DENTON — Tony-Award-nominated Broadway performer Carmen Cusack returned to the University of North Texas Saturday night for the annual Wingspan Gala, where President Neal Smatresk presented the lauded singer with an honorary bachelor’s degree.
At this year’s event, “The Bright Lights of UNT,” Smatresk also honored alumnus Jim McNatt with the Presidential Wings of Eagles Award, and art history professor Nada Shabout, as well as recent UNT Honors College graduate Krystin Rodriguez with the Presidential Excellence awards. The annual Wingspan Gala celebrates teaching excellence, student success and generous alumni and friends.
Honorary degree — The university awards the honorary degree to individuals who, by their extraordinary achievements, add substantial knowledge to the community or better society as a whole.
Cusack attended UNT in the early 1990s as an opera student in the College of Music and later formed an appreciation for jazz, which she said “you could hear from every corner of the campus.” She has performed in some of theatre’s most impressive roles, including Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” Fantine in “Les Miserables,” Elphaba in “Wicked,” Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and Dot/Marie in “Sunday in the Park with George.”
She amassed an array of award nominations for her role as Alice Murphy in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s “Bright Star,” from the Outer Critics Circle Awards, Drama Desk Awards, Drama League Awards and Theatre World Awards in addition to the Tony Awards.
Wings of Eagles Presidential Award — Launched during the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the University of North Texas, the Wings of Eagles Presidential Award celebrates creativity, spirit and innovation at UNT. It is awarded to an alumnus or friend who embodies what UNT represents: engagement, generosity and affinity. This is the most prestigious award presented by the President to someone who has made a transformative impact on the university.
Jim McNatt earned his degree in general business from UNT in 1966 and was an active member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. He is a partner in the Luttrull-McNatt Chevrolet dealership in Sanger and the Luttrull-McNatt Buick/Chevrolet/GMC dealership in Gainesville. He serves as vice president of McNatt Properties LLC, a real estate construction and apartment management business.
McNatt is active in the community, supporting Liberty Christian School, the North Texas Fair and Rodeo, the United Way of Denton County, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Denton County Inc. and the Denton Animal Support Foundation.
A lifetime member of the UNT Alumni Association and a member of the prestigious McConnell Society, McNatt serves on the President’s Leadership Board, the UNT Foundation Board of Directors, the College of Business Advisory Board and the Kuehne Speaker Series Board of Directors.
With gifts totaling more than $6 million, Jim and his wife Linda have made an immediate impact through their generosity supporting athletics, logistics, National Merit Finalists and autism research. In addition, the McNatts recently made a transformative commitment to the Athletics Indoor Practice Facility initiative, created the Jim McNatt Institute for Logistics Research, and funded the McNatt College of Business Graduate Fellowship, the Linda McNatt Master’s in International Sustainable Tourism Graduate Scholarship, the Linda McNatt MIST Student Research Award and the Linda McNatt MIST Marketing Fund.
Presidential Excellence Award — UNT’s most prestigious and coveted honor that is given to current faculty, staff or students honors individuals for significant and superb accomplishments that have been recognized nationally. Recipients help to elevate UNT as a prominent institution of higher education and are icons of excellence who inspire others to soar to new heights of success. The award for faculty or staff recipients includes a $10,000 cash prize, and the award for student recipients includes the equivalent of a semester of standard resident tuition, up to $5,000.
This year’s faculty recipient, Nada Shabout is a professor of art history and the coordinator of UNT’s Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative. She is the founding president of the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art from the Arab World, Iran and Turkey, and is widely recognized as one of the world’s most important art historians.
Shabout is the founder and project director of the Modern Art Iraq Archive; a former member of the editorial committee of the Middle East Research and Information Project and of the International Editorial Advisory Board; and subject editor for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. One of the “Eight Influential Female Art Historians You Should Know” according to artsy.net, she recently received a $50,000 Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant to work on her new book, “The Dialectics of the Decorative in Iraqi Art.”
This year’s student recipient, Krystin Rodriguez graduated in December with two bachelor’s degrees in French and international studies and a 4.0 GPA. The UNT honors graduate also recently earned the prestigious Rangel Fellowship from the State Department, one of only 30 U.S. students chosen for the fellowship that includes an internship with the State Department. She plans to pursue graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in the fall.