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From the Page to the Stage

2006 Alumni Achievement Award Winners

Three alumni were awarded 2006 Alumni Achievement Awards at the Founders Day celebration on February 16, 2006 -- David Axelrod '67, William Barnhart '68, and Semenya McCord '71. Caitlin Muelder '96 received the second Young Alumni Achievement Award.

Knox Magazine asked each award recipient a series of questions regarding his or her life and achievements. We are proud to share their answers with you here.

David Axelrod '67
An award-winning television and film producer, writer, and director, David Axelrod graduated from Knox in 1967 and received his MFA from New York University's Institute of Film and Television in 1969. Over the course of his 30-year career, he has worked on dozens of television documentaries, including "The Great Transatlantic Cable" (2005) and "Wright Brothers' Flying Machine" (2003) for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) program American Experience; "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens" (2002) for the PBS program NOVA; and The History of Rock & Roll (1995); among many others. In 2003, Axelrod received the Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Programming-Long Form for "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens." He lives and works in Los Angeles.

Knox Magazine: How would you describe your Knox experience?
David Axelrod: I've been fortunate enough to attend good schools, from my kindergarten through my graduate school, but I think that the time I spent at Knox was the high point of my education. I was an English major, but Knox's liberal arts curriculum encouraged my curiosity and allowed me to study a little history, learn a little math, throw a few clay pots, and even butcher some Shakespeare in Harbach Theatre. The mid-sixties was a tumultuous time, and the outside world kept poking into our comfortable little collegiate tent. The Kennedy assassination occurred seven weeks into our freshman term. Dr. King marched to Selma the winter of our sophomore year, and, by the time we were juniors, the Vietnam War was in full swing. Needless to say, the Class of '67 had plenty to talk about. A lot of us learned how to argue, sometimes heatedly, always civilly, and we were better students for it.

KM: How has that experience affected your life?
DA: There is seldom a day in my work when I don't use the skills of research or criticism or composition that I learned at Knox.

KM: What do you believe is your most notable achievement?
DA: Making TV documentaries is a great job for a dilettante. You get to be an instant expert in lots of subjects. I'm interested in the history of science and technology and how they affect the world. I've been lucky enough to do a couple of shows that, I hope, make some of the audience think about these things. An episode of the PBS science series, NOVA, "The Search for Longitude," examines how a nearly illiterate clockmaker battled the 18th-century scientific establishment and solved the most vexing problem of navigating at sea. Another NOVA, "Galileo's Battle for the Heavens," looks at the Italian astronomer's struggle to reconcile his own discoveries with his religion.

KM: Do you have any words of advice for current students and other Knox alumni?
DA: I would ask them to take another look at Senator Obama's very moving 2005 Commencement address, particularly the part about not walking away from the challenges of the community. Without trying to sound too righteous, students at Knox are lucky to be getting a superb education, and it's part of the bargain that they continue to find ways to use some of their learning for the common good.

William Barnhart '68
William Barnhart '68 has worked as a business writer and editor for the Chicago Tribune since 1979. His daily column offers news and commentary on the stock, bond, and currency markets. Barnhart, who holds master's degrees in teaching and business administration from the University of Chicago, began his career in journalism in 1970 as a police reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago wire service and later covered state and local politics in Springfield and the Chicago suburbs. In addition to the Tribune, he has worked as a business writer for the former Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times and is past president of the 3,400-member Society of American Business Editors and Writers. He is the co-author of Kerner: The Conflict of Intangible Rights, a biography of former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner.

Knox Magazine: How would you describe your Knox experience?
William Barnhart: My four years at Knox enabled me -- an introverted kid who had attended four high schools in Texas, Illinois, and Pennsylvania -- to become grounded on the road to adulthood. A school nestled in corn fields, yet close to the great issues and thoughts of the day, including the Vietnam War, was the ideal venue for a boy whose curiosity was greater than his ambition. Where else could I have been editor of the college paper for two years and a friend of Greeks, indies and townies alike? Most of all, the Knox faculty imparted the rigor of systematic inquiry -- not knowing the answers but knowing how to hunt for answers.

KM: How has that experience affected your life?
WB: A good journalist never stops asking or learning. But knowing how to ask and learn -- the essence of my Knox education -- is critical. I'm often asked how an English lit major with no undergraduate academic work in economics, accounting, or even math was able to become a financial markets columnist at a major newspaper. A solid liberal arts education, focused on the skills of inquiry and expression, is a big part of the answer.

KM: What do you believe is your most notable achievement?
WB: Professionally, I am proud of my ability to provide Chicago Tribune readers with timely, provocative, and useful insights into the complex workings of financial markets and the economy. I am pleased to have served for more than 10 years as a board member and officer of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, including a year as president, and to have received the group's distinguished service award. In another corner of my life, I am proud of the critical acclaim that greeted my biography of former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, co-authored with Gene Schlickman.

KM: What will you do to celebrate winning this award?
WB: The award provides my wife, Kate, and me an opportunity to visit the Knox campus and see some old friends on the faculty. I hope to hear at least one rendition of the Knox Hymn.

KM: Do you have any words of advice for current students and other Knox alumni?
WB: Don't be put off by the malaise currently enveloping the American psyche. You, not those of us in the much glorified Sixties Generation, will find the answers and create the future. Now is the time to prepare for that journey.

Semenya McCord '71
A nationally-respected jazz artist, Semenya McCord '71 is a vocalist, music educator, and composer. She is currently a jazz voice instructor at Carl Sandburg and Knox colleges in Galesburg and is pursuing a master's degree at Northern Illinois University. She also develops and produces jazz-oriented programs for audiences in Western Illinois. Before returning to the Midwest in 2003, McCord taught and performed throughout New England, where she received Boston's Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Musical Excellence (1990) and was selected for a Commonwealth Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council (1997). McCord also worked to develop musical programs featuring spirituals, blues, and traditional and contemporary jazz with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Young Audiences of Massachusetts, Inc., and the New England Foundation for the Arts.

Knox Magazine: How would you describe your Knox experience?
Semenya McCord: My Knox experience began while I was still a junior at Galesburg High School, when I started studying voice with the late Creston Klingman. Coming to the campus once a week, participating in student recitals -- these opportunities, as well as Mr. Klingman's encouragement, made continuing my musical education at Knox very attractive. When I did enroll as a music education major, it felt right. Working with an excellent and committed music faculty, singing and touring with the Knox Choir, and joining the Psi chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota provided a comprehensive foundation for my musical career in performance and teaching. Relationships with the broader Knox population -- students from across the country and around the world -- becoming active as a charter member of the Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality (ABLE), and performing popular and folk music in a student group completed the environment that stimulated my creative ambitions.

KM: How has that experience affected your life?
SM: That experience has affected my life primarily by instilling in me the process of thinking before I act, taking other perspectives and cultures into account as an educator, and carefully researching the impact of my own African and African-American history as I develop programming to celebrate the significance of music in American society, past and present. Touring in the East with the Knox Choir also interested me in the region, so I felt comfortable living in New England for 30 years; however, coming "home" to Galesburg and having the opportunity to teach jazz voice students and a couple of classes at Knox has become an exciting extension of my initial goals.

KM: What do you believe is your most notable achievement?
SM: Realizing that it was time to come home and see about my mom. It probably is with our parents in mind that we go out seeking to "make good" and make them proud of us. I tried to fly my mom out to Boston when I had a particularly big performance or received some significant award there, and she always did enjoy it. But I think she's happiest now that I'm home. Participating in Galesburg's Stearman Fly-In Big Band Show and the Knox College Variety Show at Homecoming and producing my own shows at the Orpheum give her the opportunity to see me on that stage, which makes her happy. My father, Ken Henderson (a renowned jazz and R&B guitarist and singer), certainly initially inspired my desire for music, and my mother has continued to support me in every possible way. Making her happy is a great reward.

KM: Do you have any words of advice for current students and other Knox alumni?
SM: My words of advice are not my words. They came in an e-mail without an author, but I try to live by these phrases. I have them taped to my front door, so I read them as I leave every day and am reminded: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Caitlin Muelder '96
Shortly after graduating from Knox, Caitlin Muelder entered the University of San Diego's Old Globe Program, one of the nation's top graduate acting programs. She received her MFA from the Old Globe in 1999 and has since acted in numerous plays across the country, including the critically acclaimed Engaged at New York's Lucille Lortel Theatre, Closer at the Cincinnati Playhouse, and Broadway's Tony-award winning The Invention of Love. Muelder has performed Solitaire, a one-woman show she wrote about Amelia Earhart, in New York, Los Angeles, Galesburg, and Edinburgh, Scotland. In addition to her work in theatre, she has had guest roles on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and CBS's The Education of Max Bickford and has appeared in two movies, Going In and If You Can Say It in Words.

Knox Magazine: How would you describe your Knox experience?
Caitlin Muelder: I "grew up" with Knox. I was born in Galesburg, and the day I left the hospital, my parents took me home to the Knox campus, where they were head residents. In many ways, I took Knox for granted until I started applying to colleges. Knox was where my grandpa (Hermann Muelder '27), my dad (Owen Muelder '63), and all the important adults in my life either went to school or worked. It wasn't until I "visited the Knox campus" as a prospective student that I realized what amazing opportunities laid ahead of me and what a perfect fit it would be. When I went to Knox as a student, it was not unlike going to Brigadoon. Right there beside me my whole life was a gateway into this entirely new world. I knew what I wanted -- to be in as many theatre productions as I could, study abroad, and play a sport. At Knox, I got to do everything I wanted and then some. Knox was the launching pad for my intellectual curiosity and for my career in theatre, and it gave me some of my dearest friends. Knox was -- and always will be -- my home.

KM: How has that experience affected your life?
CM: The single most important thing I left Knox with was my ability to take constructive criticism and rejection. In acting, as in many professions, lots of people are going to have opinions about your work. It is a great thing to understand that when directors give you notes, they are really trying to help you get what you want -- to be a good actor. Imagine if you said "1 +1= 8" in a math class. If your teacher told you that your sum is "ok," it would be a disservice to you. If instead, the teacher rejects your sum and shows you that 1+1= 2, you are being helped. Now the arts are perhaps more subjective than arithmetic, but the same principle applies. Being able to "take a note" helps you distinguish between what things in your career you can control -- how hard you work -- from what you cannot -- they want "someone more giraffe-like," which was an actual comment made to me during an audition.

KM: What do you believe is your most notable achievement?
CM: Receiving the Achievement Award isn't too shabby. Being singled out by Knox as having accomplished something in my chosen field of work is a huge honor and is, quite frankly, very humbling. I was extremely surprised, flattered, and at a loss for words (an infrequent event) when Carol Brown (director or alumni programs) called me. To be recognized among so many accomplished young alumni in such wide ranging fields is a tremendous boon. But what really moved me is that it demonstrates how highly Knox values the arts. For Knox to single out a young alumna in theatre at a time when arts funding is regularly cut in public schools makes me deeply proud of my alma mater. I am also very proud to be an actor and proud of what I have accomplished in my career thus far, but [this award] is up there with my most notable achievements.

KM: What will you do to celebrate winning this award?
CM: I will drop it into conversations with casting directors, ha! It sounds corny, but I had "a moment" with the portrait of my grandfather in the Muelder Room in Seymour Library over the holidays. It is very surreal to imagine myself receiving the award in the Muelder Room with my grandfather looking down from his portrait and joining the other members of my family -- Walter Muelder '27, Hermann Muelder '27, and Marcia Muelder Eaton '60 -- who have also received this award.

KM: Do you have any words of advice for current students and other Knox alumni?
CM: Try things. Knox affords you the chance to explore who you are and who you could be. It's the lab, and you're the experiment. You will only come out better for having done so.