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OCU Commencement Features Olympic Gold Medalist

By Rod Jones

Oklahoma City University will award four honorary degrees and confer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees to more than 800 students during two ceremonies May 7 in the Henry J. Freede Wellness and Activity Center, located at N.W. 27th Street and Florida Avenue.

Bart Conner, businessman and Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, will give the commencement address during the undergraduate ceremony at 11 a.m.

Chemistry professor Stephen Prilliman, winner of this year’s OCU Outstanding Faculty Award, will give the address during the graduate commencement ceremony at 3 p.m.

During the undergraduate ceremony, the university will bestow honorary degrees to Bob Blackburn, James Couch, Jerry Vannatta and Conner.

The University will also present the Servant Leader Award to Gerald and Jane Jayroe Gamble.

The OCU School of Law hooding and commencement ceremony will be at 2 p.m. May 15 at the Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker Ave. The Honorable Vicki Miles-LaGrange, U.S. district judge for the Western District of Oklahoma, will be the speaker. A reception will be held immediately following for graduates, their families and friends.

About the honorary degree recipients:

Bart Conner, Olympic gold medal gymnast and businessman

Honorary Doctor of Humanities

Bart Conner is the only American male gymnast to win gold medals at every level of national and international competition. Conner has been a USA Champion, NCAA Champion, Pan-American Games Champion, World Champion, World Cup Champion and an Olympic Champion.

He was a member of three Olympic teams — 1976, 1980 and 1984. It was in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics where he made a dramatic comeback from his second torn biceps injury to win two gold medals, one as a member of the U.S. team. Conner earned his second gold with a score of a perfect 10 on the parallel bars.

In the fall of 1976, Conner moved to Norman to attend the University of Oklahoma, and to be coached by Paul Ziert. While at OU, Conner earned 14 NCAA All-America honors, and led his team to two NCAA team titles.

In 1991, Conner was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and in 1997, he was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. In 2006, Conner’s 1984 Olympic gold medal-winning team was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Today, Conner and his wife Nadia Comaneci are involved in several charities including the executive board of Special Olympics International, and the board of directors of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

He is the chairman of the board of the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame and serves on the board of visitors for the University of Oklahoma College of International Studies.

Bob Blackburn, Oklahoma Historical Society executive director

Honorary Doctor of Humanities

Bob L. Blackburn, a native Oklahoman, has served as executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society since 1999. He joined the OHS in 1980 as editor of The Chronicles of Oklahoma and became deputy director for agency operations in 1990.

Blackburn earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from Oklahoma State University. He published several articles and his first book while still in graduate school, and has since written or co-authored 18 books and numerous articles, journal entries and screen plays.

Blackburn was instrumental in planning and building the Oklahoma History Center, a 215,000 square-foot museum and research center with a budget of $61 million.

Blackburn has served on numerous national and regional boards and committees, including the Western History Association, the Oklahoma Association of Professional Historians, the American Institute of Architects and Leadership Oklahoma City.

James Couch, city manager of the City of Oklahoma City

Honorary Doctor of Public Administration

James D. Couch leads more than 4,600 employees as city manager of Oklahoma City. He has been a City of Oklahoma City employee since 1987, when he was hired as the utilities director. He was promoted to assistant city manager before the City Council hired him as city manager in 2000. He’s the longest-serving city manager in Oklahoma City’s history.

Couch has continuously worked on securing Oklahoma City’s long-term access to water as a trustee and former general manager of the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust. Ensuring city residents and businesses have consistent access to clean water in Oklahoma’s unpredictable climate remains a top priority and passion.

He has been instrumental in the planning and implementation of the original Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS), MAPS for Kids and MAPS 3, Oklahoma City’s pioneering, transformative and debt-free capital investment programs for quality of life improvements. Every tax initiative presented to Oklahoma City voters during Couch’s tenure as City Manager has won approval.

Dr. Jerry B. Vannatta, clinical professor of medical humanities and medical director of the OCU Physician Assistant Program

Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters

Jerry Vannatta is a David Ross Boyd Professor Emeritus of Medicine and professor emeritus of humanities in medicine at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. He joined the College of Medicine faculty in 1979.

He served as executive dean of the OU College of Medicine from 1996-2002, and as associate provost of the OU Health Sciences Center from 1995-2002. During his tenure, the College of Medicine opened the OU Physicians Clinic; secured funding of the General Clinical Research Center through a $6 million National Institutes of Health grant; established the third geriatric medicine department in the country; and finalized a joint operating agreement to stabilize operations of the OU Medical Center’s teaching hospitals.

Vannatta is a member of the OCU board of trustees. He completed his bachelor of arts degree at Oklahoma City University in 1970.

He is co-author of an educational DVD, “Medicine and Humanistic Understanding: The Significance of Narrative in the Everyday Practices of Medicine.” He also is co-author of the book “Chief Concern of Medicine: The Integration of Humanities and Narrative Knowledge into the Practices of Medicine.”

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