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2024 Alumni Merit Awards Honorees Announced

Fifteen distinguished Saint Louis University graduates from across 13 schools and colleges will be honored as Alumni Merit Award or Pioneer Award recipients this spring.

"Saint Louis University's Alumni Merit Awards exemplify the very best of the Billiken community,” said Annelise Pivin, executive director of alumni engagement. “We are honored to recognize their remarkable contributions."

Honorees will receive their awards during SLU’s Commencement Recognition Dinner on Friday, May 17, 2024. They will also be verbally recognized during the University Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 18, 2024.

Meet the Awardees

Listed in order of the founding of their associated school or college, the recipients of SLU’s 2024 Alumni Merit Award are:

Tim Drone, M.A., MBA (A&S ’72, GRAD A&S ’75, GRAD CSB ’77), College of Arts and Sciences

For Timothy Drone, collecting acclaimed artwork and artifacts is more than a hobby. It has become a way of life, reflecting what he considers to be two core tenets of Saint Louis University — education and research.

An alumnus who is dedicated to the Jesuit mission, Drone and his wife Jeanne hold one of the largest collections of private antiquities in St. Louis and have contributed myriad pieces to the University to expand students’ educational experiences. One such collection — 850 newspapers dating from 1683 to 2020 – took more than three decades and thousands of hours for Drone to amass.

In 2022, he donated them to SLU’s Department of History, and the collection has been used and researched by faculty and students across various disciplines. He also financed two SLU art exhibitions for students, faculty and the community and assisted with writing Painting the Midwest, a book detailing the art that the Drones have gifted to the Saint Louis University Museum of Art (SLUMA).

He meets with faculty, administrators and deans of the College of Arts and Sciences, Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business and the Catholic Studies program to better understand how his contributions might enhance student learning. Drone has served at St. Matthew Catholic Church in North St. Louis for many decades and mentors high school students. He has been an executive banker for nearly 50 years. He served on the Mercantile Library-Saint Louis Board for eight years and enjoys a longstanding relationship with Saint Louis University High School.

Toniya Singh, M.D. (MED, Residency ’00, Fellowship ’03), School of Medicine

Toniya Singh's journey in cardiology, spanning from India to the United States, is marked by a dedication to excellence and service and a passion for helping women physicians.

Singh obtained her medical degree from Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi, India, and completed her residency and fellowship in cardiology at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. As a managing partner at St. Louis Heart and Vascular, she upholds her commitment to mentorship, regularly engaging with SLU School of Medicine students, residents and fellows.

Singh’s advocacy for diversity, equity and inclusion in the field is reflected in her leadership roles within the American College of Cardiology (ACC), where she serves as chair of the National Women in Cardiology Section and National Cardiovascular Management Section. She also is the incoming governor of the Missouri chapter of the American College of Cardiology. Her 2017 TEDx Talk focused on the power of women seeing professionals like themselves represented in leadership positions.

Singh has written several articles in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) and Scientific American. She has presented at scientific sessions and had more than 60 media interviews. Singh has received several awards throughout her career, including the Castle Connolly Exceptional Women in Medicine in 2022 and 2023. She was named a Castle Connolly Top Doctor in 2021 and 2022 and appeared on the Best Doctors in America list in 2015 and 2002.

Joe Conran, J.D. (A&S ’67, LAW ’70), School of Law

Joe Conran embraces a spirit of giving, generously sharing his talents, knowledge and resources as a lawyer and community leader. Having served as chair of the Saint Louis University Board of Trustees for the past 10 years, as well as on the SLU School of Law Dean’s Advisory Council and the University’s arena campaign committee along with lecturing on trial advocacy to SLU LAW students, Conran exemplifies service in the Jesuit tradition.

Before entering private practice, Conran was a captain and judge advocate in the U.S. Air Force. Today, he continues to immerse himself in the missions of area schools and organizations, volunteering on the boards of directors of Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School, Grand Center, Inc., Logos School, St. Louis Ambassadors, the March of Dimes, Boys Hope Girls Hope, the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, and others.

He was an organizer of the Trial Practice Institute, an annual three-day seminar that trains young lawyers in a comprehensive approach to litigation. Named a Thomson Reuters “Stand-out Lawyer” in 2023 and 2024, Conran is a retired partner and former chair for Husch Blackwell LLP, where he serves as of counsel. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and his juris doctor degree from SLU. His legal expertise in litigation has been sought after by individuals, major financial institutions and privately held companies.

He has been recognized by the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, Benchmark Litigation, The Best Lawyers of America®, Center for Public Resources, Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers, and others.

Fr. Michael Esswein, M.Div. (CPL ’93), College of Philosophy and Letters

After starring in a second-grade play, Michael Esswein knew his life’s calling. His role as a priest spoke to his heart and soul. But as certain as he was of his vocation from early on in life, there was a time while he was in the seminary when his plans for becoming a priest weren’t so absolute.

During his senior year of college at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, Esswein was in an automobile accident, sustaining a spinal cord injury and broken neck. Paralyzed from the shoulders down with limited use of his arms and hands, his first concern when he awoke was that he would no longer be able to pursue the vocation he had envisioned for most of his life.

That was more than 30 years ago. After discussing his condition and future hopes with church leaders, Esswein learned that being quadriplegic would not hinder his journey to the priesthood. He graduated magna cum laude from Saint Louis University’s College of Philosophy and Letters in 1993 and earned a Master’s of Divinity from Kenrick-Glennon Seminary. Then, in 1998, Esswein was ordained a priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Today, Esswein serves hundreds of Catholics as the pastor of two parishes in Missouri — Annunciation Catholic Church in Webster Groves and Our Lady of Providence Catholic Church in Crestwood — living his priestly vocation just as he had hoped: As “a man for and with others.”

Jim Kavanaugh (CSB ’86), Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business

Strongly committed to giving back to the community, Jim Kavanaugh champions diversity, equity and inclusion in workplace cultures. As co-founder and CEO of World Wide Technology and an investor and owner of St. Louis City SC and the St. Louis Blues, Kavanaugh’s focus on the whole person (cura personalis, a value of Jesuit education) fosters diverse perspectives, transparent communication and employee development.

Kavanaugh, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Saint Louis University in 1986, has elevated St. Louis’ corporate, technology and sports landscapes to new levels of distinction. In recognition of his leadership, he received the Arch Grants Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2023. In 2022, he earned both the ORBIE St. Louis CIO Leadership Award and Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame Laureate. In 2017, Glassdoor ranked him the No. 2 CEO for all U.S. large businesses.

An active and passionate supporter of SLU, Kavanaugh has served on the University’s Board of Trustees since 2010. He was named to SLU’s Smurfit-Stone Entrepreneurial Alumni Hall of Fame in 2010 and was SLU’s President’s Choice Award recipient at the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.

His passion for giving back has extended beyond SLU to include the St. Patrick Center Board of Directors and the American Cancer Society’s CEOs Against Cancer of Missouri-St. Louis Chapter and other local and national nonprofits. In 2020, he led a $9 million campaign to renovate the World Wide Technology Hope Lodge, which provides free home-away-from-home lodging for cancer patients and their caregivers.

Frank Magiera, Ph.D. (PARKS ’62), Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology/School of Science and Engineering

Religion, education and human/social service are Frank Magiera’s life passions that impel him to live the Ignatian magis (more). He possesses a deep desire to improve student access to a high-quality education so they can experience magis for themselves by delving deeper, thinking critically, solving problems creatively and going out into the world to do good.

Having grown up in East St. Louis, Illinois, where he attended Catholic grade school and public high school, Magiera received a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Saint Louis University in 1962 and earned his doctoral degree in finance from Michigan State University. As a lifelong learner, his interests gravitated away from engineering, leading him to become a successful, independent financial services professional.

He concentrated on providing education and training to investment professionals seeking certification in security analysis and portfolio construction while being held to high ethical standards. In 2012, Magiera established the Frank and Bernice Magiera Scholarship, which provides $5,000 annually to three undergraduate students in SLU’s School of Science and Engineering. Several times a year, he travels to St. Louis from his home in Arizona to stay engaged with SLU students and the school community.

He meets with the recipients of his scholarship and stays in touch with them after they graduate. He usually attends SLU’s annual Homecoming and Family Weekend in September and the Scholarship Dinner in the spring and has explored SLU’s Madrid Campus. In addition to his named scholarship, Magiera supports other charitable causes.

Trudy Busch Valentine, M.A. (VSN ’80), Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing

Trudy Busch Valentine exemplifies the Jesuit ideal of dedicating herself to the service of others. Her work in health care, education, advocacy and pastoral care aligns seamlessly with the values of a Saint Louis University education.

Witnessing human suffering through nursing and having experienced it personally with the sudden loss of her husband John in 2002 and her son’s challenges with substance use, Valentine has transformed her pain into action. She earned a bachelor’s in nursing from Saint Louis University and a master’s in pastoral care from Aquinas Institute of Theology to help others with spiritual and emotional healing. She became a strong advocate for raising awareness, reducing stigma and supporting those impacted by substance use disorders and mental health conditions.

Valentine’s support of community service organizations highlights her pivotal role in driving positive change. With Peter Raven, Ph.D., and Jack Fishman, Ph.D., She helped organize a climate summit based on Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’. She has served on numerous boards, including SLU’s Board of Trustees since 2017. She chaired the Executive Advisory Board for SLU’s School of Nursing for 11 years.

In 2010, she endowed a lecture series for School of Nursing students, faculty, staff and health care workers across the area. In 2019, the School of Nursing was named in her honor, a testament to her profound commitment to fostering excellence and advancement within the University, the broader health care community and those who are and will be treated by nursing graduates of SLU.

Marilyn Horst, M.S.W. (GRAD SSW ’77), School of Social Work

After 10 years in banking, Marilyn Horst set out to change the course of her life and the lives of those around her by earning a master’s in social work from Saint Louis University.

Her focus on humanity and her commitment to social justice soon became a way of life. For 45 years, until she retired in 2022, Horst worked as a licensed clinical social worker at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, supporting children and families as they coped with life-changing diagnoses. During that time, she taught 35 practicum students, which she is proud to have accomplished. She also published works in Social Work and Health Care and Social Work in Pediatrics.

Having observed gaps in community health care through her work, Horst helped two St. Louis-area allergists establish the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, St. Louis Chapter (AAFA-STL). The foundation provides underserved children and school nurses with life-saving medications, equipment, education and assistance. In 2001 and 2015, AAFA-STL honored Horst with the Orchid Award for her long-standing dedication to children and families. She continues to serve on their advisory board.

For more than 30 years, Horst has supported SLU’s School of Social Work. She is a member of the SLU Women’s Council, and in 2021, she and her husband established the Marilyn L. and Alvin H. Horst Scholarship Fund. The scholarship is given to graduate students in the School of Social Work who are pursuing an area of expertise or practice in a hospital or medical setting, preferably pediatrics.

Barbara Jacobsmeyer, M.A. (DCHS ’88), Doisy College of Health Sciences

While much of the world worked at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the facilities Barbara Jacobsmeyer led as executive vice president of Encompass Health were more crucial than ever.

Early in the pandemic, she oversaw 150 inpatient rehabilitation hospitals in 35 states and Puerto Rico. In 2021, she was named CEO of the company’s home health and hospice segment in Dallas. A year later, the company rebranded as Enhabit Home Health and Hospice, employing nearly 11,000 people in over 250 home health and 100 hospice locations in 34 states.

Her dedication to patient well-being blossomed at Saint Louis University, where she earned a bachelor’s in physical therapy in 1988. Since then, Jacobsmeyer has remained active at SLU, working alongside the Physical Therapy Student Association to launch the PTSA For and With Others Scholarship, a fund for first-generation or underrepresented physical therapy students in the second or third professional years, when the cost to attend the program is the highest.

A first-generation college student, Jacobsmeyer earned a master’s in health services management from Webster University in 1994. While always planning to be a clinician, each subsequent position grew her path to leadership. Jacobsmeyer has received the Birmingham Business Journal’s Women to Watch Award. She has spoken at investor days, been a keynote speaker at home health care conferences and participated in health care panel discussions. Her civic involvement has included the American Heart Association Go Red For Women National Leadership Council, C200 and the Cor Vitae Society for the Birmingham American Heart Association.

Laura S. Kaiser, MBA, M.H.A., FACHE (GRAD PH ’82, ’85), College for Public Health and Social Justice

A leader in the national movement to transform the health care industry, Laura S. Kaiser believes overall well-being and health equity are fundamental to creating just and vibrant communities. As president and CEO of SSM Health, she leads 40,000 team members and 12,800 providers toward a common vision to make high-quality, sustainable health care and pharmaceuticals affordable and accessible to all.

Kaiser joined SSM Health in 2017, bringing vast experience in strategy, value-based care, clinical quality, innovation, growth and leading change. Today, SSM Health is a $10.5 billion Catholic, not-for-profit, integrated health system serving communities across the country. Kaiser is also a founding member of the CEO Coalition, which advocates for health care professionals’ safety and prevention of workplace violence. Committed to ensuring diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, Kaiser has created a thriving organizational culture where people feel safe, supported and appreciated.

Under her tenure, SSM Health has achieved a 40% increase in the representation of people of color among leaders and professionals since 2021. Newsweek recognized SSM Health among “America’s Greatest Workplaces” for both female and diverse employees. Having earned master’s degrees in business administration and health care administration from Saint Louis University, Kaiser is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives and has been named one of the “100 Most Influential People in Healthcare” by Modern Healthcare magazine for the past six years. She serves on several boards, including the American Hospital Association, Catholic Health Association, and Greater St. Louis, Inc., among others.

Michael Ernest, D.D.S. (DENT ’69), Center for Advanced Dental Education

Before Michael Ernest worked as an endodontist for 35 years in private practice, he served in the United States Air Force and was an assistant professor in the Department of Endodontics at the University of Connecticut, where he developed curricula and wrote manuals.

As a “man for and with others,” Ernest served as assistant chief with the Skidway Division of Chatham Emergency Services, a volunteer fire department in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the chief financial officer for a nonprofit organization that raised funds for the Southeastern Firefighter Burn Foundation in Augusta, Georgia. Recognizing his spirit of giving, the Litchfield County Dental Society honored him with the President’s Award for Outstanding Service in 1990.

Ernest’s mission of contributing to the greater good extends to SLU’s Center for Advanced Dental Education (CADE) endodontic program. His contributions have provided equipment upgrades for students and building improvements for patients served at Dental Specialties of Saint Louis University, a clinic that provides advanced care to adults and children performed by postdoctoral CADE students at a lower cost than traditional practices. In 1969, Ernest earned his Doctor of Dental Surgery from Saint Louis University. He received a master’s degree from Washington University School of Dental Medicine and a master’s degree in media technology from Webster University. He even produced instructional Dental Health Month video presentations for children. In 1993-94, he served as president of the Connecticut State Dental Association. Now retired, Ernest lives in Savannah.

Nate Merrick, M.A. (GRAD SPS ’20), School for Professional Studies

Since his enrollment at Saint Louis University to pursue a master’s degree in leadership and organizational development, Nathan “Nate” Merrick has gone on to be a true Billiken, later establishing two scholarships for students attending the School for Professional Studies.

The second of these scholarships, The Catherine and Nathan Merrick Finish Line Scholarship, specifically supports students in their last year of study who experience financial hardship and might otherwise not complete their degree. Merrick is a member of the Board of Directors of Fish Window Cleaning, where he has worked alongside his family, growing Fish into a national franchisor with locations across the country.

With a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from Missouri Baptist University, Merrick has used his passion for branding and marketing to boost Fish as a nationally recognizable brand and a leader in the franchise service industry. Merrick has volunteered and served as a member of the Board of Governors Alumni Association at Missouri Baptist University, and in 2022, received its alumni award for service to the university.

His past civic involvement has included volunteering and serving on the board of The Comfort Foundation, which financially and emotionally supports orphans and underprivileged children in the Vologda Oblast, a region in northern Russia. He also volunteered and served on the board of South City Community School, a pre-K through sixth-grade school with a broad curriculum, including nature studies, foreign language and music, in addition to traditional coursework.

Flint Fowler, Ph.D. (GRAD ED ’97), School of Education

Standing with children, teens, adults and those in need, Flint Fowler has been a force to ignite change and create opportunities for individual potential throughout his lifetime.

As president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, he has expanded access to new sites and diversified its programs during his 28-year tenure. In 2019, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America presented Flint with its highest recognition, the Thomas G. Garth Character and Courage Award. A 1997 graduate of Saint Louis University with a Doctor of Philosophy in Education, Fowler is a past recipient of SLU’s Ernest A. Calloway Jr. Distinguished Service Award. He served as a keynote speaker for the School of Social Work’s Norm White Lectureship. His additional honors include a Lifetime Achievement Award from the St. Louis Gateway Classic Foundation.

He has been named as a distinguished alumnus of Washington University’s College of Arts and Sciences and is a recipient of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Advocacy Award, the Greater St. Louis Boy Scout Council’s District Award of Merit, the CORO Community Service Award, the Gerry and Bob Virgil Ethic of Service Award and the Missouri Athletic Club’s Jack Buck Award.

He serves on The Backstoppers; Gateway Arch Park Foundation; Greater St. Louis Area Council, Boy Scouts of America; St. Louis Civic Pride Foundation; the St. Louis Sports Commission boards; the advisory board of the Clayton Branch of Enterprise Bank; and the Board of Deacons of Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church.

Gregory (ED ‘07) and Steven (ED ‘09) Frey, Pioneer Award

Gregory and Steven Frey are brothers, work colleagues and Saint Louis University alumni. They both earned bachelor’s degrees in education from SLU. They both work at Benet Academy, a Catholic, independent high school near Chicago, where Gregory teaches Spanish, and Steven teaches English. They both are “men for and with others,” and they both aspire to the magis (more) that their Jesuit education calls them to live.

Serving others and guiding their students to grow in greater awareness of the suffering in the world and humanity’s responsibility to help are what impel both brothers in and outside the classroom. Having initiated and led Benet Academy students on 12 service-immersion trips to Guatemala since 2014, they have opened doors for the high schoolers to be in solidarity with the poor, building homes for families who live in extreme poverty. They also assist with student service trips to Appalachia, spearhead their school’s annual “Christmas Drive” fundraiser to help families in the Chicagoland area, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and are researching ways to serve some of the 35,000 new immigrants who have arrived in Chicago.

Engaging in their work with eagerness, joy, energy and humor, the Frey brothers are living examples of how serving others can bear much fruit. They inspire students and colleagues through their servant leadership and pastoral ministry. Whether as individuals or together as brothers, Gregory and Steven Frey educate the whole person in the Jesuit tradition, all for the greater glory of God.

About SLU’s Alumni Merit Award 

Established by Saint Louis University’s president and administrative officers, the Alumni Merit Award annually recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to a chosen profession and commitment to SLU’s mission.

Alumni Merit Award nominations are reviewed by a committee of staff members and alumni volunteers with final review from the dean of each school/college and the Office of the President. 

About SLU’s Pioneer Award 

The Pioneer Award annually recognizes hardworking, innovative and driven graduates committed to service and Jesuit ideals whose actions, accomplishments and pioneering spirit have helped pave the way for others. Recipients can be living or deceased and may be first among their peers to achieve something or trailblazers in their field.

Pioneer Award nominations are reviewed by representatives of the Division of Diversity and Innovative Community Engagement with the approval of the president of Saint Louis University.

For more information, email