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Honorary degree recipients announced for May 2019 commencement

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Dear UIndy Community,

As we look forward to May Commencement, I am excited to share news of the University’s honorary degree recipients for 2019. Our honorary degrees are awarded to individuals who are innovators, society and industry leaders, and visionaries who embody the mission of our University. This year we continue this storied tradition by awarding degrees that honor two true leaders in our world.

The University Committee on Honorary Degrees this year selected two worthy recipients. Lonnie Johnson is a world-renowned inventor, as well as president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc., and has earned numerous awards from NASA for his spacecraft control systems, and the inventor of Hasbro’s Supersoaker Water Blaster. Bob Zellner is a prominent civil rights activist and Freedom Rider who has dedicated his life’s work to the pursuit of equal rights for African Americans.

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson has earned multiple accolades from NASA for his work on the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Mars Observer project, and the Cassini mission to Saturn, but he is perhaps best known for inventing the beloved Super Soaker® water gun, which reached nearly $1 billion in sales worldwide. Johnson’s talent for innovation and ingenuity knows no bounds. He is president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc., a technology development company, and its spin-off companies, Excellatron Solid State, LLC; Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems, LLC; and Johnson Real Estate Investments, LLC.  Johnson holds over 100 patents, with over 20 more pending, and is the author of several publications on spacecraft power systems.

Johnson holds a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering, an M.S. degree in nuclear engineering, and an honorary Ph.D. in science from Tuskegee University. His exemplary work during his time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., brought him national recognition. During the Mars Observer project at NASA, Johnson was responsible for ensuring that single point spacecraft failures would not result in loss of the mission.

Johnson also has served in the U.S. Air Force as Acting Chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico and was a research engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, among other roles during his career. He was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal on two occasions. After forming his own engineering firm, Johnson licensed his most famous invention, the Super Soaker® water gun, and it eventually became the best-selling toy in America.

Bob Zellner
Zellner was the first white southerner to serve as field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he joined after graduating from Huntingdon College in 1961. He demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the civil rights movement during a turbulent time in American history, often risking his own safety. He organized in numerous states despite being arrested 18 times for his efforts to challenge the status quo of segregation. During Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, he traveled with Rita Schwerner while taking part in an investigation of the disappearance of Schwerner’s husband Mickey, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.

Zellner completed a dissertation on the southern civil rights movement at Tulane University and taught courses in the history of activism at Rosemont College in Pennsylvania and Southampton College of Long Island University. He has continued to pursue equal treatment for all citizens through his work with the National Civil Rights Coordinating Committee, the Eastern Long Island Branch of the NAACP and the Southampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force. In 2000, Zellner’s right elbow was broken as he mediated a dispute between police and the Shinnecock Nation over the development of ancestral land. Zellner and others were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. A federal jury later ruled that Zellner and the Shinnecock were victims of false arrest, malicious prosecution and denial of civil rights.

Zellner was a featured civil rights luminary in the award-winning 2005 documentary “Come Walk in My Shoes.” His memoir, “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement,” details his experiences as an active member of the civil rights movement and will be made into a movie produced by Spike Lee this year.

I want to thank the members of the University Committee on Honorary Degrees for their work, and I am also grateful to those of you who took the time to nominate these individuals.

I look forward to the 2019 May Commencement ceremonies as introducing these two honorary degree recipients to you while they are on campus. Bob Zellner will receive his honorary degree at the graduate Commencement ceremony on Friday, May 3 and Lonnie Johnson will receive his honorary degree at the undergraduate Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 4.

President Robert L. Manuel