Distinguished alumni of Murray State

Meet the award-winning former Racers leaving their mark on the world.

Dennis Jackson

Staff Report

Dennis Jackson, Murray State’s first African-American student-athlete and 1966 alumnus, will receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award on the 60th anniversary of desegregation at Murray State.

“It is quite an honor and means a great deal when you put hard work into something and it pays off,” said Jackson.

He said the award came as a surprise and he never thought about getting the award. He said he likes to see all the friendly faces in Murray and know that people care about you in this town.

The Distinguished Alumnus Award is the highest honor granted by the Murray State Alumni Association and given to those who have grown their profession and helped their community.

Jackson became the first African-American student-athlete at Murray State in 1960 after leaving Alcorn State University in Mississippi. As a multi-sport athlete, he played both offense and defense in football, in conjunction with maintaining a successful track and field career.

Gaining his first hall of fame induction, Jackson first found a place in the Kentucky High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999, later finding further recognition in 2007, when he was inducted into the Murray State Athletics Hall of Fame.

A huge influence on Jackson’s life was Bill Ferguson, former track and field and football head coach. Jackson said he was a great guy who saw people as people, according to OVC Extra.

After originally graduating from Murray State with degrees in both history and physical education, Jackson eventually earned certification to become a school administrator..

He retired in 2008 from Paducah Public School System, where he had been teaching since 1968 and gained his longest tenure. He served as the director of district personnel for Paducah Public Schools, from 1997 to 2008.

Jackson has received several awards and honors recognizing his dedication to education throughout his life, including the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

He now serves on the Kentucky Council on Post Secondary Education and as chairman of the Committee of Equality Opportunity.

“I owe everything to my loving parents,” Jackson said. “Whatever I have done started with them and their caring attitudes.”

Jackson will be meeting with spring 2016 MERR scholars within the College of Education and Human Services on Friday from 2-3 p.m. That night he will receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award at a dinner in the Murray Room in the CFSB Center at 6 p.m.   

He will be receiving the award along with David Beck, Janice Padgett Harper-Smith and Bill Cunningham.

Janice Padgett Harper-Smith

Story by Ashley TraylorStaff writer

Janice Padgett Harper-Smith, an international opera pop star and a Murray State alumna with a degree in music education, received the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Harper-Smith comes from a musically-talented family, which inspired her to pursue a career in music, the only one in her family to do so. Her mother was a pianist, piano teacher and choir director. Her father played the violin and was a barbershop quartet singer. Her three sisters also played piano.

“I knew at a very early age that music would be an important part of my life,” Harper-Smith said.

Harper-Smith was originally a piano major and voice minor, but after one lesson with voice teacher Robert Baar, she changed her major to voice.

“I never really saw myself as dedicated enough to the piano to put in all those hours of daily practice needed to produce a real pianist,” Harper-Smith said. “However, I owe my ability to play piano so much to my success in becoming a musician.”

Piano helped with music theory studies, learning singing roles and is an asset to accompany voice students in teaching, but singing is the best way to express herself, Harper-Smith said.

After completing her degree at Murray State, Harper-Smith did doctoral work at the University of Illinois. She received a National Defense of Education Scholarship to study there for three years. She finished all the class requirements in two years and three summers.

She sang the solo in Haydn’s “The Creation” in Vienna, when she was a student at University of Illinois. She successfully sang a very high and partially a capella contemporary composition. Harper-Smith said it was her “breakthrough” for performing regularly in Vienna with the radio orchestra and well-known contemporary chamber ensembles.

Instead of writing her dissertation, she went to the Opera Studio in Zürich, where she received her first job singing.

Harper-Smith first went to Europe with the University of Illinois choir. She said after she sang her first solos in Europe she was hooked because she was fascinated by the cities, culture, and opportunities.

Being in Europe, Smith said she felt more comfortable than she would have being in New York, the stereotypical destination for young professionals in the music industry.

She had her first opera engagement in 1972 and sang at the Musikverein and Konzerthaus Radio in Vienne, Austria, many opera houses in Germany, Switzerland, France, Holland and a number of world premiers in concerts.

After receiving her professorship in 1991, she began teaching vocal performers and coaching them on their roles and technique. She was a professor of voice and vocal pedagogy at the Heidelberg-Manheim Hochschule für Musik in Mannheim, Germany. She continued her teaching profession by teaching master classes at Daniel Ferro Vocal Programme in Greve, Italy. 

Harper-Smith said she loves music and she loves teaching music because there is great satisfaction in expressing oneself through music and singing.

She has also judged vocal competitions, much like serving on the Voice Jury for the 11th Annual Mozart Competition in the Salzburg Mozart Festival.

She published a book on vocal technique called, “Atemtechnik als Roter Faden” with the Florian Noetzel Verlag/Heinrichshofen. She is working on an English translation called “The Art of Singing.”

Harper-Smith still resides in Europe with her husband, Robert Dean Smith, an international opera Heldentenor, the voice of the dramatic heroic tenor roles in German opera.

“I believe very strongly that aesthetic experiences with music can change people and society for the better,” she said.

David S. Beck

Story by McKenna DosierStaff writer

David S. Beck, executive vice president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau and Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient, started his journey at Murray State in Fall 1973.

Beck, originally from Eddyville, Kentucky, grew up on a farm with hogs, beef cattle, tobacco and some grain.

He came to Murray State because of its closeness to his home and because it was “a farming school.” He said his high school vocational agriculture teacher knew Murray State was the place for him to pursue his interest in politics and agriculture.



“In addition to getting a diploma, you get an education here,” Beck said. 

He was a member of the Mu class of the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity, Student Government Association, Interfraternity Council and other agriculture clubs on campus.

He moved back to campus his senior year to become a resident adviser at Hart Residential College.

Beck received his Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and a job offer from the Kentucky Farm Bureau on the same day in spring 1977.

He said his favorite memory at Murray State is when the Alpha Tau Omega cannon ended up on the roof of Winslow Dining Hall.

Beck also met his wife at Murray State. He proposed to her on campus on a “beautiful, fall Saturday” in 1976.

   “I’ve had an opportunity to work with all the universities in Kentucky and to this day I continue to be impressed with Murray,” he said.

   Beck was in Florida and did not realize he had been nominated for the award when he received a call from the Alumni Association. They requested a conference call when he got back into town.

“I was surprised. I was humbled by it,” Beck said.

He was also recognized by the Hutson School of Agriculture several years ago, which he said was also an honor.

When he found out he had been selected, he went to the Alumni Association website to see who had preceded him in receiving the award. Beck said he knew several of the previous recipients.

“I was surprised to be nominated and then surprised when I realized I had been selected,” Beck said. “It’s a tremendous honor for me.”

Bill Cunningham

Story by Cody HallContributing writer

Born in 1944 in Lyon County, Kentucky, Bill Cunningham, Supreme Court Justice of Kentucky, has devoted his life to serving others and the law.  Cunningham is a Murray State alumnus, graduating from the university in 1962 and later receiving his doctorate in law from the University Of Kentucky College Of Law in 1969.

In his career, he has served the country as a member of the U.S. Army and spent most of his professional life in the court systems.  Starting in 1974, he was the Eddyville City Attorney and a Public Defender for the Kentucky State Penitentiary.  As his career progressed, he was elected to the Supreme Court of Kentucky in November 2006, according to the Kentucky Court of Justice website.

“I’ve been blessed with family, health, friends, I survived the war, and after everything, you learn that family and friends are what is most important,” Cunningham said. 

Cunningham has written six books about the history of Kentucky and his pursuit of justice in the state.  These books include “On Bended Knees,” “Castle,” “Children of Promise,” and “A Distant Light,” to name a few. 

  To this day, Cunningham continues his writing through a personal blog on WordPress He writes about his thoughts on the state and his life.

“While I was in the Army, I rode a motorcycle all over Europe. I’ve been at the throttle of a two wheeler pushing one hundred miles per hour in the left lane on a German autobahn,” Cunningham said in one of his blog posts titled “Helmetless Riders.”

Cunningham said that receiving this award at this point in his life is less about him but more about honoring his generation.  And of all his achievements, the most important to him is his wife of 43 years and his five sons.