By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Each year during fall convocation, Tom Tye has the honor of presenting the prestigious Pratt-Heins Faculty Awards at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
His family has sponsored the awards for the past four decades as a way to recognize UNK faculty for their excellence in teaching, service and scholarship and research.
“It’s very humbling,” Tye said. “Every year when I review those applications, I’m just in awe of the quality and dedication of the faculty at UNK.”
On Friday, it was Tye’s turn to be recognized for everything he’s done to support UNK and the city of Kearney. Instead of presenting a plaque or check, he stepped on stage inside the Health and Sports Center to receive the Ron and Carol Cope Cornerstone of Excellence Award.
Presented each year during spring commencement, the award recognizes individuals for their community service and support of UNK, the Kearney area, state of Nebraska and higher education. It is UNK’s highest honor.
Chancellor Doug Kristensen described Tye as an “incredibly active and committed public servant” who always answers the call when volunteers are needed.
“Tom really exemplifies everything we designed this award to be,” Kristensen said.
Tye called it “especially gratifying” to receive an award named after Ron and Carol Cope, two people he knew and admired.
Like the Copes, the Tye family has made a lasting impact on the community.
A third-generation Kearney attorney, Tye credits his parents and grandparents for passing down their public service mindset. He simply learned by example.
“It’s one of those things that was kind of an expectation,” he said. “Beyond your profession, you do something to give back to your community.”
UNK has certainly benefited from the family’s generosity.
In addition to the Pratt-Heins Awards, they’ve supported International Education, the Phi Alpha Theta history honor society, Midwest Conference on World Affairs, art and music programming and other areas. The simulation suite in UNK’s Health Science Education Complex is named for Tye’s mother, Gloria, who was the director of student health on campus for a decade.
Tye and his wife Mikki are both University of Nebraska Foundation trustees, currently serving on the UNK Campaign Committee. He’s also a member of the NU Foundation’s Governance Committee.
A Kearney High School graduate, Tye never attended UNK, but you’d never guess that based on the way he talks about this “bedrock” of the community.
“It’s one of the things that makes Kearney what it is,” he said. “Not just the institution, but the people who come here, both the students and the employees. There’s a reason Kearney is the way it is, and a large part of that is the diversity of people associated with the university.”
Tye earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Colorado State University – where he and Mikki met during bowling class – and completed law school at Creighton University. Mikki transferred to UNK and graduated in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was “very, very pregnant” with their first child during the December commencement.
“Bill Nester had a fun time with that as you walked across the stage,” Tye joyously recalled with his wife, referencing the former Kearney State College president and UNK chancellor.
Born 10 days after the ceremony, Nathan is now an assistant history professor at UNK. Their youngest son Simon graduated from UNK in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He’s a doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas.
“We have lots to be thankful to UNK for,” Tye said.
“It was good to me and I want to be good to it,” added Mikki, who works at Central Elementary School.
The Tyes are very good to the Kearney community, as well.
They were founding members of the Kearney Family YMCA, and Tye served as president of the board when money was raised for the current building at 4500 Sixth Ave. The nonprofit organization broke ground this week on an $8.8 million, 26,000-square-foot expansion at that location. The project includes a new wellness center, community learning kitchen, classrooms, activity rooms and renovated locker rooms.
Tye was also a member of the Yanney Heritage Park Foundation from Day 1. In December 1997, he got a call from Kearney native, UNK graduate and Burlington Capital Chairman Emeritus Michael Yanney, who wanted to honor his parents by creating a park for local families to enjoy.
“We started with this when it was an 80-acre cornfield,” said Tye, who led the foundation’s board of directors for more than 20 years.
With support from private donors and public grants, the former farmland became one of the finest city parks in the Midwest, featuring a large lake, observation tower, amphitheater, splash pads, playgrounds, public art, Environmental Resource Center, senior activity center, walking trails and other amenities. A three-phase project currently underway will add seven botanical gardens with complementing trails, a pavilion and gazebo.
“Seeing this park develop from what it was to what it is now and what it’s going to be in the next couple years is very satisfying,” said Tye, who remains active in fundraising and development.
Tye’s long list of civic and community activities also includes contributions to the Boy Scouts of America, Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce, American Red Cross, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, CHI Health Good Samaritan and Museum of Nebraska Art. He and Mikki served on the Nebraska Public Media Foundation Board of Directors, and she was on the state board for The Nature Conservancy.
This may seem like too much to some people, but Tye views his service a different way.
“You have to find something you’re passionate about so you feel really good about putting your time and energy into it,” he said. “Don’t just sign up for a resume-builder. You have to really feel good about what you’re doing, then it becomes that much more fulfilling.”
Previous Cope Cornerstone of Excellence Award recipients are:
2003 – Carol Cope
2004 – B.M. and Beverly Stevenson
2005 – L.R. and Jane Smith
2006 – Steve Chatelain
2007 – Robert and Dode Sahling
2008 – Paul and Linda Younes
2009 – Earl Rademacher
2010 – Dwayne and Margaret Brown
2011 – Todd Thalken
2012 – Thomas Henning
2013 – Bill B. Beavers
2014 – Joel T. Johnson
2015 – Daniel P. Slawski
2016 – Stan Clouse
2017 – Galen and Marilyn Hadley
2018 – Richard and Barbara Bush
2019 – Jerry and Nancy Dulitz
2020 – Brad Kernick
2021 – Pete and Jane Kotsiopulos