FHSU Alumni Office
Fort Hays State University will honor six outstanding alumni and friends during its upcoming Homecoming celebration September 28-30. Visit FHSUhomecoming.com to learn more about how these award winners will be celebrated during FHSU's Homecoming.
"Selecting Homecoming candidates from Fort Hays State University's vast pool of deserving candidates challenges us each year," said FHSU Alumni Director Carolyn Tatro.
"This year's award recipients demonstrate an admirable commitment to their local communities and our university. We hope the public will join us in celebrating these amazing Tigers during Homecoming 2023," she adds.
Award recipients include the following:
Alumni Achievement Award
- Dr. Sandra "Sandy" Billinger '02
- Dr. Judd Choate '92
Distinguished Service Award
- Dr. Kendall Krug '83
Young Alumni Award
- Chris Dinkel '10
- Kelly Nuckolls '13
Nita M. Landrum Award
- Dr. Eugene “Gene” Fleharty, friend of FHSU
Visit FHSUhomecoming.com/awards to learn more about the award criteria by which these distinguished individuals were chosen.
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Homecoming 2023 Honoree Profiles
Alumni Achievement Award
Dr. Sandra “Sandy” Billinger ’02, Roeland Park, Kansas
Sandra "Sandy" Billinger's journey to becoming a world-renowned, award-winning researcher began in 1993. During an average day working as a dental assistant, Billinger, pregnant with her first son, experienced a life-changing accident that propelled her to shift gears.
Now unable to fulfill her previous role's duties, Billinger came to Fort Hays State University to pursue a new career. As a single mother of two and a non-traditional student beginning her undergraduate studies at age 29, Billinger entered her studies with a full plate. However, she quickly excelled in her research after finding her home as a pre-physical therapy student in the Department of Health and Human Performance.
Dr. Greg Kandt, her advisor at FHSU, recommended that Billinger switch her focus from cardiovascular research interests to stroke research. At the time, many people believed that exercise after a stroke worsened patients' conditions; however, after learning more, Billinger made it her life purpose to dispel that misconception.
Her hard work earned the praise of faculty members, who named Billinger the 2002 Outstanding Student of the Year for the College of Health and Behavioral Sciences. She was also nominated for the Torch Award, given to outstanding seniors in recognition of leadership and academic excellence.
Billinger made her next big move after graduating from FHSU when she relocated her family to Kansas City to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC). Billinger earned a master's in physical therapy and a doctorate in rehabilitation science. She then began working as a faculty member in the Department of Physical Therapy. Billinger is currently a professor and vice chair of stroke translational research in the Department of Neurology at KUMC.
As a researcher, Billinger has acquired multi-million-dollar National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, published more than 100 scientific papers in more than 15 academic publications, and has conducted one of the leading NIH-funded studies in stroke rehabilitation. In addition to her scholarly work, she instructs graduate and postdoctoral laboratory courses to help her students produce high-level medical research.
Currently, Billinger is leading several NIH-funded studies investigating the connections between cardiovascular and brain health relating to stroke recovery and Alzheimer's disease. She maintains several professional affiliations, including the American Stroke Association, American Physical Therapy Association, and the Kansas Physical Therapy Association.
Her strides in neurovascular research, instruction, and determination to help others through her work exemplify how an education from Fort Hays State can provide a lifetime of success and community enrichment.
Billinger lives in Kansas City with her family.
Dr. Judd Choate '93, Denver, Colorado
Hays native, Dr. Judd Choate, was destined to attend Fort Hays State University. Growing up as the son of the late Dr. Jerry Choate, a longtime director of the Sternberg Museum and a biology professor at FHSU, he attended the university from 1988-1992, majoring in political science and minoring in geography, studying with Dr. Larry Gould and Dr. Paul Phillips. Choate's path as a political science major at FHSU led to his eventual position as election director for the state of Colorado.
While at FHSU, Choate regularly contributed to The University Leader and was involved in the American Democracy Project and the Model UN. Some of his pieces for the Leader covered student life, but Choate never shied away from more controversial, national topics. Upon graduating summa cum laude from FHSU, Dr. Choate completed his master's and Ph.D. at Purdue University.
In 1997, Choate became an assistant professor of political science at Baker University and then at the University of Nebraska. In 2001, Choate was hired by the Nebraska Supreme Court to direct the Nebraska minority and justice task force, leading to the nation's first statewide report on discrimination in a state court system. That same year, Choate published a book on congressional behavior entitled "Torn and Frayed: Congressional Norms and Party Switching in an Era of Reform."
Choate then completed his Juris Doctorate at the University of Colorado in 2006, focusing on election law. Upon graduation, he clerked for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court. After a stint at a private law firm, Choate was hired as Colorado's election director in 2009.
Since 2009, Colorado has become a model for election administration. Prior to his work, the state's percentage-registered-of-eligible-population was 25th in the country, and the state's overall turnout was 20th. In the 2020 presidential election, over 92% of Colorado's eligible population was registered to vote, and Colorado's turnout of 76% was the country's second highest.
Choate has served as the National Association of State Election Directors president and was president of the Electronic Registration Information Center board when it was formed in 2012. He has also earned numerous accolades in his 15 years serving as Colorado election director, most notably the U.S. Attorney's Award for leading U.S. efforts on election security in the 2020 presidential election.
Choate's career exemplifies how political science majors at Fort Hays State University can craft a life of public service and make tangible contributions to their communities by leveraging their education. Judd Choate began at FHSU as his father's son, only to become one of the country's most important election officials.
Dr. Judd Choate resides in Denver with his wife Lyn, their daughter Jacqueline and Leo, the dog. Judd's mom, Fi Choate, lives two blocks away, and his father, Dr. Jerry Choate, passed away in 2009.
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Distinguished Service Award
Dr. Kendall Krug '83, Hays, Kansas
From a young age, Dr. Kendall Krug strove to serve others. A general science major who graduated cum laude from Fort Hays State University in 1983, Krug set the foundation for his nearly 40-year career as an optometrist.
Hoping to help others as a physician, Krug pursued an optometry degree at the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis. Through his studies, he developed an interest in assisting blind and low-vision patients, which led him to receive additional low-vision rehabilitation training at the New York Lighthouse for the Blind.
Krug returned to Hays after passing his national and state boards, earning his Kansas optometry license, and began spearheading several projects impacting area residents. Krug's expertise was critical in establishing and staffing the first hospital-based low-vision rehabilitation program in Kansas utilizing occupational therapy for visually impaired patients at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Topeka.
Following his passion for helping blind and visually impaired adult patients, Krug began helping students facing similar struggles. He worked on a team that developed KanLOVKids, a low-vision program for the Kansas School of the Blind, to help students receive vision evaluations in their home school districts. The World Health Organization recognized the program as the top vision project in North America for World Sight Day in 2014.
For 30 years, Krug demonstrated his dedication to vision care by providing the same level of commitment to his primary care patients at his Hays practice.
Working in his practice and with low-vision patients earned Krug numerous accolades over his decades-long career from the Kansas Optometric Association, the Kansas Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the American Optometric Association, among others. However, accolades only scratch the surface of Krug's success and community involvement.
Krug often shares the critical pieces of his success as a lecturer for the Fort Hays State Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) students, Envision University, and the KU Area Health Education Center. Throughout the years, Krug devoted additional time to mentoring FHSU's pre-optometry students, with 20 now working as practicing optometrists or furthering their education in optometry school.
Undeniably, Krug touched lives through his advocacy, patient care, and philanthropy. He provided years of experience and betterment to the Hays area by leveraging his education at FHSU in his professional career.
He and his wife, Dr. Katrina Hess, reside in Hays. They have two children, Russell and Laura, who are both FHSU graduates.
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Young Alumni Award
Chris Dinkel proves how much one can accomplish in a short amount of time with a degree from Fort Hays State University. In under a decade, Dinkel has earned his place at an esteemed New York law firm and has established himself as a high-achieving legal professional.
Beginning as an undergraduate studying theological and historical studies at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dinkel proved his dedication to his studies by graduating magna cum laude in 2008. Dinkel, a Hays native and lifelong learner at heart, heard about Fort Hays State and decided it was the perfect place to build upon the knowledge he gained as an undergraduate student.
In pursuit of a master's in history, Dinkel excelled at FHSU, earning the Outstanding Thesis accolade for his piece, "Moon Rocks and Mediations: Cooperation and Competition in Space Race Diplomacy." He held his head high as he graduated in 2010 with honors and an immaculate 4.0 GPA. The relationships he built at Fort Hays State University deepened as an adjunct instructor, a role he held for more than six years.
Although he enjoyed educating students at FHSU, Dinkel was not done learning himself. He returned to school to earn a Juris Doctorate at Columbia Law School in New York City. Dinkel's eight-year break as a student made him eager to immerse himself in all this new school offered. He wasted no time getting involved in fellowships, student organizations, and assistantships. The tenacity Dinkel demonstrated at Columbia landed him a job post-grad at the New York office of the prestigious international law firm Jones Day and two federal judicial clerkships.
Calling his time at Jones Day a success would be an understatement. Among his many accomplishments, Dinkel played an integral role in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters, which his team argued and won before the United States Supreme Court in January 2023. Dinkel's research and writing contributed to every phase of the process and earned him a place on the briefs and the opportunity to attend the oral argument in Washington, D.C.
In August, Dinkel will leave his position at the firm to clerk for two highly distinguished federal judges. Dinkel will serve as a judicial clerk for Judge Benjamin Beaton in the Western District of Kentucky for a year and then with Judge Raymond Kethledge in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Michigan the following year.
After only two years as an official legal professional, Dinkel proves that no matter what stage of your career, an education at Fort Hays State helps its graduates shape their futures.
He and his wife, Ervis, live in Kentucky with their two children, William (Liam) and Arabella (Ari).
The connections that develop between students and faculty at Fort Hays State University are as meaningful as the education gained. Meeting former political science chair and professor Dr. Shala Mills inspired Kelly Nuckolls to pursue a career in food insecurity advocacy.
Sitting in Dr. Mills' first-ever offering of Food & Politics, Nuckolls began considering the political, ecological, and economic facets of food insecurity she had never considered. As a political science major, Nuckolls understood that by starting locally in her community, she could make a difference in the lives of those facing food insecurity.
With Dr. Mills' mentorship, Nuckolls helped establish the Tiger Food Pantry on campus, a resource that continues to supplement FHSU students' nutritional needs more than a decade later. Her efforts didn't stop at creating this valuable on-campus resource, however. Through her work in the Center for Civic Leadership at FHSU, Nuckolls became immersed in tying Fort Hays State to several statewide and national hunger initiatives, including the Kansas Hunger Dialogue and Universities Fighting World Hunger.
An active student at FHSU, Nuckolls was inducted into the Mortar Board national collegiate honor society and Pi Sigma Alpha, the national political science honor society. She became a voice for fellow students through her role in the Student Government Association as an Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences senator.
After graduating from FHSU in 2013, Nuckolls received her Juris Doctorate from Drake University Law School, where she continued her service commitments and became a staff member and executive editor for the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law.
Wanting to learn more about agricultural law and policy's impacts on food insecurity, Nuckolls attended the University of Arkansas, where she was admitted into their prestigious Master of Law (LL.M.) in Agricultural and food law program.
Her accomplishments have led her back to the University of Arkansas School of Law, where she serves as its assistant director and visiting law professor for the LL.M. in the agricultural and food law program. Prior to that, Nuckolls worked at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
Less than a decade after graduating from FHSU, Nuckolls has built tremendous food and agricultural law expertise and has impacted federal policy. She uses the knowledge gained at FHSU and beyond to empower others to advocate for positive change in our food system policies nationwide.
She resides in Arkansas with her husband, Luke, and is expecting her first child later this year.
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Nita M. Landrum Award
The word "friend" falls short of describing the impact of Dr. Eugene "Gene" Fleharty's contributions to Fort Hays State and its community over his 37 years of service. His sustained involvement demonstrates that one does not have to graduate from Fort Hays State University to provide unwavering support to its community and students.
Growing up in Hastings, Nebraska, some of Fleharty's earliest memories as a nature enthusiast came from observing native birds and wildlife on his family's farm north of town. His father, a chemistry professor at Hastings College and family homestead farmer, firmly believed in marrying one's passion with their education and urged Fleharty to build upon that interest at college.
This advice earned Fleharty more than his undergraduate degree in biology and mathematics. While attending Hastings College, he met and fell in love with his wife, Jo Ann, with whom he recently celebrated 67 years of marriage. The couple moved to Albuquerque after Fleharty graduated from Hastings College, where he earned his master's degree in biology at the University of New Mexico in 1958 and his doctorate in 1962.
A meaningful mentorship with his graduate advisor shaped Fleharty's philosophy in instruction. When he was hired as a biology instructor at Fort Hays State University, he intended to instill the same personal lessons and knowledge his advisor shared with him to his students.
Alongside Dr. Gary Hulett, Fleharty helped create "Can Man Survive?" a course exploring the interactions of humans and the environment. Students enrolled in droves, sometimes more than 150 per section, to learn more about humans' impact on the environment. To this day, many express how the course changed their life.
His work as a department chair for 11 years and as a professor earned him several on-campus awards, including the Pilot Award in 1991 and the President's Distinguished Scholar Award in 1990. However, more meaningful to Fleharty than any award was the opportunity to help his students as a professor and mentor and the ability to sponsor 52 graduate students earning their master's degrees.
Fleharty retired in 1999 but remained committed to helping Fort Hays State University and its students. To connect with past students, he volunteered for the FHSU Foundation to request scholarship donations by phone. Years later, donations still roll in from those touched by Fleharty's genuine conversations as a volunteer.
Following retirement, Fleharty extended his philanthropy beyond volunteer work by establishing several funds assisting FHSU students. Fleharty and his brothers generously provided funding to build new bleachers for the FHSU softball complex. A few years later, he and Jo Ann decided to make another transformational gift for the softball program and donated additional funding for new artificial turf. The field was dedicated as the "Fleharty Family Field" earlier this year in honor of these contributions to the sport's future at FHSU. Fleharty's name also accompanies a biology scholarship and a fellowship benefiting graduate students in an assistantship.
Fleharty lives in Hays with his wife, Jo Ann. They have two children, Debra and Chris, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
He wished to share a personal message, which is included below.
A thank you from Dr. Gene Fleharty:
As I look back on my life at 88 years old, certain people have profoundly impacted me, to whom I want to express my gratitude.
First and foremost, I want to thank my students. It was an absolute privilege to stand by their side during both the successes and failures of their endeavors. Watching them grow and learn was an incredible experience I will always cherish. I am unbelievably proud to have played a small part in that success.
To my colleagues, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Without naming everyone who has touched my life, I'd like to thank Dr. Gary Hulett and Dr. Virgil Howe. Their friendship, partnership, and advice were priceless to me.
To my wife, Jo Ann: You run across people in your life who want to help you through, and she's done more than that. I'm so lucky to have had her by my side through our 67 years of marriage.
Lastly, I want to extend my thanks to those whom I have not mentioned by name. Thank you for being part of my journey.
EDITORS NOTE: The story was updated to reflect biographical errors.