Alumni awards celebrate success and service

2024 alumni award winners

On April 12, the Alumni Association hosted its annual awards ceremony, honoring five alumni for exceptional contributions to their communities, services to the university and personal achievements.

Rising Star Young Alumnus/a Award honoring Dr. Christopher R. Wilson ’11 

In the 13 years since he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics at Lenoir-Rhyne, Dr. Christopher Wilson has developed a reputation as one of the nation’s leading authorities in optical science, specializing in laser technology and its applications in weapons systems for the United States Navy. He currently serves as a lead scientist and as the Laser Weapon System Lethality Deputy Director for the Naval Surface Warfare Center – Dahlgren Division, where he leads numerous directed energy Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) efforts across government services and agencies, overseeing a highly trained research team and workforce, specialized scientific laboratories, and lethality facilities. 

Wilson came to LR as a Cromer Scholar, and in addition to his academics and work as a teaching assistant in the physics department, he served as Theta Xi Philanthropy Chair, Student Government Association representative, Prologue leader, Bear of Distinction and yearbook photographer. He also founded the LR lacrosse team and was elected Homecoming King in 2010. Among his favorite memories from Lenoir-Rhyne are a business-school trip to England and Paris, studying astronomy with Professor Charles Cooke, Ph.D., and relaxing on the front porch of the Theta Xi House.

Christopher Wilson and Katie Fisher

After completing his studies at LR, Wilson went on to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he completed an M.S. in 2014 and a Ph.D. in 2016, both in optical science and engineering, with a concentration in laser-matter interactions and biomedical optics, under the Lucille P. and Edward C. Giles Fellowship. He published his dissertation, “Integrated and Miniaturized Endoscopic Devices for Use During High Power Infrared Fiber Laser Surgery,” and continued post-doctoral research at UNC-Charlotte under the direction of the Naval Research Laboratory Office of Naval Research programs for Metamaterials & Sub-Wavelength Surface Structure Design and Characterization for High Energy Lasers, which facilitated his transition in 2020 to a full-time position with the Department of Defense and Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) in Washington, D.C.

In his four years at Dahlgren, Wilson has established both the Pulsed Laser Beam Control & Diagnostics and the Combined Effects Laser Lethality Laboratories, as well as characterization suites for the research, development, testing and implementation of opto-photonic systems for the U.S. Navy. With more than 40 publications and peer-reviewed journal articles, Wilson is widely recognized as an expert in his field and has regularly joined international research campaigns and scientific panels through NATO and other organizations. 

While at LR, Wilson met Hailey (Mathison) Wilson ’12 and for the last 10 years the couple has partnered for talks and demonstrations to promote STEM at the elementary schools where Hailey works as an educator. Wilson also enjoys photography, cycling, travel, wine and history. He credits his diverse interests, in part, to his time at LR.

“Lenoir-Rhyne’s ethos of a small school with a large community and diverse individuals truly shaped my continued journey on my educational and professional path. All of the relationships I built at LR and the opportunities through interacting and being involved in different organizations allowed me to put myself out there in ways I might not have been able to otherwise,” said Wilson. “I’d advise current students, to never say no to new experiences. Take the chance to try something, find what you really like, meet new people and potentially change your life.”

Clarence L. Pugh Distinguished Alumnus/a Award honoring Marvin P. Pope, Jr. ’70 

From an early age, Marvin P. Pope, Jr. had a front-row seat to the legal system. Pope’s father, Marvin P. Pope, Sr. ’38, was an officer in the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, so as Pope grew up, first in Asheville then in Hickory, he observed his father and the lawyers he interacted with in his work. When he arrived at Lenoir-Rhyne in 1966 after graduating from Hickory High School, he chose to major in history and government with his eye already on law school.

Pope went straight to Wake Forest University Law School after graduating from LR in 1970. “My major at LR gave me a good foundation for law school,” he said. “In addition, I was a day student at LR and worked three to eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, at the United Parcel Service to cover my expenses. This created a work ethic and schedule that I had to adhere to, and I believe it made me a better law student.”

Judge Marvin Pope at podium in Veterans Treatment Court of Buncombe County

During law school, Pope worked as a court reporter in Winston-Salem. After law school, Pope and his classmate Ronald C. Brown opened their general practice, Pope & Brown, in Asheville. Brown left the practice in 1978 when he was elected District Attorney for Buncombe County. Pope continued to practice solo until 2001, when Governor James Hunt appointed Pope as a District Court judge. He served in this capacity until 2010, when he was appointed to the Superior Court bench, where he served until mandatory retirement at age 72 in 2021. Soon after he returned to the bench as an Emergency/Recalled Superior Court judge, hearing cases where he is needed around the state.

One of Pope’s most significant accomplishments during his time on the bench has been the establishment of the Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) of Buncombe County in 2015. He continues to oversee the program, which allows veterans to resolve legal issues stemming from addiction through a non-adversarial process of treatment, rehabilitation and training. While the process is intense and may take up to two years to complete, the more than 50 graduates of the program have had zero recidivism in criminal activity since 2015. He continues to advocate for the treatment court model, which currently includes five counties and continues to grow. 

With several close relatives, including his father, having served in the United States military, Pope’s affinity for veterans comes naturally. Even before his work with VTC, he worked closely with Blue Ridge Honor Flight – a non-profit that helps Asheville-area World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans visit their memorials in Washington, D.C.

Pope lives on a farm in eastern Tennessee with his wife Rebecca B. Knight, a retired District Court judge, three geriatric horses and an extensive garden. The farm allows space to entertain their daughter and grandchildren on visits, and for Pope to practice and teach traditional archery, which has been an interest since childhood.

“The practice of law and my judicial responsibilities have been a source of pride and accomplishment in my 50-year legal journey,” Pope shared. “My dad always said that if you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life, which has been my experience.” 

Opal L. Moretz Service Award: Service to the Alumni Association honoring Julie Davis Pearce ’94 

From her early childhood, Julie Davis Pearce learned the value of giving back as an active member of a community – a family tradition she continues to this day in her workplace, in her hometown and through her alma mater.

“That’s just my family. My parents have always done a lot in the community, so my brother and I grew up knowing that’s just what you do,” she said. “When I came to LR from a very large high school in South Carolina, the close community here made it easy to get involved. I continued that pattern in law school and, later, in my community.”

Julie Davis Pearce with Sam Holtsclaw

A Presidential Honors Scholar majoring in political science (with minors in English and economics), Pearce emerged as a campus leader during her undergraduate years, serving as a Model United Nations delegate, as vice president and then president of her sorority, Sigma Kappa, and as senior class president in the Student Government Association. For these and other efforts around campus, she was named Best All-Around Senior and Greek Woman of the Year in 1994.

“When I chose LR, I don’t think I realized how much of an impact I could make at a smaller school,” said Pearce. “Dr. Ed Lewis was dean of students. He got to know us and would say things like, ‘I want you to try this, be involved in this group. Here’s a leadership opportunity. Here’s a conference.’ He was great at encouraging us to develop potential we weren’t old enough or wise enough to see in ourselves at 18.”

By the time she graduated from LR and enrolled in Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, Pearce had learned to spot and pursue her own opportunities. These included serving as the senior class secretary for the Student Bar Association and as both research and writing teaching fellow and editor for the American Journal of Trial Advocacy law review.

After finishing law school in 1997, Pearce joined Gaines Gault Hendrix, P.C., a litigation firm based in Birmingham and Huntsville, Alabama. In 2002, she became a partner in the firm, and in 2022 she became a managing shareholder with the firm. She specializes in premises liability and security, insurance coverage and bad-faith litigation. 

In 2017, Pearce played an instrumental role in starting the firm’s community service initiative, GGH Gives, which sponsors individual volunteer opportunities for firm employees and takes part in a holiday drive or project each year to benefit organizations throughout the Birmingham area. Outside the office, Pearce serves on the boards of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and the Children’s Policy Council of Alabama. She has also served Lenoir-Rhyne as a member of the Board of Visitors from 2010 through 2016 and a member of the Alumni Board of Directors from 2002 through 2010.

Pearce and her husband Lee Pearce ’94 are passing along the spirit of community engagement to their 17-year-old son as he prepares to begin his own college journey. She describes her hobbies as “soccer mom duties, home renovation projects and distance running.” As a distance runner she has completed 13 marathons on three continents – Europe, Asia and North America – with a goal of running a marathon on every continent, including Antarctica.

“I never ran a mile until I was 32. I ran my first 5K when I was pregnant with my son,” she shared. “I love distance running. You can figure out any problem when you’re on a run, either talking with friends or just being in your moment and thinking it through.”

Opal L. Moretz Service Award: Service to the Community honoring Margaret Pope ’69 

The oldest of five children, Margaret Pope grew up in Hickory, where she graduated from Ridgeview High School in 1964. 

“My parents were committed to all of us attending college,” she said. “Upon graduation, I was invited to enroll at Lenoir-Rhyne College, however, like many young people, I was ready to leave my hometown to further my education and gain a sense of independence.”

Margaret Pope with Avery Staley

With her tuition covered by a scholarship from Hickory Service League and a private benefactor, Pope set off to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNC-G). After two years, she decided UNC-G was not the right fit for her and returned to Hickory and Lenoir-Rhyne.  

Having missed the transfer application deadline for the 1966 -1967 school year, Pope took night classes in the fall of 1966, then fully enrolled the following year. Dean of Students Opal Moretz assigned Pope a part-time job on campus as a switchboard operator.

“During my time at LR, society was still very much segregated.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated when I was a student at LR,” Pope shared. “I was a day student, so I spent most of my free time on campus with other day students. It was difficult at times because some students were not always kind, but there were professors and some students who were compassionate and reached out to me.”

Although Pope completed her coursework work in summer 1968, she discovered she had not received credit for one transfer course and could not graduate in 1968.  At the same time, she felt ready to move into the next phase of her life, having accepted a position as a parish worker with a Lutheran church in Jamaica, Queens, New York, an opportunity arranged with assistance from Chaplain Louis V. Rogers. 

“I enrolled at New York University and took one class to transfer and complete the credits I needed,” Pope explained. “I returned to Hickory, marched with the class of 1969, and received my B.A. in sociology. My parents were very proud that day. I became the second African American to graduate from LR.”

After the ceremony, Pope returned to New York and continued working for the Lutheran church for two years before deciding to become a social worker. She enrolled in the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at Columbia University.

“The education I received at Lenoir Rhyne built onto the solid education I received at Ridgeview and prepared me to have confidence in my choice of professions and desire to seek a master’s degree at Columbia University School of Social Work,” Pope recalled. 

After finishing her MSW two years later, Pope accepted a position as a medical social worker at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. She remained in this position until 1978, when she returned to Hickory and continued her career as a social worker with the Catawba County Department of Social Services, the Child Development Center and Catawba County Schools. She retired from Catawba County Schools in 2006.  

Since returning to Hickory, Pope has been an active in community service and an influential member of several organizations including Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church, Habitat for Humanity, the Robert Carlisle Foundation, the Hickory NAACP, Friends of Ridgeview Library, and Meals on Wheels. She also served on the Hickory Public Schools Board of Education from 2011 to 2019. She has received numerous awards for her community service, including the State of North Carolina Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest civilian honor. 

Opal L. Moretz Service Award: Service to the University honoring Stephanie Jordan Mayberry ’82

Growing up just outside Philadelphia in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Stephanie Jordan Mayberry planned to attend the University of Wisconsin because her mother’s family came from Wisconsin. She looked forward to the Big Ten experience with large-scale sporting events and marching band, and she had no interest in attending a smaller school. Then her mother and her school guidance counselor offered a completely different suggestion.

“We flew down to Hickory in early spring,” Mayberry recalled. “I remember walking down from the administration building to the admissions office through the rows of blooming trees and saying to myself, ‘What was I thinking, going to Wisconsin where it’s cold? This place is gorgeous.”

Cat Niekro with Stephanie Jordan Mayberry

When the fall 1979 semester began, Mayberry dove into campus life. Initially planning to major in music, she joined the marching band and the choir. She became an active member of Delta Zeta sorority and joined the Program Board – now the Campus Activities Board (CAB) – which she chaired in her senior year. She worked for the Office of Admission, where she managed the process for bulk mailings and packages, then continued as an admission counselor for a few years after graduating.

“I changed my major from music because I was doing too much analysis. I wanted to keep music for myself, as something to enjoy, and do something else as a career, so I switched to accounting,” Mayberry said. “I think the variety of experiences I had at LR really prepared me for like in the workplace and for my career. I would have been overwhelmed at Wisconsin. I could take on leadership roles at LR because it was smaller and easier to access those roles.”

Mayberry moved back to Pennsylvania and took an accounting job with a home healthcare company. She soon moved on to a position with Philadelphia Suburban Corporation – which would become Aqua America, now Essential Utilities, Inc. – then to a Medicaid HMO and finally to Voya Financial. When Resolution Life acquired Voya’s life insurance division in 2021, Mayberry became head of expense management at Resolution Life. Her final project before retirement involves implementing new systems and procedures to streamline company operations. “It’s a way to end my career on a high note, doing something big,” she said.

Living in Pennsylvania, Mayberry found it challenging to remain engaged with LR as an alumna, but she did what she could – making donations and helping a student secure a job interview. “She called me and said, ‘Thank you for helping me get a job,’” Mayberry shared. “I said, ‘I didn’t get you the job. I got you the interview. You got you the job.’”

Three years ago, when her job with Resolution Life became mostly remote, Mayberry and her husband Rick decided to move back to the Hickory area. “We always wanted to move back south, where it’s normal,” she joked. 

After the move, Mayberry returned to an active life at LR, attending sporting events, and joining the Board of Visitors. Rick has joined Bear Nation, attending games with his wife whenever he can. The couple took a road trip to Arkansas in 2023 to see LR play in the Division II football semifinals.

“I worried Rick moved to Hickory for me, and we talked about it last week, and he said this was the best thing we ever did,” Mayberry shared. 


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