KU News: KU Alumni Association honors 3 recipients of Fred Ellsworth Medallion

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KU Alumni Association honors 3 recipients of Fred Ellsworth Medallion
LAWRENCE — The recipients of the 2021 Fred Ellsworth Medallion for their decades of extraordinary service to the University of Kansas and higher education are Beverly Smith Billings, of Lawrence; Howard Cohen, of Leawood, and the late Reggie Robinson. They will be honored Sept. 17 in the Burge Union in conjunction with the fall meeting of the KU Alumni Association’s national board of directors.

Untold history of Panama’s successful enslaved resistance detailed in ‘African Maroons’ book
LAWRENCE — A new book from a University of Kansas professor titled “African Maroons in Sixteenth-Century Panama: A History in Documents” details how, from the 1520s through the 1580s, thousands of enslaved Africans fled captivity in Spanish Panama and formed their own communities. Author Robert Schwaller said their stories should matter to today’s society because it presents yet one more window into how, even during the harshest periods of the transatlantic slave trade, individuals of African descent found ways to resist enslavement, secure their own autonomy, organize those communities and lead them.

Full stories below.

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Contact: Jennifer Sanner, KU Alumni Association, 785-864-9782, [email protected]; @KUAlumni
KU Alumni Association honors 3 recipients of Fred Ellsworth Medallion

LAWRENCE — The recipients of the 2021 Fred Ellsworth Medallion for their decades of extraordinary service to the University of Kansas and higher education are Beverly Smith Billings, of Lawrence; Howard Cohen, of Leawood, and the late Reggie Robinson. They will be honored Sept. 17 in the Burge Union in conjunction with the fall meeting of the KU Alumni Association’s national board of directors.

The association established the award in 1975 to commemorate Fred Ellsworth, a 1922 KU graduate who was the association’s executive director and secretary for 39 years. He retired in 1963.

Judy Billings
Billings is president of Alvamar Development Corp. and president and managing broker of Alvamar Realty Inc. She earned her KU bachelor’s degree in French and psychology in 1968 and her master’s degree in psychology in 1970, serving as an assistant instructor and research assistant while she completed doctoral coursework.

She currently serves as a KU Endowment trustee and a member of Endowment’s property management committee. She is a member of Chancellors Club and Jayhawk Faithful. She is a longtime member of the Emily Taylor Center for Women & Gender Equity, which she also led as president, and she helped found the Emily Taylor and Marilyn Stokstad Women’s Leadership Lecture, continuing her service on the advisory board. She also is a member of the KU Women’s Hall of Fame. She is an Alumni Association Life Member and Presidents Club donor.

Derek Kwan, executive director of the Lied Center of Kansas, met Billings in 2013. He recalls her insatiable curiosity. “She has a voracious appetite for knowledge, and it has served her well through her life and career,” he said. “What makes her a true Jayhawk is that she cares not only about everything that is happening at KU … but she cares just as much about Lawrence and Douglas County.”

Billings helps guide the Lied Center’s Performance Fund as a member of its board of governors; she also served on the 25th anniversary advisory committee and the executive director search committee.

For the School of Business, she volunteers as a member of the Center for Ethics in Business advisory board. She led the Hall Center for the Humanities Friends Council as president and was a founding advisory board member of KU Endowment’s Women Philanthropists for KU.

She continues to volunteer for and support numerous programs across the university, including the Dole Institute of Politics, School of Music, Spencer Museum of Art, University Theatre and KU Libraries. For Kansas Athletics, she is a longtime Williams Education Fund member and a season ticket-holder for several men’s and women’s teams.

For Lawrence and Douglas County, she helps guide the LMH Health Foundation, for which she co-chaired a pivotal capital campaign and served as president. Her other volunteer activities include the United Way, for which she also led the campaign; Lawrence Rotary Club; Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center; and the Lawrence Public Library Foundation. For her longtime efforts as a business and civic leader, she received the Athena Award from the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce and Crown Toyota.

Howard Cohen
Cohen, who earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1979, retired in May 2020 as a partner in Deloitte Touche, where he spent his entire career and led many national initiatives, most recently strategic organization planning for U.S. audit practice. After joining the firm in 1979, he rose steadily through the ranks to become audit partner in charge of both the Kansas City and St. Louis offices.

He often combined his dedication to both Deloitte and his alma mater, mentoring numerous accounting students and leading Deloitte’s recruitment at KU. He also guided School of Business students to a second-place finish in a national case-study competition hosted by Deloitte, and he leads the school’s biannual Audit Symposium, which includes faculty from leading universities and leaders of global accounting firms.

“Howard always stands up and stands out for the School of Business,” said Dean L. Paige Fields, who cited the symposium among many examples of Cohen’s dedication. “He really grasps the research mission as well as the teaching mission. The symposium helps attract faculty as well as students. You get very high-quality faculty, good faculty research, higher rankings, and that’s going to translate into getting more and better students. Howard gets that.”

For the school, Cohen led the capital campaign that raised more than $60 million to build Capitol Federal Hall. He continues to serve on the school’s advisory board and the Accounting and Information Systems Advisory Council after chairing both groups. In 2005 the school honored him with the Distinguished Alumni Award. He has served as president of KU Hillel, and he founded KU’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity.

Cohen also served five years on the Alumni Association’s national board of directors and chaired the Audit Committee, which he continues to serve as a member. He and his wife, Debra, have attended every Alumni Association Rock Chalk Ball since the Kansas City tradition began in 1996; they co-chaired the event in 2013. They are Alumni Association Life Members and Presidents Club donors.

As a KU Endowment trustee, Cohen serves on the executive committee and the campaign steering committee. The Cohens also belong to Endowment’s Chancellors Club and Jayhawk Faithful; they are longtime donors to the Williams Education Fund for Kansas Athletics.

Reggie Robinson
Robinson, who earned his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1980 and his law degree in 1987, devoted his career to public service, higher education and philanthropy, most recently as CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation. He died Sept. 19, 2020, at age 63.

He served in numerous leadership roles, beginning as a student at KU, where he was student body vice president and editor of the Kansas Law Review for the School of Law. Between his undergraduate and law school years, he served four years as a field artillery officer in the U.S. Army, honorably discharged as a captain.

He began his teaching career as a faculty member in the School of Law before earning distinction as a White House Fellow in the U.S. Department of Justice, where he served as deputy associate attorney general and special assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno. After returning to Kansas, he served as chief of staff to KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway, CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents, faculty member at the Washburn University law school, director of the KU School of Public Affairs & Administration and KU vice chancellor for public affairs. The KU Black Alumni Network named him a Mike and Joyce Shinn Leader and Innovator in 2017.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly appointed Robinson as facilitator for the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission, and he served on several state juvenile justice advisory groups. He was a member of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet for nine years.

Kelly, who first met Robinson when she was a state senator and he chaired the Regents, described him as “wicked smart” and a thoughtful listener who could bring people together to forge solutions. “Both Reggie’s heart and mind were aligned with Kansas and KU in particular. He had many opportunities, and he chose to come back to Kansas … and really invest and engage with the entire state,” she said. “He was willing to offer his particular expertise and skill set to make it better. … Reggie should be revered by all Kansans.”

His volunteer roles included service on the Alumni Association’s national board of directors, the KU Endowment board of trustees and boards for the Friends of the Spencer Museum of Art, Hall Center for the Humanities, Kansas Leadership Center, Douglas County Community Foundation, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, National Academy of Public Administration and National Organization for Victims Assistance.

With his wife, Jane McGarey Robinson, a KU graduate with a 2010 master’s degree in nursing and a 2017 doctorate of nursing practice, he was a Life Member of the Alumni Association, a Presidents Club donor and a member of KU Endowment’s Chancellors Club and the Williams Education Fund for Kansas Athletics.

Since 1975, 161 KU alumni and friends have received the Fred Ellsworth Medallion.

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Contact: Jon Niccum, KU News Service, 785-864-7633, [email protected]
Untold history of Panama’s successful enslaved resistance detailed in ‘African Maroons’ book

LAWRENCE — The saga of enslaved peoples remains a complicated history. But a new book has made it even more complicated.

“I argue that this is really the first successful example of enslaved resistance in the Americas,” said Robert Schwaller, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.

His book titled “African Maroons in Sixteenth-Century Panama: A History in Documents” (University of Oklahoma Press) details how, from the 1520s through the 1580s, thousands of enslaved Africans fled captivity in Spanish Panama and formed their own communities. The self-sufficiency of these people, along with their periodic raids against Spanish settlements, incited armed conflict as Spaniards sought to conquer these communities and kill or re-enslave their populations.

“This is not the first case of resistance, but this is the first one where the enslaved people gain their freedom,” he said. “While they are subjects of the Spanish Empire, they have self-governing communities. Sometimes the Haitian Revolution gets that moniker — and certainly that’s the first that leads to a completely independent nation. But here we have resistance that does lead to freedom and self-governance, which is significant.”

Schwaller defines African maroon as an individual who escaped enslavement and lived outside the bounds of the colonial power. The term comes from the indigenous Taino word “símara,” meaning “wild, savage, gone astray.”

“It gets picked up to describe both people and livestock. The Spanish — especially in the Caribbean — will say when cattle or pigs go feral, they’re cimarrones. Then it gets complicated by the idea of being marooned on an island, which comes into English as sailors appropriate the Spanish term to mean “lost or abandoned,’” he said.

As Schwaller expounds in the book, “Maroons resisted Spaniards not only by running away, raiding for supplies and defending their communities but also by forging alliances with foreigners interested in undermining Spain’s claim to the mainland.” In the 1570s, Francis Drake spent time among Panama’s maroons.

The story is mostly lost to history — often because so many of the enslaved people were nameless. Schwaller faced the task of translating hundreds of 16th century documents into English. His book marks the first such in the language to tackle this history.

He believes their stories should matter to today’s society because it presents yet one more window into how, even during the harshest periods of the transatlantic slave trade, individuals of African descent found ways to resist enslavement, secure their own autonomy, organize those communities and lead them.

“The fact we see individuals fleeing slavery who are able to hold the Spanish Empire at bay and fight them to a standstill for almost five decades — and then negotiate for their freedom and right to govern their communities — that should be a testament to the resilience of people who suffered the dislocations of the slave trade and the inhumanity of enslavement,” he said.

A KU faculty member since 2011, Schwaller became interested in this topic when exploring a comparative study of African and Indigenous encounters in early Spanish America. This built upon the research of his first book, “Géneros de Gente in Early Colonial Mexico: Defining Racial Difference” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), which looked at the creation of racial categories in Mexico.

A KU International Programs research award allowed him to travel to Panama to document the places occupied by enslaved peoples.

“I wanted to be able to go to cities like Portobelo and actually view the landscape in a way I can’t from just reading these documents,” he said. “I wanted to see these river valleys and mountains in the country to get a sense of what the Spanish are talking about when they’re tromping through these gorges in the rainy season. What does that look like?”

Schwaller said he hoped “African Maroons” provides a useful volume for comprehending the history of the African diaspora from a much earlier date.

He said, “There are very few documentary readers that go back this far. Even if you don’t have a great understanding of this rich, complicated history, you will absorb a lot of the context.”

As he wrote, “Although largely unknown, the impact of Panama’s maroons and their successful struggle against slavery was echoed in the lives of enslaved Africans in the Americas for centuries.”

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Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, director of news and media relations, [email protected]

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