By Bill Studenc
A banker, a lawyer, an educator and a scientist walked into a brunch. All four walked out with awards presented in recognition of their service, professional and academic achievements.
The brunch in question was Western Carolina University’s annual Chancellor’s Brunch and Alumni Awards Ceremony held Saturday, Oct. 28, in the Grandroom of Hinds University Center. The event is designed as an opportunity to honor prominent WCU alumni and to recognize individuals who have had an impact on the university and the Western North Carolina region.
Asheville banking executive Robert “Bob” Roberts, a longtime supporter of regional economic development, received the university’s Distinguished Service Award from WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown.
Allison Hinson, president of the WCU Alumni Association Board of Directors, presented awards to three alumni on behalf of the association.
Alumna Debbie K. Wright, a retired attorney from Chicago specializing in corporate law, accepted the Professional Achievement Award. A retired West Henderson High School teacher who helped build one of the nation’s top student journalism programs, alumna Brenda Walker Gorsuch won the Academic Achievement Award. And alumnus Jonah Slentz, a pharmaceutical scientist in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, collected the Young Alumnus Award.
Regional executive vice president for First Citizens Bank with 39 years of experience in banking and financial services, Roberts is a member of the WCU Board of Trustees, stepping down earlier this year as board chair after serving in that role for the maximum allowable two terms. He has an extensive record of community service to organizations across the region, including higher education and health care organizations, Brown said in presenting him with the Distinguished Service Award.
Roberts serves on the board of directors of the Asheville Merchants Fund, Beyond All Borders and the Community Betterment Foundation and is a member of Central United Methodist Church, where he has served as trustee and is on the finance committee. He previously served on the board of the Dogwood Health Trust, Better Business Bureau and Mission Health Partners, and he is a past chairman of the Mission Healthcare System, the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority and the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville and Buncombe County.
“However, many of you know Bob best for his service on the WCU Board of Trustees,” Brown said. “During his tenure as chairman of the WCU Board of Trustees, Bob accomplished many things, including serving on the chancellor search committee in 2019, which led me to WCU, and later serving as chair of my transition committee. I am truly grateful to you, Bob, on a personal level.”
Roberts graduated from North Buncombe High School in 1979 and enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill, graduating in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial relations. He joined the UNC football team as a walk-on and was awarded a varsity letter following the 1983 season. “Bob, you may have been a graduate of that Carolina blue university downstate, but we know that you truly bleed purple,” Brown said. “Your continuous support of this university and your dedication to lifting everyone in this region is worth celebrating.”
In presenting the Professional Achievement Award to Wright, a 1977 graduate of WCU with a bachelor's degree in biology, Hinson described her distinguished 40-year career as an attorney specializing in the areas of patents, intellectual property and technology transfer.
After receiving her law degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Wright got her start in the legal profession in 1984 at the North Carolina Department of Justice as an assistant attorney general. She then joined the Upjohn Co., a pharmaceutical manufacturing firm, working there as a patent attorney for more than two years. She then accepted a position at Kraft Foods Group Inc. in Illinois, working with the multinational food and beverage conglomerate for 22 years, retiring in 2013.
“Debbie came to Western from the northeastern North Carolina county of Northampton, where she was the first valedictorian of African American descent at her high school. She has won several awards for her work as an attorney and has held a variety of leadership positions in professional organizations,” Hinson said.
“Through it all, Debbie was at the forefront of emerging new fields of law in intellectual property issues. She has been called a pioneer who broke ground and shattered ceilings for women and African Americans, and she helped remove gender and ethnic barriers in the area of corporate patent law.”
Gorsuch, the Academic Achievement Award winner, earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 1977 and her master’s degree in secondary English education in 1980, both from WCU. Hinson credited her with developing one of the preeminent student journalism programs in the state and across the nation during her nearly 35 years at West Henderson High School.
Gorsuch worked as a teacher of English and journalism from 1983 until her retirement in 2017. She also served as faculty adviser to the school newspaper, “Wingspan,” and to the “Westwind” yearbook.
“The list of honors affiliated with the West Henderson journalism program during Brenda’s tenure is breath-taking. Let it suffice to say that, under her guidance, both the high school newspaper and yearbook received hundreds of awards from state, regional and national media organizations. Nine of her students earned the North Carolina Press Foundation’s statewide student journalist of the year awards. Two of those students advanced to the national level, and one of them ended up receiving the National High School Journalist of the Year Award in 2002,” Hinson said.
“And Brenda herself has received just about every single faculty adviser award presented by the national Journalism Education Association, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, the year after her well-deserved retirement. The caliber of excellence in journalism that she helped students create at West Henderson is a model to be followed. I, for one, wish we had more people like Brenda shaping the writing and critical thinking skills of our young people.”
The Young Alumnus Award winner, Slentz received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from WCU in 2021 and has quickly made a mark in the pharmaceutical industry. He works as a pharmaceutical scientist at Catalent Pharma Solutions, a multinational corporation headquartered in New Jersey that is a global provider of delivery technologies, medical development, drug manufacturing, biologics, gene therapies and consumer health products.
“In his position as a pharmaceutical scientist at Catalent, Jonah helps assess the stability of powerful medications used by doctors for the treatment of everything from asthma and respiratory issues to the powerful chemotherapy chemicals used to fight fast-growing cancer cells. He is on the ground floor of the development of these important medications, helping to ensure their safety and quality before they hit the marketplace and the doctor’s office,” said Hinson.
“I know that I am glad that we have dedicated professionals like Jonah helping safeguard the purity of our medications.”
Slentz also has remained engaged with his alma mater as an alumnus, helping welcome students from the Wake County area to the Catamount family during send-off celebrations sponsored by WCU’s Alumni Engagement Office. He also has served as mentor for students from WCU looking to go into the pharmaceutical industry and similar professions, and as a chemistry tutor for students at N.C. State University. He is working on earning his master’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Florida.
To make a gift in honor of any of the award recipients from Homecoming 2023 at WCU, contact the Division of Advancement at 828-227-7124 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit give.wcu.edu.