Alumni Profiles

Yvonne Seon '59

Pioneer and Catalyst for Change

By Josh Tysiachney

seon Yvonne Seon didn’t set out to blaze new trails—which makes her achievements all the more impressive.

“The legacy of racism in America is such that I was first at things that should have happened a long time before I did them,” says Seon, known as a pioneer in the academic field of black studies. “In many respects I have never felt that I was doing anything particularly unusual. I came along in the era of the winds of change when Africans and African Americans were each committed to the other’s struggle. Many understood that African Americans could not have full citizenship and rights in America until Africans had full citizenship and rights in Africa—and we functioned accordingly.”

Seon credits that atmosphere of collaboration with fueling her interest in studying languages—she’s fluent in French as well as Lingala, a Congo language—and leading her to travel to Africa in 1960. The first American to work for the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, she soon advanced to the most prominent position available to a foreign citizen, managing a major dam construction project.

Energized by her two years in Africa, Seon returned to the United States and became the first black woman to serve as the chief administrative officer on a major U.S. delegation to a general assembly of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. She then completed—while helping to design—one of the earliest black studies Ph.D. programs in the country.

Seon went on to develop a number of seminal courses in the discipline, including “The African-American Woman” at the University of Maryland and “Comparative Black Literature” at Howard University. A native of the D.C. area, Seon returned there for more than thirty years to work and to raise her three children—among them comedian Dave Chappelle. Seon seems unfazed by the national media attention that her son’s fame has brought, including an appearance she made with him on 60 Minutes II.

Before moving back to the nation’s capital, Seon worked with students at Wright State University in Ohio to found the Bolinga Black Cultural Resources Center, which evolved into a national model for other educational institutions. Just prior to the center’s 35th anniversary in January 2006, Seon returned to serve the institution, having been awarded the title of distinguished visiting director. A year later she became its permanent director, following her retirement as a professor at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland.

“It’s been interesting trying to understand the new context of the struggle for African-American identity,” says Seon. “It’s definitely not the same as it was thirty-five years ago.” She explains that, now, there’s generally not the same sense of urgency in understanding Africa that there was during the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Seon is working to renew students’ interest in Africa as a point of ethnic origin and raise their awareness of the suffering caused by malaria, AIDS, and warfare on the continent.

“We are also beginning to understand more about the probable African origin of humankind and civilization, expanding our vision of who African people are,” she notes. “Part of our challenge is addressing African identity for everyone— being inclusive in programming and working to heal racial divisions in America—while still addressing the very real issue of African identity for black Americans.”

And Seon—the first African-American woman to join the Unitarian Universalist parish ministry, founding and leading a congregation in the 1990s—sees educating students as a different kind of ministry. Helping young people develop as independent and innovative thinkers ranks high among her ambitions. “We are in an era where conformity is expected and there’s a great deal of suspicion of those who don’t conform,” notes Seon, “yet it is the non-conformists among us who push us beyond mediocrity to greatness.”

This article was featued in the Winter/Spring 2007 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Mike Cobb and Joel Nagel '86 Friends First and Friends Last

In his inaugural address on January 10, 2002, Enrique Bolaños, the third democratically elected president of Nicaragua, announced the dawn of a new era for his country. With a rise in foreign investment, which grew by a remarkable 43 percent in 2004, Bolaños said Nicaragua was well on its way to recovering from poverty, corruption, and the civil war that once plagued its people.

“Nowadays, private businessmen are investing in Nicaragua after twenty years of reticence and lack of confidence in the country,” he said. Bola�os was referring to entrepreneurs like Mike Cobb ’86 and Joel Nagel ’86, who joined forces in 2000 to develop Gran Pacifica, an up-and-coming resort community in Nicaragua’s Villa del Carmen County, forty-five minutes from the city of Managua.

Cobb and Nagel met on Nagel’s first day at Allegheny and have been best friends ever since. “We had an intellectual connection first that became a deep connection,” Cobb says. That same day, Nagel also met his future wife, Susan Entress ’86. Cobb and Nagel majored in political science at the College, joined the Theta Chi fraternity, and were roommates. “The friendship we formed at Allegheny gave us a lasting basis for working together years later as business partners,” Nagel says.

cobbnagelThey parted ways after graduating, but neither could have anticipated how their paths would cross again. Nagel, a Fulbright Scholar sponsored by Allegheny, studied international law in Germany before opening his own law practice in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and seven children. As past president of the Pittsburgh Rotary Club, Nagel made his first trip to Nicaragua on a trade mission in 1993.

Cobb, meanwhile, was successful in the computer business, joining Comtech’s sales team in Springfield, Virginia, where he worked for eleven years. He and Nagel stayed in touch, he says, and soon “decided that it was time to branch out and do something on our own.” Together, they owned and operated a hotel in Belize and a teak plantation in Panama.

Inspired by a tourism initiative launched by Nicaragua in 1998, Cobb and Nagel acquired 2,700 acres of land, including 3.5 miles of beachfront property on Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast, for only $1,000 an acre. Today, Cobb and Nagel are joined in their venture by about 120 investors, 25 percent of whom are from the Pittsburgh area, and are currently overseeing the rise of Gran Pacifica’s infrastructure.

Working closely with President Bolaños, Cobb and Nagel fashioned a law in Nicaragua to enable Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which funnels the future property tax value of a real estate project into a bond used for financing current expenses, like construction costs.

Cobb, the president of Gran Pacifica, and Nagel, the chief financial officer, expect the resort to develop over the next ten to fifteen years. Cobb even moved from West Virginia to Managua in 2002 with his wife, Carol, and their two daughters to supervise the project. “I’m fulfilling my calling in Nicaragua by helping others in significant ways,” he says.

Gran Pacifica has already created jobs for two hundred Nicaraguans with the recent groundbreaking of its first 18-hole golf course (of 45 holes), and Cobb and Nagel expect to provide as many as 2,000 jobs as the resort progresses. In light of the region’s 30 percent underemployment rate, Nagel says Gran Pacifica will make a significant impact on the economy.

He describes the resort as appealing to “snowbirds, baby boomers, and retirees looking for a very affordable and surprisingly upscale quality of life”-whether they choose to vacation at the proposed five-star Marriott hotel, purchase property and build a home under the resort’s two-year build requirement, or live in a neighborhood of Spanish Colonial style houses, condominiums, or casitas. The resort will also feature a town center of shops, restaurants, and other amenities.

Cobb and Nagel have already witnessed the fruits of their labor, selling over 100 lots-with prices ranging anywhere from $30,000 to $300,000. They have enlisted Urban Design Associates, the land planning firm responsible for Walt Disney’s Celebration community in Florida, to create a sense of unity while also sustaining Nicaragua’s unique history and culture.

At the end of the day, Cobb and Nagel agree that working together is one of the best parts of their lifelong investment. “We’re certainly friends first and friends last,” Nagel says. And their rapport as business partners, Cobb says, is undeniable. “Joel and I play off each other so well,” he says. “And we get to do what we love. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

—Abby Collier ’03

This article was featured in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Kim Phan '97 Helping Governments Make Right Decisions

For Kim Phan, success has always come early. A mere three months after celebrating her thirtieth birthday, Phan was named executive director of the prestigious International Law Institute (ILI) in Washington, D.C., where the average age of directors is well over sixty.

Phan majored in political science with a concentration in nuclear war under the direction of Associate Professor of Political Science Howard Tamashiro. “I owe fifty percent of my education to him,” Phan says. “He is so brilliant, modest, and devoted to making sure that his students developed a sophisticated thinking process beyond what they thought they were capable of.”

During the summer of 1996, encouraged by Tamashiro, Phan joined a research team in Vietnam through World Learning’s School for International Training. “I discovered that one out of five children died from waterborne diseases in Vietnam,” she says-an especially poignant statistic for Phan, who was born in Saigon four days after the city’s fall signaled the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

phanBefore long, Phan says she realized that heightened government awareness and funding for wastewater treatment plants could potentially save the lives of 100 Vietnamese children per day. Returning to her homeland at such an impressionable age ignited Phan’s interest in environmental issues throughout Asia and foreshadowed a high-profile career advising governments of developing countries all over the world.

At age twenty-six, Phan secured her dream job as the United States-Asia Environment Partnership Liaison to the Asian Development Bank. Working at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Philippines, Phan says she “found opportunities for U.S. companies and Asian countries to work together to clean up the environment in Asia.” Soon, Phan adds, she made another important discovery.

“I realized that just because a government has the money to build a water treatment facility doesn’t mean people will have access to clean water, or that the facility will be built well,” she says. “The problem was not a lack of money for projects, but a lack of knowledge on how to implement those projects. Ultimately, governments made bad decisions.”

All roads seemed to point Phan to the ILI, a private, not-for-profit organization established in 1955 whose mission is to “foster prosperity through the rule of law.” Phan joined the ILI as Director of Business Development in 2004, a role she still maintains in addition to her executive directorship.

Today, the Institute consists of three major components: education, advising, and publishing. Known primarily as a training institute, ILI has trained more than 14,000 government officials and practitioners from over 185 countries. The Institute also advises both the public and private sectors in the handling of negotiations, problems, and work with respective governments to draft various laws; and it has published books on law and legal systems, most notably the annual Digest of United States Practice in International Law for the Department of State.

“Sometimes corruption is so ingrained in a society that its citizens don’t even know that it’s bad,” Phan says. “That’s why we select government officials who are sincere about their country’s well-being, and we teach them the difference between good practices and bad practices.”

Phan’s business travels have included a trip to Honduras, a visit to Mauritius, and a stop in Uzbekistan. The Institute’s most concentrated efforts, Phan says, have been in China, where its staff trained nearly 300 judges in the Chinese National Justices College to make their rulings comply with the standards of the World Trade Organization. The ILI also implemented the China Banking Regulations Reform project to make the Chinese bank more conducive to business and the private sector.

“We empower government officials and practitioners by giving them knowledge and tools to do their job better,” Phan says, “and hope that the political will in their respective countries will allow them to better perform their jobs.”

While success may always come early for Phan, it never comes easy. “My work day is literally around the clock,” she admits. “Very often, I have to do conference calls at 2 a.m. because that is the hour of business for the Philippines and Uzbekistan.”

But Phan is showing no signs of slowing down. She even decided to forgo a honeymoon with husband Mattias Wiklund after their November wedding in order to attend the ILI’s 50th Anniversary Gala in Washington one week later, on November 17.

“It’s rewarding to know that what we do has a significant impact that trickles down,” Phan says of her work at the ILI, “to know that when you help governments make the right decisions, their countries and people will benefit.”

—Abby Collier ’03

This article was featured in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Mo Fiorina '68 A Nation Not As Divided As We Think

If you ask the average American, she would tell you that we are a nation divided. The evidence for this comes in our newspapers, on the evening news, and in innumerable talk shows where we are told we are the fifty-fifty nation, a country clearly split between red and blue states.

Mo Fiorina ’68 is trying to debunk this notion. His widely read book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America makes the case that we are not nearly as divided as it often seems.

fiorinaThough Fiorina is based at Stanford University, where he is professor of political science and a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution, he aims for an audience of rank-and-file Americans. His message is straightforward: the culture wars are a phenomenon found in the political circles of Washington and among political activists elsewhere in the country. But among ordinary Americans, the polarization doesn’t exist. “What we’re seeing on television is not at all reflective of the views of most of the people who are watching,” he says.

While there are issues on which Americans disagree-gay marriage would be one-these are not issues that are high on the list of important matters they want politicians to address. “People care about Iraq, terrorism, the economy, health care, and education,” Fiorina says. “They want to know if they will be able to afford health insurance. They want to know if this war is going to go on forever. Abortion, gay issues, gun control, and other ‘hot button’ issues are way down there [on their list of concerns]. If you look at most people’s views on gay marriage, they’re not that worried about it. One study during the last election had it fifteenth in importance out of sixteen issues the study asked about.”

But among the political classes, the divide does exist. “The political classes have always been more polarized than ordinary people,” Fiorina says. “This group includes political activists, party officials, major contributors, convention delegates, etc. But it’s only about ten percent or so of the country. These people have become more polarized than they were thirty years ago, but they constitute maybe ten to fifteen percent of the country.”

Several factors account for the increased polarization of this group, Fiorina says. A major one was the political realignment of the South, which weakened the conservative faction of the Democratic Party. The rise of the religious right and its alliance with the Republicans strengthened the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party. But as party elites grew more and more distinct and intense in their views, not many voters in the country followed their lead. “There’s a tendency to misperceive political differences,” says Fiorina. “When the book came out, I got a lot of e-mails from readers who said, ‘I thought I was alone in being a moderate.’ In fact, most Americans are moderate in their views. They’re tolerant. And they’re ambivalent about the issues. They don’t know what’s right. But in politics, it’s my way or the highway. The politicians don’t seek any middle ground.”

“We could cut a deal that would fix Social Security,” says Fiorina. “And in the past, we would have. But neither party wants to do that. They’d rather have the issue to run on.”

“If we elect a centrist president, I think we’d start to see some compromise on the issues,” he says. In this environment, a centrist would have a tough time winning either party’s nomination. But if a centrist did get the nomination, Fiorina says, “All other things being equal, the centrist would win.”

In the meantime, the country as a whole is paying a steep price for the unending feud between political factions. “The majority of people see a system that doesn’t address the issues they really care about,” says Fiorina. “That’s the consequence of this.”

—Doug McInnis

This article was featured in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Allegheny Magazine.

Alumni Profiles

Michelle Henry ’91
For the Prosecution

alumni3When people are young say, in middle school they tend toward a sense of justice that is uncomplicated, righteous, and pure. Some people are lucky enough to hang onto that conviction. Michelle Henry, a specialized prosecutor for Pennsylvania’s Bucks County district attorney’s office, is one of them. “I knew I wanted to do this at a very young age,” says Henry, whose early ambition was not just to become a lawyer but to become a prosecuting attorney. Never attracted by the high-end salaries attached to some corporate fees, she says she was after “that sense of doing the right thing” and “playing by the rules.”

As a specialist in child abuse cases, Henry knows that doing the right thing can mean saving a child’s life. The sexual and physical abuse suffered by children is “horrendous,” she says, but as difficult and emotionally challenging as the testimony and evidence may be, she finds the work rewarding. “To take somebody from the torture they’ve seen and bring them a sense of justice” is the heart of her life’s work. “What keeps me going is the belief that you can make a difference, and you can make it better.” She believes in the United States judicial system, she says, and has faith that it works most of the time. And when things get snagged, because of missing evidence or difficult decisions from juries and judges, Henry says the frustration only inspires her to roll up her sleeves and work on the next case.

As a student at Allegheny, Henry majored in communication arts with a focus on public speaking. The College’s liberal arts education was the best preparation for law school she could have had, she says. She earned her law degree at Widener University’s Harrisburg branch, then clerked for a year under a Lancaster County judge. From there, she went to the Bucks County district attorney’s office, and in 1998 she became head of child abuse prosecution.

“Allegheny was a good springboard for law school,” she says, citing her Senior Comprehensive Project in particular. The project, a rhetorical analysis of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, still inspires her; she found that despite the two women’s similar stature in the fledgling world of women’s rights, it is Susan B. Anthony who is remembered. Anthony was the better orator, and more comfortable in front of crowds.

Henry is also an effective speaker, and loves the showmanship required of trial lawyers. She says that at her first jury trial she remembers thinking, “Oh, my God! It’s better than TV!” She still gets excited about going to trial. “It never goes away,” she says. “After you’ve put your heart and soul into a case, and the jury stands up and says, ‘Guilty’ there is no rush like that.” And, though she sometimes works ten- and twelve-hour days, the work is everything she hoped it would be, she says. “It truly has lived up to and exceeded my expectations.”

-Virginia Myers Kelly

This article was featured in the Winter 2002 Issue of Allegheny College Magazine.

Alumni Profiles

M. Roy Wilson ’76
A Clearer Vision

alumni2M. Roy Wilson ’76 has a string of accolades and appointments that would impress the best in his field. A renowned ophthalmologist, researcher, and academician, he is currently vice president of health sciences at Creighton University and dean of the School of Medicine. He has been listed in Best Doctors in America for the past five years and was named one of the top three ophthalmologists in Omaha. In addition to his B.S. from Allegheny, he has an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and an M.S. from the University of California, Los Angeles. He was a full professor at two universities-UCLA and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science before he was 40. His 42-page curriculum vitae lists dozens of appointments and consultancies, scores of publications, and multiple honors.

“I’ve had a lot of individual awards,” he admits. “But none of them mean as much to me as seeing minority students . . . turn out to be excellent physicians and ophthalmologists.” Wilson has guided countless young people to medical careers, accepting them into programs that might otherwise have rejected them. “A lot of times we had to look a lot deeper than their grades and test scores,” he says. “We had to look deeper into who they were as people.” Wilson’s insights led him to encourage students who validated his faith in them over and over again. “They’re just fantastic people who are fantastic doctors and ophthalmologists, making a big impact in their communities,” he says. “My proudest accomplishment is being able to see these people throughout the country and know that I had some impact in terms of their careers.”

Wilson began his education intending to become a psychiatrist. Intrigued by the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, he enrolled in psych classes at Allegheny only to discover a field saturated with behavioral theory, an area that did not interest him. He shifted gears to study pre-med. At Harvard, an interest in epidemiology led to a project involving glaucoma data, and he quickly became an expert in the fledgling field.

He continued to be a leader in the field when his population study in St. Lucia proved what some ophthalmologists had already suspected: Blacks are at a higher risk for glaucoma. Because of his findings, says Wilson, “Blacks are receiving better treatment for this disease than they used to . . . More people are being treated, and treated more aggressively than in the past.” The project led to his interest in international ophthalmology, and he went to Cameroon to investigate eye disease and vitamin deficiency there. Again, his work resulted in action: policy-makers paid attention, and changes were made to benefit the public health.

Wilson’s best memories of Allegheny involve the professors with whom he developed close relationships. His favorite was philosophy professor Jim Sheridan ’50, who took the young Wilson far beyond the hard sciences with many involved, one-on-one conversations about fundamental beliefs and esoteric thinking. He also remembers visiting English professor Al Kern in his home, and becoming friends with biology professor Eugene Chapman. “Allegheny is a small enough place that I was able to form some important friendships,” he says.

As a minority student in the 1970s, though, he sometimes felt “out of step,” and he strives now to nurture a culturally sensitive environment at Creighton. He created a high-level position to deal with the issues specific to non-mainstream students, and now an associate vice president of multicultural and community affairs addresses racial sensitivity, retention issues, and community impact. Responsible for several schools and departments within the Creighton Health Sciences program, Wilson also finds time for research and sees patients a half day a week. But his heart is in encouraging young people to succeed in a field he has embraced on so many levels. “Along the way, people have taken chances on me,” he remembers. “So I try to do that for other people.”

-Virginia Myers Kelly

This article was featured in the Winter 2002 Issue of Allegheny College Magazine.

Alumni Profiles

Don Anderson ’58
Recapturing Frank Sinatra

Entertainer Vic Damone once said, “There will never be another Frank Sinatra. He is all by himself, with what he has done with his life as a performer and as a man.” Perhaps Damone spoke too soon, because Ol’ Blue Eyes is back reincarnated, if you will, into the body of the Reverend Don Anderson ’58, a part-time Methodist minister, among other trades. Some karma.

alumni1But Anderson takes his impersonating, a newfound hobby, only so far. “You don’t get the real Sinatra,” he says, referring to “the hood,” the bully, the gangster, the womanizer. “He had an attitude.” Instead, Anderson explains, “I try to create the illusion of a Sinatra. I hope I’m more likeable.”

Apparently his strategy works. With about fifty shows already behind him, Anderson’s popularity as a Sinatra impersonator is growing, earning him a reputation that began with an evening of karaoke. Anderson had only two artists to choose from as he stepped up to the microphone that night: Perry Como, with a mere four songs available, and Sinatra, with about thirty.

In this case, majority ruled, although Anderson says, “I had always enjoyed Sinatra’s music and been a strong fan.” He recalls how the emcee praised his rendition of Sinatra’s “My Way,” calling it “one of the best sober karaoke acts” he had ever heard. A star was born again.

Anderson booked his first major appearance at Pittsburgh’s First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve in 2001. Since then he has performed at a variety of venues, including country clubs, Borders bookstores, private parties, and reunions.

“When Anderson sings,” says Craig Cody, managing director of Pittsburgh’s First Night, “he has an amazing resemblance to Sinatra.” But singing Sinatra tunes, Anderson’s favorites are “My Way” and “New York, New York”, is only part of his gig. To deliver what he calls “the illusion of a Sinatra,” usually in one hour with about fifteen songs, he wears a tuxedo, styles his hair like Sinatra’s, plays Nelson Riddle and Don Costa CDs to reproduce Sinatra’s big band sound, and even borrows some of Sinatra’s trademark moves.

“There’s a nice style to the way Sinatra presents a tune. He’s kind of a singing conversationalist,” says Anderson. “I’ve watched tapes and I’ve tried to imitate his gestures, movements, and facial expressions. It’s a matter of enjoying the music.”

After his high school days as a baritone, Anderson demonstrated his love for music as a tenor in the Allegheny Singers under the direction of Morten Luvaas. Anderson has since performed in several musical comedies and revues and has also made other solo appearances, with an emphasis on show tunes.

An English major at the College, Anderson has retired as a senior high school English teacher. He has worked in advertising in the Pittsburgh area, where he serves as a part-time Methodist minister, and has been an active member of the College’s Alumni Association for twenty years. He lives in Moundsville, West Virginia, with his wife, the Reverend Patricia Bentley, whom he married on May 4. He has five children and five grandchildren from a previous marriage.

It appears, then, as though Anderson has proven Damone wrong. Although he chooses, wisely, not to bring all of Ol’ Blue Eyes back to life, Anderson, like Sinatra the singer, the actor, the philanthropist, is an accomplished man of many talents. “The common thread here is performance, in different venues for different reasons,” says Anderson. “My spirit is a performing spirit. I think God has given me a wonderful sense of expression. As a singer, actor, and preacher, these skills come out. It’s been a wonderful ride.”

This article was featured in the Winter 2002 Issue of Allegheny College Magazine.