May 29, 2024

UMNAA Dinner Honors 2024 Homecoming Award Recipients

The UM National Alumni Association celebrated the recipients of its 2024 Homecoming awards on Feb. 16 at its Homecoming awards dinner and annual business meeting in Anna Irvin Dining Hall.

Jim Vann ’76 received the Distinguished Alumni Award, which is the UMNAA’s highest annual honor. Dr. Elizabeth Gassel Perkins ’04 received the Nathalie Molton Gibbons Alumni Achievement Award, which is given annually to an alum over 35 whose career and community contributions have reflected positively at the local, state or national level. Matthew Nelson ’11 received the Nathalie Molton Gibbons Young Achiever’s Award, which is given annually to an alum age 35 or younger based on the same criteria as the Alumni Achievement Award.

Jim Vann

Vann is president, board member and shareholder of Dentons Sirote law firm in Alabama, where he is a member and former chair of the Dentons Sirote Real Estate practice group. In his practice, the Birmingham native represents banks and other lenders in connection with all types of lending, including commercial and industrial loans as well as real estate loans.

Upon receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award, Vann thanked his family and friends, and noted how he sought out a law career through the guidance of Dr. Sarah Posey Morgan, who taught business law and other law-related courses at UM.

“That is the power of a professor making a connection to a specific student,” Vann said. “Those are the kinds of things that happen at our university. The faculty and staff did a particularly effective job in preparing me. I’m truly humbled.”

After graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting from UM, Vann practiced as a Certified Public Accountant at the firm formerly known as Ernst & Ernst. In 1981, he graduated magna cum laude from Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law and began his legal practice at various local law firms, where he became known as one of the top banking and commercial real estate attorneys in the Birmingham area.

“Jim has a servant’s heart and has spent his whole career in service to others, while maintaining a very humble demeanor,” said nominator Kirk Lightfoot ’76, Vann’s fraternity brother and 2002 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award. “He has certainly distinguished himself with his impressive career, but he has also distinguished the University of Montevallo as a loyal and generous son and respected alum.”

During his time as a student, Vann was a University cheerleader and president of Delta Chi. He and his wife, Robyn, met at UM and have been married for 46 years. They have two children, Jase and Natalie, and five grandchildren.

Dr. Elizabeth Gassel Perkins

Perkins is campus president and chief academic officer at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley in Missouri. Shortly after starting the position in 2016, she began leading the dual credit/enrollment partnerships area and expanded the program, which now includes every school district in the St. Louis area. The flourishing program, which at one time served hundreds of students, has grown 130% and now serves thousands.

Perkins earned a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in pre-law from UM in 2004 and went on to earn a Master of Arts in English from UM in 2005. On campus, she served as Student Government Association president and was a member of Phi Kappa Phi, Alpha Gamma Delta, Sigma Tau Delta and more.

Perkins got her Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership and Administration with a concentration in higher education from Valdosta State University in 2015. Her career in academia began at UM as an adjunct instructor of English.

“I have been incredibly lucky,” she said. “I truly believe we are a product of the people who come through our lives. Starting here as a student, then as an adjunct faculty member and through my professional career, I believe I’ve had the opportunity to work with the greatest people in the world — the students, the faculty and staff.”

Nominator Kay Butts-Pruett ’04 said of Perkins, “To say that she has led an impactful and meaningful life is a drastic understatement. She’s authentic in her love and inclusiveness of all people, which shines through in her professional, philanthropic and personal life. I would say she has a heart of gold, but that would directly conflict with the fact that she is a proud Purple.”

Perkins resides in St. Louis with her husband, Brian, and their daughter, Auraelia.

Matthew Nelson

Starting as an operations specialist at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (BHM), Nelson’s knowledge and determination allowed him to advance quickly and eventually become vice president of facilities at the Birmingham Airport Authority.

Joined by his wife, Ariel, their daughter, Olivia, his parents and other family, friends and colleagues at the awards dinner, Nelson expressed his gratitude for their support.

“This award is not a recognition of my individual efforts, but a testament to the unwavering support and encouragement I’ve received from my mentors, coworkers, friends and family,” Nelson said. “Their guidance and belief in me have propelled me forward and shaped me into the man I am today.”

Nelson graduated from UM with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology with a concentration in health promotion. As a student, he was a member of the men’s basketball team. He began his career with BHM in 2012, where he worked his way up through the operations sector for eight years. In October 2020, he became manager of facilities with the BAA. His success in this position led Nelson to BAA’s executive staff; he was appointed vice president of facilities in February 2021. In this role, his duties include managing the facilities department, planning and directing the work of custodial and maintenance personnel and ensuring efficient maintenance for the airport, including all airport-owned properties.

“Matthew is a distinct representative of Birmingham business leaders,” said nominator Darlene Wilson ’11, vice chair of the BAA Board of Directors. “His dedicated work ethic and commitment to continuous improvement and success of operations is important to our growth and relates directly to intentional passenger and team satisfaction.”

Following the presentation of these awards, the UMNAA held its annual business meeting, where outgoing UMNAA President Stephanie Baugh Shaw ’93 installed Eddie Baker III ’04 as president.

The UMNAA also installed its new officers and directors, approved revisions to the UMNAA bylaws, recognized its retiring members and honored the Vintage Purples Alumni Club with the Volunteer Service Award.