UAA celebrates spring 2020 Honorary Degree recipients

by Matt Jardin  |   

Spring 2020 Honorary Degree recipients, Molly “Mary Elizabeth” McCammon, John Torgerson and Jean Pollard.
Spring 2020 Honorary Degree recipients, Molly “Mary Elizabeth” McCammon (left), John Torgerson (center) and Jean Pollard (right).

The criterion for individuals to receive an honorary degree from UAA is evidence of a significant and lasting contribution to the university, the state of Alaska or to the individuals' discipline or profession. It is UAA's honor and privilege to award Jean Pollard and Molly McCammon an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, and John Torgerson an Honorary Doctor of Laws for the spring 2020 semester.

Jean Pollard

Jean Pollard is a UAA alumna, retired schoolteacher and administrator. Her experience in both education and history have coalesced in her lifelong efforts to raise awareness about the African American troops who helped construct the Alaska Highway during World War II. Thanks to her work as the lead organizer for the Alaska Highway Memorial Project, scholars now broadly agree that the story of African Americans in Alaska during WWII quite literally paved the way for the modern civil rights movement. 

Her Alaska History Project includes a curated, online archive of footage, photos, documents and memorabilia that recount the experience of black soldiers in WWII-era Alaska. The site also includes detailed lesson plans for elementary and secondary school teachers, making the archive ideal for fellow educators. Pollard has received several state and federal grants to disseminate this information and has toured extensively to showcase her efforts. Today, these materials are being taught to teachers during the yearly in-service school days. This history is being slowly integrated into the classroom curricula in Anchorage and throughout the state.  

Additionally, Pollard organized a living history theatrical presentation that has run on several occasions in Anchorage. The production includes a range of community actors who read from the actual interviews of veterans who built the highway and served in Alaska during the war. Beyond her endeavors in the state, Pollard has traveled around the country to locate the surviving men who worked on the Alaska Highway to raise awareness about their critical role in history and to secure federal recognition for their contributions, including Pvt. Leonard Larkins, who will be celebrating his 100th birthday in August.

In spring 2017, Pollard’s efforts were realized when Gov. Bill Walker signed into law Senate Bill 46 to establish African American Soldiers Contribution to Building the Alaska Highway Day, a state day of commemoration to occur annually on Oct. 25. Furthermore, thanks to Pollard’s lobbying, Sen. Dan Sullivan has submitted for consideration before the 115th U.S. Congress a bill to designate a segment of the Alaska Highway as the African American Engineers Alaska-Canada Highway.

John Torgerson

John Torgerson has honorably served his state, communities and the nation with great distinction. An Alaska resident since 1950, Torgerson has lived in Fairbanks, Seward and currently Kasilof, where he’s resided since 1975.

Torgerson’s contributions to his country began early when he served in the U.S. Army for three years where he received his G.E.D. Since then, his long list of roles include serving as chairman of the Alaska Redistricting Board, special assistant to the Commissioner of Transportation, acting director of the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, acting executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District and a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

During his ten years of service as an Alaska state senator, Torgerson served many roles, including chairman of the Resources Committee, chairman of the Joint Committee on Natural Gas Pipelines, co-chair of the Finance Committee and vice chair of the Labor and Commerce Committee. 

But Torgerson didn’t serve Alaska at just the local and state levels. Most recently, from April 2018 to April 2019, he was as the interim federal co-chair of the Denali Commission, which was established by U.S. Congress in 1998 to fund economic development and infrastructure in rural Alaska and serve as the lead agency to assist communities facing coastal erosion, flooding and permafrost degradation threats. Torgerson was nominated for the position by Alaska’s congressional delegation and appointed by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. 

To further illustrate Torgerson’s long-lasting impact, while co-chairing the Senate Finance Committee in 2000, he authored and sponsored legislation creating the Technical Education Vocational Education Program. In the years following, UAA has received approximately $100 million, with millions going to Alaska technical schools as well, to support education, training and equipment to enhance Alaska’s workforce development efforts. 

Molly “Mary Elizabeth” McCammon

Molly “Mary Elizabeth” McCammon came to Alaska in the early 1970s as a young journalist. She became a homesteader and wilderness guide in the remote Brooks Range and a public policy specialist working for the governor and legislature to develop natural resources and fisheries policies. McCammon is most proud of contributing to Alaska’s wild fish priority statute, subsistence priority and community development quota program. When the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred, she stepped up to become executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council — a position she held for 10 years. In that role, she administered one of the largest habitat protection programs in the nation and developed an oil spill restoration and long-term monitoring program now viewed as an international model.  

Currently, McCammon serves as Alaska representative to the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), and holds memberships to the IOOS Federal Advisory Committee, NOAA Science Advisory Board’s Working Group on Ecosystem Sciences Management, Consortium for Ocean Leadership, National Ocean Research Advisory Panel, Alaska Sea Grant Program, Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, and Cook Inlet Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. She has served on numerous National Academy of Sciences programs, and has worked on the writing team for the Alaska Regional Climate Assessment and the Alaska chapter of the National Climate Assessment. She was recently awarded the Walter J. and Ermalee Hickel's Lifetime Achievement Award by the Alaska Sealife Center.

All of these contributions were in addition to her primary role as executive director of the Alaska Ocean Observing System, an organization she founded in 2003. In that role, she developed the Alaska regional component of the national IOOS to meet the complex needs of Alaskans, including serving an instrumental role in developing the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network, the Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network and the Alaska Water Level Watch. She is responsible for the receipt of multiple grants to observe and respond to Alaska’s changing marine ecosystems, including grants supporting research and applications on climate resilience, marine ecosystem health, marine domain awareness and safety at sea, supported by the only federally-certified data center in Alaska.


Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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