The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay will award an honorary doctoral degree to longtime community advocate Virginia (Ginny) Riopelle during the University’s commencement ceremonies Saturday, Dec. 13 at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.
Riopelle, a longtime UW-Green Bay Trustee, successful University fundraiser and the co-founder of the University’s signature Phuture Phoenix program, will receive the Doctor of Laws degree, which recognizes professional contributions to education, government or the common good.
“Put simply, UW-Green Bay would not be the place it is today without Ginny Riopelle,” said UW-Green Bay Chancellor Gary L. Miller. “Her enthusiastic advocacy for, and support of, this great University are truly second-to-none. I am so pleased that we can honor her contributions in this way.”
The former Ginny Small has deep roots in both the community and at UW-Green Bay, owing to a family legacy of advocating for and embracing the value of public higher education. Her father, the late Rudy Small, was a vocal supporter of bringing a university to Green Bay in the early-to mid-1960s, prior to UW-Green Bay’s founding in 1965.
“There are so many individuals who are dedicated to furthering the mission of UW-Green Bay, both on campus and in our community, and it means more than I can say to be recognized in this manner,” Riopelle said. “My father was a tireless advocate for bringing this University to Green Bay, and I have done my best to tirelessly advocate for its growth and advancement. He knew then — and I know today — the transformative power of a place like UW-Green Bay.”
A graduate of UW-Stevens Point, Riopelle received her teaching certification from UW-Green Bay, teaching first and second grade here and in Shawnee Mission, Kan., before returning to the area to continue her work with and on behalf of the children of Northeastern Wisconsin. In addition to her roles at UW-Green Bay, Riopelle he has served on the boards of the United Way Community Partnership for Children, Service League of Green Bay, Encompass Child Care, Boys & Girls Clubs of Green Bay, N.E.W. Curative Rehabilitation and the Greater Green Bay YMCA.
At UW-Green Bay, Riopelle has served on the Chancellor’s Council of Trustees since former Chancellor Mark Perkins first asked her to join in 1998. She currently is vice chair of that body, which adopted the joint role of serving as the Board of Directors for the UW-Green Bay Foundation when the Foundation launched in May 2011. Riopelle has served on two chancellor search committees and remains a trusted and respected community voice on the UW-Green Bay campus and beyond.
During her time with the University, Riopelle has become one of its most successful fundraisers (and is herself a scholarship donor, along with her husband, Jack). Riopelle volunteered along with former paper company executive Tom Olson (shown above) to successfully co-chair the $30 million Campaign for UW-Green Bay, which concluded in 2009. Surpassing its initial $25 million goal, the campaign brought in the University’s largest-ever gift for academics — $5.5 million — funded the extensive upgrades for what became the Kress Events Center, dramatically increased the University’s total endowment, and much more. Riopelle has continued her fundraising work less publicly since the campaign’s conclusion.
In the early 2000s, Riopelle found a way to combine her passion for helping young children with her enthusiastic support of UW-Green Bay. Working with Cyndie Shepard, the wife of former UW-Green Bay Chancellor Bruce Shepard, Riopelle co-founded the University’s signature and widely lauded Phuture Phoenix program. The most visible event for this award-winning initiative is the annual Fall Tour Day, which brings fifth-graders from at-risk schools in Northeastern Wisconsin to campus, pairs them with student mentors, gives them a daylong taste of life on a college campus, and encourages them to pursue postsecondary education. Since the program’s inception in 2003, it has served more than 15,000 fifth-graders, and has grown tremendously to include more tutoring, mentoring and relationship-building opportunities for area youngsters. Phuture Phoenix has been replicated at Western Washington University (Bellingham, Wash.), UW-Eau Claire and Silver Lake College (Manitowoc). In spring 2014, the first-ever Phuture Phoenix program participants to graduate from UW-Green Bay received their diplomas during spring commencement. Riopelle remains a Phuture Phoenix Day staple, greeting students who are learning that college is important — and possible — for them.
Riopelle resides in Allouez with her husband, Jack (above). They have two adult children, Abbie Flanagan (Mike) and Jed Riopelle; and two granddaughters, Fiona and Margaret Flanagan.
To date, UW-Green Bay has awarded honorary doctorates on only six occasions. Recipients were Joseph Murphy, chancellor of the City University of New York, 1989; John Gronouski, former U.S. postmaster general and ambassador to Poland, 1990; Henry Cisneros, U.S. cabinet secretary and former San Antonio mayor, 1992; Henry Spille, a former UW-Green Bay administrator who went on to become an officer of the American Council on Education, 1994; Italian entrepreneur, philanthropist and UW-Green Bay partner Paolo Del Bianco, 2007; and Verna Fowler, founder and president of the College of Menominee Nation, 2008. Nominations for honorary degrees are reviewed by a faculty committee and supported with letters of University and community assent. With approval of the Faculty Senate, the Chancellor forwards the candidate’s name and materials to the UW System Board of Regents for confirmation.