Prairie Home Alumni Association recognizes distinguished alumni

The Prairie Home High School Alumni Association presented two alumni with the prestigious Distinguished Alumnus Award at the tri-annual PHHS Alumni reunion on Saturday night at school.

Uel Blank, the first honoree, was born on a farm outside of Prairie Home. After graduating from PHHS in 1938, he attended Central Missouri College in Warrensburg for one year before transferring to the University of Missouri where he graduated with a degree in Agriculture. After a year in the work force, Uel entered the Navy where he served until the end of World War II.

Following the war, Uel entered the Missouri extension service as the county agent first in Lincoln County, then in Cooper county. He took off a year to earn a Masters Degree in Agricultural Economics at the University of Minnesota. He took a bride, Vernie Backhaus, in 1950 and, in 1953, spent a year in Israel where he served as an adviser in the development of an extension service in Israel. On his return to the states, he moved to Columbia to the Missouri State Extension office. Not satisfied with a Master’s degree, Uel completed his PhD. in Agricultural Economics from Michigan State University.

In 1961, Dr. Blank began a stint with the extension service in Michigan, ultimately becoming supervisor of the Upper Peninsula Extension Office, working on the tourism business in northern Michigan before moving to Michigan’s central extension office in East Lansing, MI. In 1966, he began working as an extension specialist to develop tourism and teaching in the Agriculture Department at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Blank retired in 1983 and he and Vernie moved back to Columbia. During his retirement, he has been active in the Peace Movement and is a charter member of Veterans for Peace in Columbia. Uel and Vernie were instrumental in organizing a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Columbia. Uel has also been active in the Missouri Conference of the United Church of Christ as well as the local congregation.

Apparently, all that wasn’t enough to keep him busy in his retirement. Dr. Blank found the time to write and publish a book, “Prelude to Greatness”, based on his father’s diaries from the early 1900s. It describes life on the farm near Prairie Home more than a century ago, and shows how our grandparents survived and prospered and created the communities we live in today.

Dr. and Mrs. Blank were joined for the festivities by their son and daughter-in-law, Grant and Denise Blank, Cambridge, England. Autographed copies of “Prelude to Greatness” were available at the reunion.

The second honoree was Dr. John N. Zey, Warrensburg. Like Uel Blank, John was also born on a farm outside of Prairie Home where he was the eleventh child in a family of fourteen children. If you went Prairie Home school from the early 50s through the mid-70s, there was a Zey in your class or in the class before or behind you.

After graduating from Prairie Home in 1970, John went on to receive a BS in Biology and MS in Industrial Hygiene from the University of Central Missouri and a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri-Columbia. From 1976 -1996, he served as a Commissioned Officer in the US Public Health Service. He was assigned to National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) where he conducted several research studies to study the health effects of exposure to various chemicals and dusts in workers. He has also conducted workplace evaluations to investigate potential worker exposure to a variety of chemicals. In his final four years at NIOSH, he worked in the Education and Information Division, where he developed and served as course director for three NIOSH courses and served as project officer for 20 project training grants.

Dr. Zey joined the faculty at UCM in 1996. He is currently a Professor in the Safety Sciences Programs and teaches undergraduate and graduate students. He also serves as program coordinator for the Masters of Science programs in Industrial Hygiene and Occupational Safety Management and has served on various university committees including the Faculty Senate and the Academic Planning Committee. In 2008, John served as president of the Prairie Home Alumni Association. Joining Dr. Zey on this special evening were his wife, Alice Greife, and their two daughters, Sarah and Kathleen.


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