a building campaign with an ambitious $10,000 goal (which would be roughly $91,000 today).

Fundraising efforts waned during the anti-authority era of the 1960s. George Whitehouse, Kogod/BA '69, president from 1998 to 2002, smiles knowingly and says "We were the class of 1969. It was a rebellious era. We were the first class not to give a gift to the university. ...Twenty-five years later…some of the guys in my class were able to organize this rebellious group to give the largest reunion gift." After two and one-half decades, they more than made up for their defiance.

By 1983, alumni president Bob Cowdrey, SPA/BA '71, and his colleagues reactivated the alumni scholarship fund: "It was high on everyone's list of priorities." Carey Earle, SOC/BA '88, advanced the giving agenda as president between 2005 and 2006, saying "We tried to make giving more integral. As we recruited people for the board, the message was the expectation that people would be at President's Circle level."

"As we have great opportunities, we have the obligation to give back. AU was instrumental on setting me on a path."

The words of Gayle Abbott, SPA/BA '76, president from 1990 to 1993, convey the gratitude felt by many alumni for life-changing opportunities. Her successor was Pam Deese, SPA/BA '80, WCL/JD '83. As a scholarship recipient, double alumna, parent of students and alumni, sorority member, past Alumni Board President (1993-1997), recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award, Law Professor and Board of Trustees member for 16 years, Pam Deese embodies love for AU. A fellow alumna changed her professional life path: "When I was a freshman, there was a family crisis and there was no money for me to return to AU. I applied for scholarships and loans and worked hard all summer. I managed to come back to AU and worked at the snack bar on campus. Nancy Adams, an alumna of my sorority, Delta Gamma, asked if I would work at the White House at a Students Stay in School project. I did not even have bus fare to go to the interview, and I was hired. I learned a lot and it was an amazing professional experience. I stayed there even through law school."

Brian Keane, SPA/BA '89, president from 2006 through 2011, also spoke of being forever grateful. "At the end of my sophomore year, my financial aid was cut off. My mother said I could not go back to AU. People at the financial aid office helped me so I could continue. I realized that at AU you are not a number. I knew people in financial aid, I knew my professors, I knew the president of the university. It was not just me. That is how it was. There is a culture here that every individual is an individual....AU is a family."

In addition to financial support, mentoring of students continues to be a way to give back. When asked about her contributions during her tenure as president (2015-2017), Andrea Agathoklis Murino, SPA/BA '98, reminisces: "As a former president, I'm most proud of the strides we made to connect current students with alumni, especially the dinner with alumni program. There is nothing more rewarding than connecting two members of the AU family and, as a result, strengthening the fabric of our entire community."

This type of mentoring has also encouraged progress at the Alumni Board. For Brian Johnson, Kogod/BS '76, president from 1988 to 1990, former presidents participating in annual meetings with active board members was key. "We were fortunate to have a lot of encouragement and active participation of Alumni Board presidents from many generations before us. They would come and we gained from their perspectives," he says.

Not all has been serious work at the Alumni Association. Social gatherings have always made alumni groups coalesce despite some challenges. During the Depression era of the early 1930s, alumni raised funds for dances. Ellsworth Tompkins (1943 president) regretfully cancelled an alumni game and gathering because of "transportation difficulties and the inadequacy of the university cafeteria to provide food for the extra amount of people" (from The Eagle, March 9, 1943).

Triple alumnus and past president (2002- 2005) Don Knapps, CAS/BA '81, SPA/MA '83, WCL/JD '86, chuckled as he recalled how innovations at homecoming ended up: "We had a golf cart parade with President Ladner on the quad. It fizzled out. We had a small band....not quite New Orleanesque. We were throwing candy. AU was not always a place of great traditions." 

Since the advent of All-American Weekend, much more successful annual October gatherings have brought back greater numbers of alumni each year. In 2017, more than 60 events celebrated various aspects of the AU experience.

One event that recognizes alumni contributions to the university and to society at large goes back to 1948. Alumni awards are bestowed annually on distinguished recipients. In appreciation of a decade of transformation during his tenure, the Alumni Achievement Award was named in honor of President Emeritus Neil Kerwin, SPA/BA '71, in 2016.

Community service and social justice have made AU stand out among universities. Gender equality concerns also emerged early in the history of the Alumni Association. At a time when it was rare for women to have leadership roles, Ethel Smith (1943-1945) was elected president. The first female president of the student government, Dr. Helen Miller, PhD '33, went on to serve as president of the Alumni Association from 1953 to 1955.

Of the 50 Alumni Board Presidents, 10 have been women. Presently, women outnumber men at the Alumni Board (55% to 44%).

Other strides in diversity have also occurred in leadership. Of the 21 current Alumni Board members, the ethnic/racial identity breakdown is: 66% White, 22% African American, 11% Asian, and 11% Latino. Diversity in educational fields and other factors continues to be a goal. Currently 14 affinity groups bring alumni to collaborate on social, educational, and philanthropic projects. The groups celebrate identity, interest, industry, leisure, and student experience.

While celebrating diversity, love for American University is the central unifying factor for alumni. For these 90 years, the alumni association has provided an interest in learning, a way to give back, and the satisfaction that wherever AU alumni are, they belong to the AU alumni family.

Former board president Joe Vidulich, SPA/BA '08, relished his participation, saying "It is a distinct honor and privilege to interact with alumni who are the successful people that AU helped create."

Erin Fuller, SPA/BA'93, SPA/MPA '94, president from 2011 through 2013, adds "I hope the increased visibility of alumni let prospective and current students see they can have an impact on the university far beyond their tenure as students." And that is just what the alumni association has meant and continues to provide for all.

Once an Eagle, Always an Eagle!