‘A stake in the ground’

Gephardt Institute celebrates Virgil Ethic of Service Award honorees, marks 20 years

Ethic of Service Award honorees Duana Russell-Thomas (left), Barbara Baumgartner, Nkemjika Emenike and Dan Keating are honored at the Stix House on April 25. (Photos: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

Twenty years ago, Bob Virgil, former dean of Olin Business School, was charged with staging a series of events to recognize the 150th anniversary of Washington University in St. Louis. 

He helped organize conferences, birthday parties, performances and lectures. He also supported the creation a new award to honor those who make St. Louis a better place. Now known as the Gerry and Bob Virgil Ethic of Service Award, the honor has been bestowed on 121 students, faculty, staff and alumni.

“The Ethic of Service Award was really a stake in the ground to say this work in St. Louis matters and deserves to be honored,” said Stephanie Kurtzman, the Peter G. Sortino Executive Director of the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, which administers the award with the support of Virgil and his wife, Gerry. “As we think about what it means to be ‘in St. Louis, for St. Louis,’ these honorees really show the rest of us the way.”

On April 25, past recipients and members of the Washington University and nonprofit community joined the Virgils and former Congressman Richard Gephardt at the Stix House to celebrate this year’s honorees: 

  • Barbara Baumgartner, a teaching professor of women, gender and sexuality studies in Arts & Sciences and associate director of the Prison Education Project. Baumgartner has played a key role in developing the prison program despite numerous logistical and bureaucratic hurdles.  
  • Nkemjika Emenike, a senior in Arts & Sciences. Emenike has led efforts to restore Washington Park Cemetery, a historically Black cemetery in north St. Louis County which has fallen in disrepair.  
  • Daniel Keating, the Tyrrell Williams Professor of Law at the School of Law. Keating teaches a free ACT prep course for students in the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District and served on the board of Joe’s Place, the district’s shelter for teenage boys without homes. 
  • Duana Russell-Thomas, an assistant professor of occupational therapy and of medicine at the School of Medicine. Russell-Thomas leads the St. Louis Regional Arthritis Center and is a trainer for the Alive and Well STL Trauma Informed Care initiative with the St. Louis Regional Health Commission. 
Kurtzman toasts the 2023 recipients of the Gerry and Bob Virgil Ethic of Service Award.

Here, Kurtzman shares more about the award’s history and purpose. 

What is the criteria of the Ethic of Service Award?

An important criteria for this award is service to the St. Louis community above and beyond people’s official roles at the university. And to be honest, that’s getting a little more difficult because there are more people than ever who are doing community engagement as part of their work, which is fantastic. 

Each year, we select a cohort that is diverse in terms of their university affiliation, their background, the kinds of issues they address and their form of engagement. The people we’ve recognized are often not in the limelight. They’re doing their work in their own understated, humble way because they believe it’s the right thing to do. 

What do you mean by ‘ethic’ of service? 

We are seeing more sophisticated forms of partnership work today. That’s because we all have a deeper understanding of what partnership and impact work require. We must first listen to community priorities and then align with them rather than coming in and imposing our own ideas. The work of these honorees as well as the work that’s happening across campus is deeper partnership work — people sitting together, identifying where the priorities and assets lie and then building something that they will design, execute and evaluate together. And that’s hard work. It may appear easier to go in and just do something, but we know that approach isn’t the most effective and can, in fact, cause harm.

Virgil (left), former dean of Olin Business School, greets former Congressman Richard Gephardt. Virgil and his wife, Gerry, who have been active in many St. Louis organizations, are models of service, Kurtzman said.

What was it like to bring together former recipients with this year’s honorees? 

Amazing! In the past 20 years, 121 remarkable people have been honored. One special aspect of the event is that these fan clubs turn out to cheer on their honoree, but they come away also energized and inspired by what the other honorees are doing. And from that, all of these connections form and grow. It is also wonderful to have Bob and Gerry Virgil there every year. They are really invested in making sure that we continue elevating and encouraging deep engagement in the St. Louis region, and they are true models of an ethic of service themselves.

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