Dejuana Thompson ’05
Outstanding Young Alumnus Award
A native of Birmingham, Alabama, DeJuana Thompson came to Berea in 2001 to study communication. As a student, she held leadership positions in the Student Government Association (SGA) and the Black Student Union (BSU) and served on the Student Academic Advisory Board. DeJuana credits her experience in Berea’s labor program with preparing her for a political career, teaching her the dignity of all work, the ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds, and how to resolve conflict at the workplace. As a political strategist, she has led campaigns, social justice initiatives, and social programs. Through this work, she has held leadership positions during both of President Obama’s historic runs for office. Demonstrating her commitment to her global community, DeJuana has worked on a presidential election in Ghana and has helped establish a school system in Gambia. She is also actively engaged in community service at the local and national level, serving as a youth mentor and as a delegate on the Campaign for Social Justice, a national initiative to provide youth and young adults with strategies to address injustice within their communities. DeJuana gives back to Berea College by working with the Black Cultural Center (BCC) and the Black Student Union. In recognition of her community service, DeJuana has received numerous awards including the Coretta Scott King Leadership Award, has received the key to the City of Birmingham, and was one of 50 people invited to attend the First Annual Founder’s Day dinner with President Obama. Today, DeJuana is the chief of staff for a congressional exploratory committee in Tennessee and the national marketing manager for the Student National Medical Association.
Vernon Johnson ’03
Outstanding Young Alumnus Award
Vernon came to Berea in December 1999 from the then war-torn country of Sierra Leone. Upon arriving in Berea, he immediately demonstrated his maturity, serious mindedness, and pleasant sense of humor—many remember him especially for his wonderful laugh. An excellent student, majoring in Business Administration (Accounting), Vernon integrated well and quickly into what was then a very foreign place. His faculty and labor supervisors saw him as dependable and admired his determination to succeed. Because of these qualities, he worked his way to the position of assistant manager at the Water Utility Plant, in addition to working at times for Public Safety, the Seabury Center, Student Financial Aid, and as a student auditor for the office of Financial Affairs. Even while pursuing his studies, the difficulties of life in his homeland never left his thoughts. In fact, as a student worker he regularly sent money home to his parents to help in times of financial and health related hardship. Vernon graduated from Berea in 2003 and quickly earned his CPA. Vernon described his years at Berea as providing “the right foundation for academic, professional, and community success,” as his professional record would attest. Following graduation, he worked for the Lexington accounting firm Dean, Dorton, Allen and Ford while earning a Masters degree from Eastern Kentucky University. Following his tenure at the Lexington firm, Vernon was hired by one of the world’s largest accounting firms, KPMG. Though given assurances that he would become a partner if he remained with them, he eventually left to pursue an opportunity nearer to his heart at the World Bank, in Washington DC. His hope in working at the World Bank was to have a positive impact on the world, and especially his own homeland. During this time he also taught at a local college where his work with student interns earned him a reputation for developing the values of dependability, accountability, and integrity in his students: the very qualities he exemplifies in his own life. The drive to make a difference in the world that defined Vernon’s arrival at Berea continues to this day. Vernon left the World Bank seeing that his talents and goals could better be utilized working for the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, Washington DC. In this role, he conducts inspections of the audits of various national and international companies that trade on the stock market. This places him in the epicenter of high risk profiles. In addition to professional responsibilities, Vernon assists not-for-profit organizations in his local community by helping them prepare financial statements. He also prepares, at no cost, tax returns for low-income families while working with youth on staying in school and on becoming productive citizens, and helping older students write resumes. Vernon is married to Daphne Peters Johnson, ‘05, likewise originally from Sierre Leone and also a distinguished graduate of Berea. They have two children, Jotham and Joanna.
Karen McElmurray ’80
Distinguished Alumnus Award
An eastern Kentucky native, writer Karen Salyer McElmurray attended grade school in Harlan and Floyd Counties. Not traveling too far from home, she graduated Berea College in 1980, receiving a degree in English literature. She went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Virginia, a Master of Arts in Writing from Hollins University, and a doctorate in American Literature from the University of Georgia. Karen’s published literature includes the novel Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, which received the Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing; her memoir Surrendered Child: A Birthmother’s Journey, which was listed as a “Notable Book” by the National Book Critics Circle; and the novel The Motel of the Stars, part of the 2009 Linda Bruckheimer Series from Sarabande Books and named Editor’s Pick by Oxford American magazine. Her work has received numerous other awards and honors including the Association of Writers and Writers Program Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the 2005 Georgia Author of the Year Award, the James Purdy Prize for Fiction, and most recently the Annie Dillard Essay Award. She has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. In addition to giving readings of her work across the nation, Karen has taught writing at the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, the Kentucky Retreat for Women Writers in Owensboro, and the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington. She is also a member of the faculty in the Master of Fine Arts programs at Murray State University and West Virginia Wesleyan College. Earlier this year, she was named the 2014 Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. Of her time at Berea College, Karen says that it was an experience that set a course for her life in terms of how to learn, how to live in community, and how to balance the work of hands and spirit. She remembers a summer of painting and plastering alongside other students, the waves moving in and out in the writings of Heraclitus, and the faces of women in paintings by Käthe Kollwitz—and all these memories seem part of the one rich tapestry. Karen is currently completing a novel entitled Wanting Inez and working on a collection of essays called The Land Between.
Dean Cornett ’55 and Nina Cornett ’61
Distinguished Alumnus Award
Dean, who attended Berea College in the 1950s, went on to work twenty years in electronics and computers and another twenty years doing stock and real estate investing. He still pursues stock investing, but now spends the major part of his time working on video and environmental projects, which are generally closely related. He is also Chairman of the Board of the non-profit corporation Eco-Outpost, Inc. Nina, ’61, majored in physics at Berea and went on to spend much of her career implementing information technology across the US Armed Forces. Two of her ground-breaking projects involved outfitting Navy ships and submarines with their first computers, an effort that approached a billion dollars in lifetime costs and substantially increased operating efficiency. She eventually rose to become a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the highest rank attainable by a career civil servant. That made her one of a very small group of executive women at a time when, as she says, women were automatically assumed to be secretaries. Her position gave her opportunities that a lot of talented women didn’t have, including working directly with Congress and interacting with Bill Gates and other CEO’s in the computer industry. Since their retirement, both Dean and Nina have devoted much of their time to projects that serve the environment and strengthen communities, especially in rural eastern Kentucky. In the town of Blackey, where they currently spend part of each year, they obtained a matching grant to plant trees along the railroad that runs through the town to improve the town’s appearance and to reduce the coal-dust pollution, and chaired a community clean-up that removed from the town a quantity of trash which, when amassed in one place, formed a pile a hundred feet long, fifteen feet deep, and up to seven feet high. They also orchestrated a community effort that converted a one-acre trash dump in the center of the town into a park. With the help of friends, Dean and Nina landscaped the park, planted trees, and built benches. When the University of Kentucky discontinued its medical helicopter services that served Eastern Kentucky, without which emergency victims faced a much longer wait for rescue and perhaps a long drive to a treatment center, the Cornetts led a petition drive that gathered more than 20,000 signatures requesting service restoral. While the University declined to restore the service, the drive garnered not only attention in a number of Eastern Kentucky newspapers and from Kentucky NPR stations, but also the interest of a number of private rescue-helicopter companies, one of which established an Eastern Kentucky med-evac service that now supports a number of Eastern Kentucky counties. As a part of that effort, the Cornetts also obtained funding from the legislature to build a facility to house the helicopter service, which has gone on to make a large number of flights ferrying people for rapid treatment at trauma and other medical centers in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee. The Cornetts are self-taught film-makers and have created a number of environmental documentaries, including The Bears of Kingdom Come, a film about the return of black bears to Kingdom Come Park in Eastern Kentucky, and American Chestnut: Appalachian Apocalypse, which covers the effects of the American chestnut blight. The latter was picked up by some PBS state broadcasting facilities, including Kentucky Educational Television (KET) which has been airing it regularly for several years. Their video work was profiled in the August 2012 issue of Videomaker magazine. In April 2012, the Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission, which advises the governor on environmental issues, presented the Cornetts with a Lifetime Achievement Award for their efforts on behalf of the environment. For many years, Dean and Nina have worked with President Shinn and Dr. Richard Olson in support of Berea College environmental projects. Their contributions have enhanced the Eco-village and the sustainability curriculum in numerous ways, from student travel to special projects. For about the past decade, they have been hosting, for Berea students and others, annual sustainability symposiums in Letcher County, enlisting skilled local people to demonstrate traditional ways of food preparation, furniture making, and other skills. In 2012, they brought the symposium to the Berea campus. Dean and Nina also worked with Dr. Ed McCormack to place student interns throughout eastern Kentucky, arranging both work and housing for them. This collaboration with the college is one of many projects the Cornetts have initiated to improve conditions for residents of the eastern region of the state as well as to provide benefit to the college community. They have brought attention to the environmental efforts of the City of Berea as well, nominating it for an environmental award for the innovative Berea Solar Farm, and spreading information about the Solar Farm in an article which appeared in Home Power magazine. Dean and Nina currently divide their time between their residences in Alaska and Blackey, Kentucky. In Alaska, they have worked to conserve salmon runs, protect brown bears, and to end commercial logging in the Chugach National Forest. Their work in Kentucky continues as well, in part through Eco-Outpost, Inc., the non-profit corporation that they founded to “improve the environment and economic conditions of eastern Kentuckians.”