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APSU College of Arts and Letters

CoAL Distinguished Alumni

Starting in 2020, each department within the College of Arts & Letters began selecting one alumnus annually from their programs to be awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award. Recipients are chosen to recognize their individual achievements, contributions to their fields, service to their community, and loyalty to Austin Peay State University.

2021 - Chris Downes (1996)

Chris DownesChristopher Downes received his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from APSU in 1996, but his career actually started before he graduated. From 1993 to 1996, he was the editorial cartoonist for APSU’s very own newspaper, The All State. He even won First Place for Best Editorial Cartoon at the 1996 Southeast Journalism Conference for his cartoon on The Million Man March.

After graduating, Christopher lived and worked as a graphic designer in Galway, Ireland - where he developed a fondness for living overseas. In 2000, he moved to Australia to attend the University of Tasmania’s School of Art where he received a Masters of Fine Art and Design.

Christopher has since worked as a freelance illustrator with clients like The Museum of Australian Democracy, LORE podcast, The Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, and Crinkling News, a newspaper made just for kids. In 2021, he wrote and illustrated Mona’s Ark, a children’s book published by the world-renowned art museum, Mona (The Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart.

He has also worked for over 10 years as an editorial cartoonist for The Mercury, Tasmania’s main newspaper. During that time, he’s drawn cartoons on everything from local forestry debates to federal issues like marriage equality and Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. In 2015 Christopher was awarded the Stanley Award for Best Editorial/Political Cartoonist by the Australian Cartoonists Association and in 2020 the NRMA Kennedy Award for Outstanding Illustration.

Christopher lives in Hobart, Tasmania with his wife and daughter. In the past 21 years, he’s adapted pretty well to living in Australia. He knows most of the slang, uses the metric system, and only very rarely drives on the wrong side of the road.
View some of Christopher's work here

2020 - Mike Andrews (1985)

Mike Andrews

Mike Andrews is a sculptor, art educator and family man.  Mike took his first sculpture class at age eight at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas and it had a profound influence on his future career path.  When it came time to choose a college, his father’s military career brought him to Clarksville, and with that came Mike’s association with Austin Peat State University and Professor Olen Bryant.  Mike worked with Olen Bryant as a student for five years from 1980-1985, and as Bryant’s studio assistant from 1982 to 1992.  Andrews fondly recalls, “Olen became more than a teacher for me he was part of my family my son Michael worked for him the last 10 plus years of his life and he treated my daughter Sarah and youngest son Josh like they were part of his family. Elaine my wife and I miss him greatly and feel blessed to have known such a kind and gentle soul. He truly is a Tennessee treasure.”i 

Mike Andrews is a similar kind, gentle soul who is also treasured by many of the colleagues who have worked with him over the years.  Christopher Jarrell, current art teacher at Montgomery Central High School, recalls, “Mike was the perfect mentor for a new teacher.  Steady, calm and nurturing.  He would even invite me to his home on parent-teacher conference nights for a meal because he knew I lived quite a distance from Central.”  Mike began his teaching career at Montgomery Central Elementary School in 1992 and taught there for six year before moving to Montgomery Central High School in 1998.  In 2015, when the last of his elementary students had graduated from MCHS, Mike returned to Montgomery Central Elementary.  

Mike is a dedicated teacher and artist and has received a number of awards over the years including the Teacher of the Year Montgomery Central Elementary School (2019), Tennessee Teacher of the Year Award in the Humanities (2013), the Helping Hands Award (2014), and the Artist of the Year Ovation Award (2014) from the Center for Excellence in the Creative Arts at Austin Peay State University.  Mike has had two one-man shows at the Customs House Museum in Clarksville, TN in 2013 and 2019.  His work has been exhibited throughout the region and is represented in private collections from California to Washington DC and abroad. His sculptures can be found in collections throughout Tennessee including Vanderbilt University, the White House Public Library, the Nashville International Airport, Austin Peay State University, and The Ronald McDonald House. 

2019 - Lorilee Rager (2001)

Lorilee Rager

Lorilee is the founder of Thrive Creative Group, LLC. She earned her Master’s degree in Graphic Design at Vermont College of Fine Arts, in Montpelier, Vermont, and her undergrad Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. She is also a Visiting Assistant Professor of Design and active alumnus in the Art and Design department today at APSU, and regularly attends workshops with her cherished VCFA cohorts and advisors to learn and research more about the true history of Graphic Design.

She also hosts her own Podcast Ground And Gratitude where her passion lies in understanding the pressures and responsibility of Graphic Designers to the world, and how to build a safe space where a creative career and life can align honestly and authentically. As an HSP and Enneagram Type 9 she’s a creative, optimistic, and supportive leader. Lorilee’s also a writer and mom to two super great boys. As well as a lover of her sobriety, bulldog, coffee, and chapstick.

2021 - Dr. Tracy Shearon Nichols (1992, 2004)

Dr. Tracy Nichols

Dr. Nichols received both her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees with an emphasis in Theatre and Communication at Austin Peay State University and her doctoral degree from Trevecca Nazarene University. She worked for the Fortune 500 Company, The Principal Financial Group, in management for several years. As an employee, she was selected to serve on the prestigious Advisory Board in the Healthcare Division. Dr. Nichols was a licensed insurance agent. Utilizing the skills and knowledge gained from her degrees, she also worked as a professional actor and director in regional theatre where she won the Best Actress award for her role as Mama O’Hanlon in Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. Dr. Nichols has over 25 years of acting and directing experience in professional, educational, and community theatre. She also married her husband Eddie, a professional scenic artist and graduate of APSU, on the Trahern Stage where they met. In 2015, they won the Govs in Love award.

Dr. Nichols began teaching full-time at APSU in 2007. She is an active member of her department, the university, and the communities she works and lives in. 


2020 - Chrissy Luther Hale (1991)

2021 - LTC Paul Witkowski (2010)


Lieutenant Colonel Paul Witkowski earned a Bachelor of Arts in History from Columbus State University and a Master of Arts in Military History from Austin Peay State University. His awards include the Bronze Star Medal (3), the Meritorious Service Medal (8), the Combat Infantryman's Badge (2nd Award), Expert Infantryman’s Badge, Ranger Tab, Master Parachutist Badge, Pathfinder Badge, Air Assault Badge, Army Staff Identification Badge, and Drill Sergeant Identification Badge.

Some of his past assignments include Platoon Leader and Company Executive Officer A/1-15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Benning, GA; Commander, D Company and Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1-327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, KY; Commander C Company, 5th Ranger Training Brigade, Camp Frank D Merrill, Dahlonega, GA; Liaison Officer, 3rd Brigade 1st Infantry Division, Fort Knox, KY; Interagency Fellow with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Washington, DC; Battalion Executive Officer, 1st Battalion 502nd Infantry Regiment and Brigade Operations Officer, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Fort Campbell, KY; Division Future Operations Planner, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault); and Aide-de-Camp to the 35th Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, the Pentagon, Washington, DC. His last assignment was battalion commander of 1st Battalion 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and commander a multinational force of U.S., Norwegian, French, and Danish soldiers in Iraq. He is currently a student at the United States Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA. His next assignment is with the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.


2020 - David Britton (2010)

David BrittonAfter working a variety of jobs, David Britton attended APSU beginning in 2006 which corresponded with his employment with Tennessee State Parks as a laborer. His interests were primarily in early America and the trans-Appalachian west. Accordingly, He took a lot of classes with Dr. Richard Gildrie and Dr. Kristofer Ray. All of his classes in the History Department helped him improve and hone his writing and critical thinking. He graduated in 2010. Since then he had an essay published in the TN Historical Quarterly as well as in an edited essay collection from University of TN press. He is currently under contract with Vanderbilt University for a book on the historical context of the Bell Witch of Tennessee.  

In 2013 he became a Tennessee State Park Ranger at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville, TN and attended the Tennessee Law Enforcement & Training Academy. In 2017 he became the Park Manager for Dunbar Cave State Park and Port Royal State Historic Park. 

2021 - Andrea Yarbrough (2012)

YarbroughAndrea Yarbrough is a 2012 graduate from APSU with a BA in Foreign languages (German) and the 2011 recipient of the Edelweiß-Club scholarship for APSU German students.  Since graduation, she has been able to combine her passion for science and her degree in German.  Ms. Yarbrough is working as Laboratory Manager for Freudenberg Filtration Technologies in Hopkinsville, a large German corporation with worldwide facilities. Yarbrough uses her German language skills and her knowledge of German culture on a daily basis in her interactions with German colleagues and management both in the US and in Germany.  She has traveled to headquarters in Mannheim, Germany several times for training and collaboration. 

2020 - Susan Lawrence (2014)

2021 - Cindy Freeman (1969)


Cindy Freeman is a 1969 graduate of Clarksville High School in Clarksville, Tennessee. In 1973, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree at Austin Peay State University in Music Education, majoring in piano, under Dr. Patricia Gray.  She attended piano seminars at George Peabody College in Nashville featuring such artists as Charles Rosen, Leon Fleisher, Jorge Bolet, and Rudolph Serkin. She did graduate work at The Ohio State University in piano pedagogy studying under Dr. George Haddad. Freeman earned her Master of Music degree in Choral Conducting in 1996 from Austin Peay State University, studying extensively under her mentor, Dr. George Mabry.  

Freeman taught for 45 years as director of choral activities at Dickson County High School, teaching six choral organizations-Mixed Chorus, Women’s Ensemble, Concert Choir, Chamber Singers, Barbershop, and Beautyshop, as well as Theory and Harmony, Music History, Class Piano and General Music.  She was a member of the American Choral Directors Association, the National Association of Music Educators, the Tennessee Music Educators Association, the Middle Tennessee Vocal Association, the National Education Association, and the Tennessee Education Association. 

2020 - Joe W. Giles (1961)

Joe GilesMr. Giles has established a national reputation as one of the country’s most influential leaders in Arts Education. His impressive resume details  the depth of his experience as an award-winning teacher and choral director from the early days of his career to his appointment as the first Director of Arts Education for the State of Tennessee when the state’s first curriculum frameworks and guidelines for each arts discipline were produced under his direction.  As a result of his success in this position, he was elected to be President of the Southern Division of Arts Supervisors and the President of the National Council of State Supervisors of Music, Washington, DC, a singular accomplishment. 

One of Mr. Giles’ premiere accomplishments has been the creation of the Tennessee Arts Academy, a summer residential staff development program that serves teachers of choral and instrumental music, music theory, theatre and creative dramatics, and  visual art, as well as school administrators and supervisors. 2020 will mark the 34th year for The Academy. Professional arts associations consider The Academy to be the nation’s premier professional development program for teachers of the arts. 

Mr. Giles has held leadership roles in significant state and national music organizations and has been a consultant, presenter, and guest speaker for numerous arts associations, as related in his dossier. His list of honors and awards are admirable. In addition to his  accomplishments, he is known for his generosity, kindness, vision, friendship, intelligence, creativity, ability to remember everyone’s name, ethical thinking and a desire to look forward, not backward. I can think of no one who better represents the legacy of the Music Department of Austin Peay State University than Joe Giles. 

2021 - Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva (2009)

Whitcomb-OlivaJennifer Whitcomb-Oliva (2009) is a Nashville native who received her Bachelor of Arts in Communica(on with a concentration in Theatre Performance and a minor in Dance from Austin Peay State University. She is a Professional Actor and Performance Artist whose work spans multiple genres, including Theatre, Dance, Opera, and Film. Her recent performance credits include Ouiser Boudreaux/ Steel Magnolias, Stepmother/Cinderella (Studio Tenn); Mrs. Phelps, Matilda (AtPro); Mae Tuck/Tuck Everlas(ng (Nashville Children’s Theatre) Jennifer’s film and other performance credits include: President Prexy/ The Cradle Will Rock, (Nashville Opera); Queen Elizabeth/Shakespeare In Love, (Nashville Repertory); Lady Day, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (Wild Card Productions); Ms. H,7 Ways to Sunday (The Theatre Bug); Mayor/Ma/Nun, The Toxic Avenger (Street Theatre Company). Tasha, Motherhood: The Musical (Faby Baby Productions). 

2020 - David Alfrod (1989)

David AlfrodA graduate of Austin Peay State University (B.S. Communication Arts, Theatre) and the Juilliard School for Drama, David was founder and Artistic Director of Mockingbird Theatre in Nashville from 1994-2004. From 2004-2007 he served as Executive Artistic Director of Tennessee Repertory Theatre (now Nashville Rep), the state's largest professional theatre company, and in 2008 became the Rep's first Artist-in-Residence. His plays Spirit: The Authentic Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee, and Smoke: A Ballad of the Night Riders are produced yearly in his hometown of Adams, Tennessee. In 2011 he completed the design and implementation of a first-ever Dramatic Arts Major at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee. His book Living The Dream: The Morning After Drama School (a DIY guide to the acting business) is available through Kendall Hunt Publishing. Best known as an actor, David appeared as Bucky Dawes in the ABC/CMT television series Nashville. Other screen credits include The Blacklist (NBC), The Last Castle (Dreamworks), A Death in the Family (PBS/Masterpiece Theatre), and Stoker (Warner Bros.). He plays the lead role of Gil Cotton in the web series Local Air, and is the voice of Benjamin Moore Paint's ";Proudly Particular" ad campaign. Recent stage credits include Mr. Marshall in the Manhattan Theatre Club's 2017 Broadway revival of The Little Foxes, and the title role in the regional premiere of David Auburn's The Columnist (Nashville Repertory Theatre).