STEPHENVILLE, Texas — In a glittering night celebrating a momentous year, Tarleton State University President James Hurley and the Tarleton Alumni Association (TAA) presented Legacy and Distinguished Alumni honors at the 2023 Gala, An Evening in Purple.
Legacy Awards reflecting excellence, integrity and respect — presented by Dr. Hurley — recognize individuals and supporters whose leadership and noteworthy contributions exhibit the university’s core values. Honorees give freely of their time, talents and treasure to advance Tarleton’s mission. Recipients are selected by the President.
Distinguished Alumni honorees are nominated by their peers, friends and family. The TAA Honors Committee and Board of Directors narrow the list for final consideration by President Hurley.
This year’s Legacy Award recipients:
Although his career path veered from what he originally planned, Mark McKenzie still credits the Tarleton culture, the training he received and the expectation of achievement with gearing him for success.
“I didn’t even know they were preparing me when I was 18, 19, 20,” he says. “I appreciate all that was done for me, and I love doing all I can for the university.”
From Richland Hills High School, Mark headed to Tarleton, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1985 and his master’s in government in ’88. He settled in the defense industry for almost five years, two of those years in Taiwan, before his course shifted to senior healthcare.
He worked his way up from nursing home administrator to regional VP, senior VP and then CEO before starting his own company.
As CEO of Fort Worth-based Post Acute Care Partners, Mark has joined with communities across the state to assist those who need skilled nursing. He has held leadership roles in the Texas Health Care Association, he serves on the Tarleton Foundation board, and he’s active with advocacy committees offering industry feedback to the Legislature.
His continuing connection with Tarleton incudes the McKenzie Family Endowed Professorship (a first for the university) and funding a scholarship for kinesiology students. In 2021 he and his wife, Susie, donated a WWI-era cannon, matching the one on Tarleton’s class ring. The artillery piece is routinely fired at Texan football games.
Maj. Gen. Chris Adams Jr.
In bomber pilot talk, SETTOAC (start engines, taxi, take off, accelerate, climb) is mission start. It’s how Chris Adams has navigated 92 years. From quiet beginnings to a decorated career to authoring a dozen books, the retired U.S. Air Force general is still soaring.
Chris worked in the Texas oil patch to pay his way to two-year Tarleton and then East Texas State Teachers College (now Texas A&M University-Commerce), where he completed his bachelor’s in business and was commissioned a second lieutenant.
From his 2015 autobiography, Final Approach: Flight through Life: “I learned quickly that Tarleton challenged its students! I also took to the integrated ROTC military training as though it was made for me. I have often commented that Tarleton was my takeoff into the real world.”
Chris flew B-36s, B-52s, C-141 transporters and the venerable C-47 Gooney Bird in the Cold War and Southeast Asia. He advanced to brigadier general in 1976 and command of the 26,000-person 12th Air Division at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona and later Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. He was promoted to major general in 1979 and Strategic Air Command chief of staff.
He retired from the Air Force in 1983 to become associate director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, having logged 8,000 hours in various aircraft. More than 1,000 were in combat.
Andrew Corp. recruited him in 1987 to be executive vice president of scientific communications. Later he became vice president of corporate government systems. From 1990 to 1995 he directed Andrew joint venture groups to recover Cold War communications systems in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Later he coordinated communications activities in Saudi Arabia and China.
His military honors include the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal, the Department of Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (oak leaf cluster), the Air Medal (two oak leaf clusters) and the Vietnam Service Medal (three battle stars).
Sam H. Pack
When Sam Pack started classes at Tarleton in 1956, he had every intention of graduating. An illness forced a change of plans, but it didn’t diminish his belief in the power of a university degree or his desire to make the dream real for others.
In the middle of a successful career at Ford Credit, he got a call in 1979 from longtime Ford dealer Lee Jarmon that changed everything. A year later, Sam bought Lee Jarmon Ford in Carrollton, Texas.
“No doubt this was the biggest business decision of my life,” he says.
Today Sam owns and operates six Five Star dealerships (Pack Automotive Group) in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, and he co-owns six more in Tulsa. In 2018 he cofounded Triton Automotive Group, a collection of like-minded dealers (16 shareholders, representing 200 dealerships).
His extraordinary business and community leadership earned him the national 1988 TIME Dealer of the Year tribute, one of the auto industry’s most coveted honors. Only one other Texas dealer has received this award, and none since Sam.
The Texas Automobile Dealers Association in 2005 recognized him as an industry Legend — only the second person in the 93-year history of the association so named. And he was one of five dealers inducted into Ford’s inaugural Top Volume Dealers Hall of Fame in 2016.
A longtime advocate of the formal education he envisioned but never received, Sam has given liberally to Tarleton over the years, donating to the university’s food pantry, the President’s Circle and the Dr. James and Kindall Hurley Scholarship Endowment. For the past four football seasons, he has underwritten the Presidential Suite at Memorial Stadium.
Then there’s the Tarleton State University Pack Automotive Group Intern Program, providing Texans with learning opportunities that inspire career success.
Henry Hohenberger hails from a ranching background and has worked the family property near Marble Falls throughout his life. He holds two degrees from Tarleton in agriculture education and in 1972 was in the first class to receive a master’s degree at the university.
He taught at Marble Falls High School for five years and continues to be a staunch advocate for agriculture education and its co-curricular experiences.
As a teacher, he nurtured relationships with his students and their parents, easily earning their trust since he was a native son and knew most of them. In his first year as an educator, though, his father died, leading him to eventually return to his roots to take the reins of the family ranching operation.
His respect for ag educators led him to fund the Henry Hohenberger Endowment last summer, donating a then-record $881,000 to expand hands-on experiences for students at the Tarleton Agriculture Center. The generous endowment provides working scholarships as well as scholarships for students who wish to become secondary school teachers focused on agricultural mechanics.
The endowment also enhances the quality of teaching in agricultural mechanics through support of a graduate assistant and annual funding to ensure that Tarleton students in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources have the most technologically advanced equipment and supplies.
Earlier this year, he made an even bigger gift, donating the proceeds of the sale of a portion of his ranch through a charitable remainder trust that allows him an annual income for the rest of his life while establishing the Henry Hohenberger Land Endowment.
The donation provides resources in high-needs areas, professional development opportunities for faculty and students, and elite-level faculty recruitment.
“I don’t have children of my own,” he says. “I thought it would be something beneficial to the college and help some students. It will be there working continuously from here on out.”
Distinguished Alumni honorees:
Distinguished Friend — the Honorable Shelby Slawson
A member of the Texas House of Representatives since 2021, the Honorable Shelby Slawson grew up in Stephenville and started her education at Tarleton, then earned a bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from the University of Texas at Dallas and her juris doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin.
Hard work and prudent financial management in tough times were hallmarks of her upbringing and put her on the path to multiple careers as an attorney, entrepreneur and small business owner. She worked fast food dives and restaurants, retail stores and at nursing homes while becoming the first in her family to earn a university education.
Today that can-do attitude defines her service to District 59 (Coryell, Erath, Hamilton and Hood counties). Economic development, education and quality of life in rural Texas are her heartbeat.
An attorney by training, she is a rural Texas advocate by calling.
“Central Texas is my home, my community,” she says. “It is a great honor to make a positive difference in the lives of my neighbors.”
Rep. Slawson hit the ground running in her first term (87th Legislature) and hasn’t slowed down. She was the first freshman to serve on the Calendars Committee since 1985 and the first since 1973 to serve simultaneously on Calendars and the State Affairs Committee. She also was appointed to the Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee.
In addition to Calendars and State Affairs, she is a member of the 88th Legislature’s House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence.
Outstanding Young Alumnus — Sean Decker
“I love coming to work every day,” says Sean Decker, founder and president of REV Entertainment and the Texas Rangers’ executive vice president for sports and entertainment. “Every day is so incredibly different.”
REV Entertainment formally launched in 2021, although keeping the home of the Texas Rangers bustling with activity started a decade sooner. Rangers Events brought in the first stand-alone concerts at Choctaw Stadium (Globe Life Park), the Academy of Country Music’s Party for a Cause and the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, among more than a dozen other shows.
Today, REV secures venues and hosts sold-out crowds for some of the world’s most renowned acts. And the company’s production services division handles performance setup, creating the stage, flooring, and sound and lights. Partnerships are extensive: Live Nation, AEG Worldwide, XFL, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, Oak View Group.
In 2010 Sean joined the Rangers; from senior account executive he advanced to sales director and then assistant vice president for Rangers Enterprises. He attained his current position in 2020.
In addition to leading the club’s Sports and Entertainment Department, he oversees the two minor league teams the Rangers own in North Carolina and the company’s development efforts both in Arlington and around the country.
“I’m proudest of the people I get to work with, the team we’ve been able to build,” he says. “I’ve grown in my position, and I get to see and help grow those working with me.”
As for his personal growth, he gives Tarleton credit. “Tarleton was a big plus for me. It’s such a great place to grow up, mature and see the world differently.”
When Sean graduated in 2007, he applied to more than 90 professional teams. Only three responded.
He became the operations assistant for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox in baseball’s Pacific Coast League. Success there led to opportunities as assistant director of baseball operations for the major leagues’ Arizona Fall League and as corporate marketing manager for the Texas League’s Frisco RoughRiders.
Distinguished Alumna — Debbie Garrison
“When you leave Tarleton, you never really do,” says Debbie Johnston Garrison. “That phrase ‘bleed purple’ sticks with us, and the memories and friendships we make are among our most cherished.”
Debbie attended Tarleton in the early 1970s, involved in rodeo, gymnastics and cheerleading. She was inducted into the Tarleton Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2016.
When her stepfather was stationed at Fort Wolters in Mineral Wells, the base had a stable. You could rent a horse for 50 cents an hour, so she used her allowance for lessons. And that’s how she learned to ride.
Riding hunters and jumpers first and then changing to Western events, Debbie joined the strong Mineral Wells High School rodeo team. Call it fate or divine providence, but Tarleton Rodeo Hall of Famer Angie Watts Averhoff chose the school to do her student teaching during Debbie’s sophomore year.
“All of us rodeo kids knew who she was because the Tarleton women’s team had just won its third straight NIRA championship,” Debbie recalls. That encounter cinched her desire to attend Tarleton.
Her decision paid off. She was crowned Miss Rodeo America in 1979 and went on to qualify for the national finals 12 times in team roping as a member of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. She was Roping Rookie of the Year in 1990. Twice she took Team Roping Average (1993 and 1996) and Reserve World Champion Team Roping Header (1991 and 1998).
She was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame (1999), the Cowboy Capital Walk of Fame (2000) and the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame (2017). Mineral Wells didn’t forget her, either, inducting her into its Athletic Hall of Fame (2003).
She remains an enthusiastic Tarleton advocate. “You know, the gates are always open,” she says. “Anyone who wants to stay involved and help out, in whatever way you want, Tarleton’s always there.”A founding member of The Texas A&M System, Tarleton State is breaking records — in enrollment, research, scholarship, athletics, philanthropy and engagement — while transforming the lives of nearly 17,000 students in Stephenville, Fort Worth, Waco, Bryan and online. True to Tarleton’s values of excellence, integrity and respect, academic programs emphasize real world learning and address regional, state and national needs.