Luther College announces 2023 Distinguished Service Award recipients
DECORAH, IOWA—Luther College President Jenifer K. Ward is proud to announce the 2023 recipients of the Distinguished Service Award. The award is presented to alumni or individuals with strong connections to Luther College who have exhibited admirable service to society in areas such as education, government, the arts, business, church, labor, industry, agriculture, research, medicine and community affairs.
This year’s recipients are Leonard Myrah ’63; Dennis Christ ’63 and Ann (Henningsgaard) Christ ’66; Michael Ruzek ’68; Ken Abraham ’73; Patricia (Holtorf) Branstad ’73; Janet (Purmort) Tollund ’73; Denny Amundson ’73; Jill Blockhus ’88; Callista (Bisek) Gingrich ’88; Joan (Schneider) Schatz ’88; Stephanie Spear Filigno ’98; and Emerald-Jane (Aggrey-Appiah) Hunter ’03.
Videos of the 2023 Distinguished Service Award recipients.
Leonard Myrah came to Luther in 1954 and stayed for two years before joining the Navy as a fighter pilot. He served in the Navy from 1956 to 1961, receiving his Navy Wings, then returned to Luther and graduated in 1963. He returned to Naval service as a pilot during the Vietnam War. After retiring from the Navy, he spent 22 years as a commercial pilot.
Myrah has also served in a variety of government roles at both the state and local level throughout his life. In 1970, Myrah was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives for Houston and part of Winona. He also served on the Minnesota State Ethics Board and the Spring Grove Public Schools Board.
Myrah has been a lifelong member of Trinity Lutheran Church in Spring Grove, where he served in a variety of capacities including as a Sunday school teacher, confirmation mentor and chairman of the church council. Myrah currently works as an organic farmer, growing crops and raising animals in Spring Grove.
Dennis Christ and Ann (Henningsgaard) Christ
Dennis and Ann (Henningsgaard) Christ met at Luther in 1963. Dennis was double majoring in mathematics and physics, and Ann was studying nursing.
After graduating from Luther, Dennis served in the Navy as a navigator and tactical coordinator on long-range aircraft during the Vietnam War. He also flew missions around Russia, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander.
After his military service, he became involved with software development, integrating computer systems to aid the U.S. Department of Defense. He also served in leadership roles at Unisys, a global information technology company.
Ann earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. She began her career as a critical care nurse before leading health maintenance organizations (HMOs) across the country. After retiring, Dennis and Ann helped their son run a restaurant and retail shop in Red Lodge, Montana.
Both Dennis and Ann have served on multiple church councils. Ann has served on the board of Luther Seminary for 12 years and as the president for the Luther Deaconess Association for 35 years. He served on the St. Paul United Way Board, the Minnesota Business Partnership, and the Board of Christikon Lutheran Bible Camp in Montana.
Michael Ruzek attended Luther from 1964 to 1968 where he majored in biology and started for three seasons on the Luther Norse football team.
After working for Hormel Foods and Lutheran Brotherhood (now Thrivent Financial) Ruzek started his own health insurance company in 1998, Austin Health Insurance Agency.
Ruzek is well known in Austin, Minnesota, for his volunteering. In 1990, he founded Spruce Up Austin, an organization devoted to community beautification projects around the city. He continues to serve as a board member. He has been a volunteer with the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce, Austin Youth Football and the Mower County Veterans Memorial. Ruzek has lived in Austin, Minnesota, his entire life. His hometown recently honored him as a Pillar of the Community, declaring February 11, 2023, as Mike Ruzek Day.
Originally from New Richland, Minnesota, Ken Abraham attended Luther College from 1969 to 1973, earning a degree in biology. He earned a master’s degree in wildlife biology from Iowa State University and Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Queens University in Ontario. He spent the next 40 years as a prolific scholar and active researcher working in wildlife ecology and conservation.
For 32 years, he was a biologist and research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources before retiring in 2013. His work focused on understanding ecological relationships of birds and wetlands, especially waterfowl. Abraham also studied migratory caribou, polar bears, and moose. As an Ontario civil servant, his first duty was to help protect and manage the natural resources of the province.
Abraham continues to volunteer. He has served as director on the boards of Birds Canada and Trumpeter Swan Conservation Ontario, and as a member of a local Ducks Unlimited committee. He also volunteers as a citizen scientist for bird conservation monitoring programs.
Patricia (Holtorf) Branstad
Patricia (Holtorf) Branstad graduated from Luther in 1973 with degrees in German and sociology. She spent 36 years teaching German to middle school, high school and college students. She retired from teaching German at Gustavus Adolphus College in 2018.
Since her retirement, Branstad has poured her heart and soul into community involvement. Seeing how hard it was for people of diverse ethnic heritages to integrate in her small town of St. James, Minnesota, she became a founding member of Uniting Cultures/Uniendo Culturas, an organization aimed at building bridges between diverse groups. She is also the chair of “Who We Are, and How We Got Here,” a collaborative history project about local immigration; the project is run by community members, faculty and students at the University of Minnesota–Morris. Her efforts contributed to the Smithsonian Institution selecting St. James to be featured in a traveling exhibit focused on rural places of innovation.
Branstad also serves on the steering committee for Climate Smart St. James, a grassroots initiative aimed at helping her community make climate-smart changes.
Janet (Purmort) Tollund
Janet (Purmort) Tollund graduated from Luther in 1973 with majors in English and French. After receiving a master’s degree in secondary education from the University of Minnesota, she taught at Mayo High School in Rochester and Thomas Jefferson High School in Bloomington, Minnesota. She served as president of the American Association of Teachers of French in Minnesota.
Eventually, she left teaching and became a co-owner of Accolades/Group Travel Directors, a tour company specializing in faith pilgrimages and performance tours. She also led Luther alumni tours and served in leadership roles on the Luther College Alumni Council for 12 years. Tollund is active in her local church, St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Bloomington, where she has served as president of the Church Council, a liturgist and a member of the choir. She is also currently president of Middle East Peace Now, a Minnesota-based organization that arranges monthly forums featuring speakers from around the globe. She has arranged several forums related to peace and justice at her church.
Denny Amundson graduated from Luther in 1973 and went on to practice critical care medicine. During his 38-year career as a Navy clinician, he became a specialist in disaster care. He did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and responded to tsunamis and volcanoes in Indonesia, floods in Bangladesh and a drought in West Central Africa. He treated Ebola patients in Liberia and ran an ICU on a hospital ship off the coast of earthquake-stricken Haiti. In the United States, he has delivered healthcare to Mexican migrants in migrant camps and has responded to wildfires on Native American reservations several times.
As a disaster specialist, Amundson was the perfect person to help when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He came out of a nine-year retirement to lead the largest COVID ICU in the San Diego area, at Scripps Mercy hospital in Chula Vista, a border city that’s home to a significant number of underserved populations. He continues to practice critical care medicine at the hospital.
Amundson’s volunteer projects include chairing the San Diego osteopathic student mentorship program, working with the American Lung Association, assisting with Native American education activities in Southern California and setting up medical clinics for migrant workers.
Jill Blockhus graduated from Luther in 1988 with a double major in French and economics. She went on to have a career in fighting for environmental protections across the globe. She earned a master’s degree from the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen, Norway, and started working for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Switzerland. In this position, she developed and managed conservation projects that allowed local communities to benefit from forests.
Blockhus returned to the United States to study public policy and environmental economics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, earning a master’s degree, followed by her doctorate in International Environmental Policy at MIT.
She is currently the climate policy and practice director at the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit. An expert on international forest policy and community development, Blockhus fights against deforestation and climate change through her work with the international community, governments and indigenous people.
For 15 years, Blockhus has served as a judge for the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Prize, which is presented to communities and indigenous peoples who demonstrate exceptional achievement in nature-based solutions and local development.
Callista (Bisek) Gingrich
After graduating from Luther in 1988 with a degree in music education, Callista (Bisek) Gingrich interned in the office of former Congressman Steve Gunderson, going on to serve as a staff member for seven years. In 1995, she moved to the House Committee on Agriculture, where she served as chief clerk until 2007. Later in her career, Gingrich was nominated by President Donald Trump and credentialed by Pope Francis to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from October 2017 until January 2021. While an ambassador in Rome, she worked to defend international religious freedom, combat human trafficking, provide humanitarian assistance and support the role of women religious around the world.
Gingrich serves as president and CEO of Gingrich 360, a multimedia production company, and is also a syndicated columnist. She is a New York Times best-selling author for her Ellis the Elephant children’s American history series. She is also president of the Gingrich Foundation, and currently serves as a board member for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Ave Maria School of Law, and the Richard Nixon Foundation.
Joan (Schneider) Schatz
Joan (Schneider) Schatz graduated from Luther with majors in math and accounting in 1988. She continued on to a successful career in the manufacturing industry. Over the past 16 years, Schatz rose up the ranks at Park Industries in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a machining manufacturer recognized for its innovation and community philanthropy. She served as its chief financial officer, eventually becoming CEO of the company.
Schatz is an active member of her community. She has served on the St. Cloud Technical and Community College Foundation Board, the board of the Central Minnesota Boy Scout Council and the board of the Boys and Girls Club of Central Minnesota.
Schatz is also active in her church. She went on a church mission trip with her daughter, Rachel, a 2023 Luther graduate, to distribute solar ovens along the Dominican/Haitian border. Most recently, she and her husband, Kevin Schatz, class of 1988, participated in a desert elephant conservation project in Namibia.
Stephanie Spear Filigno
Stephanie Spear Filigno graduated from Luther in 1998 and earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Nevada–Reno. She is a pediatric psychologist for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
After completing a two-year National Institutes of Health postdoctoral research fellowship in child behavior and nutrition, Filigno was recruited to serve as the first psychologist in the cystic fibrosis care team at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. She led her team to develop and implement screening processes that elevated mental health outcomes so they are monitored alongside physical health outcomes.
Filigno also volunteers within her community. She has served on mental health planning and fundraising committees, and she teaches curriculum in the Cincinnati public schools to support children in their mental and physical health as they transition to adolescence. She volunteers with her local church and with other community organizations aimed to beautify and improve the safety of public spaces in Cincinnati.
Emerald-Jane (Aggrey-Appiah) Hunter
Born and raised in Ghana, West Africa, Emerald-Jane (Aggrey-Appiah) Hunter emigrated to the United States in 1999 to attend Luther, where she majored in communication studies. An internship in college at a local cable television station cemented her interest in television and the world of media.
After graduating in 2003, Hunter started her own production company, Emerald-Jane Productions. Her success in television landed her a spot on the launch team for ABC’s “Windy City Live,” Chicago’s only local live talk show, which took over the Oprah Winfrey show time slot when it ended. Hunter served as one of the show’s producers and its lead guest booker. She received four Emmy Awards for her work on the show.
Hunter took her passion for media and storytelling and founded myWHY Agency in Chicago, an integrated marketing communications agency that works primarily with nonprofit organizations and women- and minority-owned businesses. She is also an alumna and cohort ambassador for the Goldman Sachs Small Business program and serves on the board of People’s Music School, the largest completely free music school serving Chicago metropolitan-area children.
About Luther College
At Luther College in beautiful Decorah, Iowa, students explore big questions and take action to benefit people, communities and society. Luther’s academic programs, experiential approach to learning and welcoming community inspire students to learn actively, live purposefully and lead courageously for a lifetime of impact. Learn more at luther.edu.