SDSU honors 6 as Distinguished Alumni

Courtesy photos

BROOKINGS – Six graduates of South Dakota State University stretching from 1916 to 1990 have been selected for the 2020-21 class of Distinguished Alumni.

They are:

• Cleveland “Cleve” Abbott ’16, deceased

• Ron Alverson ’74, Wentworth

• Keith Corbett ’75/M.Ed. ’87, Brookings

• Mary Kay Helling ’77/M.S. ’82, Brookings

• David Schaefer ’81, Rapid City

• Gene Sieve ’90, Excelsior, Minnesota

The Alumni Association will honor this class of deserving individuals as part of the 2021 Hobo Day festivities.

Cleveland ‘Cleve’ Abbott

Abbott, the first African-American athlete at South Dakota State, majored in dairy but made his mark at Tuskegee (Alabama) University, where he coached from 1923 to 1955 and produced 38 national titles in four sports.

Born in Yankton in 1894, the family later moved to Watertown and Abbott earned 16 varsity sports letters. At State, he earned 14 letters in football, basketball, baseball, track and tennis as well as being captain of the basketball team.

His success at Tuskegee included coaching two Olympic gold medal high jumpers – Alice Coachman in 1948, the first African-American woman to win a gold, and Mildred McDaniel in 1956 with a world record mark of 5-9. Abbott also twice served on the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Committee.

Abbott, the second inductee into the Jackrabbit Sports Hall of Fame, was a 1996 inductee to the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame and was honored with the Trailblazer Award from the American Football Coaches Association in 2005.

He initially joined Tuskegee as an assistant coach and an agricultural chemist, where he worked with famous scientist George Washington Carver.

Ron Alverson

Alverson earned a degree in agronomy in 1974 and returned to the family farm near Chester.

In the nearly five decades that followed, he has become a national leader in the field of corn and ethanol production as well as environmental stewardship. Among those backing his nomination were former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle; Brian Jennings, CEO of the American Coalition for Ethanol; and Lisa Richardson, executive director of South Dakota Corn.

Alverson, a lifelong resident of the Chester area, was one of the founders of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association and a past president.

He helped establish the state’s penny-per-bushel corn checkoff program, which supports agricultural research, promotion and education. A pioneer in the ethanol industry, he helped start Dakota Ethanol in Wentworth, the first farmer-owned ethanol plant in the state and served as its first president.

In 2009, he was named a South Dakota State University Eminent Farmer.

Keith Corbett

Corbett, the mayor of Brookings, is being honored for his contributions to his country, community and college.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Corbett was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the U.S. Air Force. His 35-year military career began as an Air Force Reserve officer. He transitioned to a transportation officer with the South Dakota Army National Guard in 1983.

Eventually, he was promoted to brigadier general with the South Dakota National Guard and in 2006 to assistant adjutant general for the South Dakota Army National Guard. He retired in 2011.

Corbett’s mission on campus began with a three-year term as professor of military science (1999-2002). In 2004, he returned to campus as assistant dean of the College of General Studies. In 2006 he became interim dean of the college, which became University College in 2012. Corbett served as dean from 2009 until his retirement in 2017. 

On the civic side, Corbett served on the Brookings City Council before being elected mayor in 2018.

Mary Kay Helling

Helling, who retired June 21 as vice provost for academic affairs at SDSU, spent virtually her entire career at her alma mater.

She earned her degrees in human development and family relations, and saw her career take her from instructor to professor and department head. 

She began in August 1982 as an instructor in child development and family relations. Helling spent three years (1989-1992) doing research and teaching at Purdue University while earning her doctorate in child development and family studies. Her doctorate was funded through a Bush Leadership Fellowship from the Bush Foundation in Minneapolis.

Helling headed the Department of Human Development, Consumer and Family Sciences from 1992 to 2003. 

In 2010, she was appointed interim dean for the Graduate School while serving as associate vice president for academic affairs. She was the vice president in academic affairs from 2003 to 2017, when it was retitled vice provost for academic affairs, the position she held until her retirement.

David Schaefer

Schaefer earned dual degrees in general and commercial economics and went on to have a 38-year career with 3M, which advanced him to the executive level.

His career began at the Brookings plant followed by assignments in Hutchinson, Minnesota, and then on to Aberdeen, where he was plant manager. He then progressed across numerous roles at 3M Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, which included leading one of 3M’s Operating Business Divisions with cross-functional responsibility, as well as serving in corporate enterprise-wide manufacturing and supply chain leadership roles before retiring in 2019.

His responsibilities spanned 112 company facilities in support of 3M businesses around the world, taking him to 44 countries and five continents. During his tenure, 3M grew from a $6 billion enterprise to more than $32 billion with a market cap of greater than $100 billion. That positioned 3M as one of the top performing Fortune 50 companies.

Schaefer has served on the SDSU Foundation Council of Trustees since 2011, served on the SDSU Alumni Association Board of Directors from 2013 to 2016 and also was the 3M corporate executive sponsor of the national MATHCOUNTS program from 2004 to 2019. 

Gene Sieve

Sieve has used his mechanical engineering degree to catapult him to a successful career with Burns & McDonnell, an employee-owned construction, engineering, architecture and environmental firm with more than 55 offices and 7,000 employees worldwide.

Joining the company right out of college, Sieve began his career working on major military and aviation projects around the world including Hawaii, Taiwan, Egypt and Jordan. Sieve was given the opportunity to establish the Minneapolis office in 2007. The office employs nearly 120 design professionals and manages more than $1 billion in capital infrastructure projects serving a diverse portfolio of clients that include Xcel Energy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Delta Airlines. 

Through his commitment to his team and the firm’s growth, which now also has offices in Sioux Falls; Duluth, Minnesota; and Bismarck, North Dakota, he was promoted to a vice president in 2016.

He has served on the dean’s advisory council for the Jerome J. Lohr College of Engineering at SDSU since 2015, is active in supporting children’s STEM initiatives and serves on the board of trustees for the Minneapolis-based learning center The Works Museum.


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