GSW announces 2024 Outstanding Alumni Award winners

Published 4:20 pm Thursday, December 7, 2023

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By Chelsea Collins


AMERICUS – Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) has announced its most outstanding alumni for their professional and personal achievements as well as their contributions to the University. These individuals will be recognized Saturday, Jan. 27 during the second annual Gold Force Gala in the GSW Storm Dome.

“It is always a privilege to honor these outstanding alumni for their impact throughout their careers, their servant leadership within the communities they reside, and their commitment to Georgia Southwestern,” said Alumni Engagement Specialist Angela Smith. “Each of them is an excellent representative of their alma mater, and we look forward to recognizing them with a gala to celebrate their achievements with our GSW family, friends and supporters.

These awards hold special significance and have different criteria. The 2024 Alumni Awardees are:


  • Aeolian Award recipient: Rick Whaley ’89
  • Canes Community Champion: Sandra Daniel ’74, ’76
  • Leewynn Finklea Award recipient: Will Peterson ’00, ’04
  • Visionary Award recipient: Eshonda Blue ’98, ’99
  • Young Alumni of the Year: Kelsie Deiter ’06, ’07
  • Family Legacy Award recipients: The James and Dawn Smith Family
  • Hall of Fame inductee: Ervin Anderson ’93


More about the Outstanding Alumni:


Rick Whaley ’89

Whaley served in the U.S. Army Special Forces as a Green Beret for four years before earning his bachelor of science degree in 1989. His banking career took him to other communities, before returning home to Americus in 2001 to take the helm as president of Citizens Bank of Americus. Whaley has shown his love for and dedication to his hometown by keeping the heart of community banking as a priority, providing ever-evolving banking services to customers as well as investing heavily in the local community.

Whaley’s leadership expands far beyond the walls of the bank and borders of the community. He served as chair of the Georgia Bankers Association (2010-2012), GSW Foundation (2002-2004) and South Georgia Technical College Foundation (2008-2010). He was a member of the Georgia Municipal Association and Georgia Cities Foundation Special Downtown Task Force and currently serves on the Downtown Development Authority and the Mix Foundation Board of Directors.

The Aeolian Award is given to an alumnus who has distinguished themselves in their profession as well as in their community. This award is chosen based on outstanding lifetime achievement as a distinguished alumni and community leader.

Sandra Daniel, Ph.D. ’74, ’76

One name is synonymous with GSW’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences. Daniel went from a student in the 1970s to leading the program that dubbed the “Best Nursing School in Georgia”. With the universal demand for nurses, Daniel’s leadership of the program and its expansion under her oversight is significant. She began her tenure as dean in 2008 and has since more than doubled enrollment, added the Masters of Nursing program, and resurrected the Associate of Science in Nursing program to help meet the dire need for nurses in our community and beyond.

Daniel has championed for healthcare needs through her meaningful collaboration with hospitals, other healthcare facilities, and nursing homes to help meet workforce needs. As a result, she has become a highly respected leader in her field, amongst the faculty and staff of GSW, and with community organizations and healthcare partners with which she serves. Daniel’s impact on the nursing program and its outstanding growth and reputation will be felt for generations.

The Canes Community Champion Award recognizes a dedicated servant of the community who shows a fervent record of collaboration with and advocacy for GSW.

Will Peterson 00, ’04

Peterson has given back to the University for nearly 15 years, serving on the GSW Foundation Board of Trustees, including as Chair in 2016. He also served on the GSW Alumni Association Board of Directors for 10 years and is recognized as a Lifetime Member. Peterson is a consistent supporter of the University, having been involved with the College of Business and Computing, College of Nursing and Health Sciences and GSW Athletics.

Peterson earned a bachelor’s degree in human resources and a masters of business administration and also played baseball for the Hurricanes. He has been an avid fundraiser for the University through numerous campaigns overs the years. He and his wife, Brook, also a GSW alumna and former softball player, have supported scholarships, raised funds for athletic facilities and volunteered for many events spearheaded by the Alumni Association and other departments throughout the campus.

The Leewynn J. Finklea Award, named after GSW’s first alumni director, recognizes individuals who have demonstrated exceptional service to campus life, the Alumni Association or the University.

Eshonda Blue ’98, ’99

Blue has dedicated her adult life and career to growing a business that serves the most vulnerable population with integrity, passion and care. While starting a business is an achievement, the ability to grow the company to the level of success it has achieved is award-worthy. Blue is a trailblazer who has had a significant impact on a state and national level, including economic and health care systems for seniors. Innovative Senior Solutions has employed hundreds of employees over nearly two decades. Innovative Senior Care Consultants have mentored aspiring business owners nationwide providing resources and training so they may launch their own senior care businesses.

Blue is a pillar of the community and a servant leader, serving on numerous boards in the community, including Downtown Development, One Sumter, Ignite College and Career Academy and GSW Foundation. Blue co-founded a non-profit, Caring 4 Seniors Foundation, which gives back to seniors and hosts the annual Senior Fall Festival, drawing over 500 seniors from all over Georgia.

The Visionary Award is given to an entrepreneur or innovator with the commitment to turn a vision into reality, the courage to assume risk, and the ability to make changes and create new opportunities.

Kelsie Deiter ’06, ’07

Deiter was appointed partner at Mauldin & Jenkins, LLC (M&J) in 2022, and was the first to be made a partner who is not an accountant. She holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in business administration, and a Professional in Human Resources Certification. She is an active member of the Accounting Marketing Association and Society of Human Resources. Deiter now serves as the HR and Marketing Partner in Atlanta. With more than 17 years of experience at M&J, she supports the growth of the firm and the professionals that make M&J a great place to work. She plays a critical role in aligning the strategic direction of the firm’s leadership to the HR and Marketing team functions.

While at GSW, Deiter was very active on campus as a student-athlete and member of Kappa Delta sorority, learning early about servant leadership and engagement. She is a hardworking young alumna who is an outstanding reflection on the University and serves as a positive role model for GSW students, whom she has returned to speak to on several occasions. Deiter’s family are GSW Canes through and through. She is married to Cam Deiter, also a GSW alumnus and former baseball player. Her sister, brother and parents are also GSW alumni.

Young Alumni of the Year is given to an emerging leader making waves in his/her field as a positive role model and positive reflection on the University. The recipient must have attended GSW within the past 15 years. Distinction in one’s career and/or community and service to GSW are also considered.

The Smith Family

Between the six Smith siblings and their spouses, there are 11 GSW alumni. James and Dawn (Pennington) Smith have a long history with GSW. James attended when GSW was a two-year institution and transferred in 1973. His wife, Dawn, attended until 1975 before transferring and earning her teaching degree. The late Wayne Smith ’76 was a superintendent of schools while his wife, Terry (Timmerman) Smith ‘77, served as a teacher. Their sister Edie (Smith) Baxley ’76 was a school principal, and she married Jeff Baxley ’79. Steven Smith ’81 became a teacher and a coach. Jay “Todd” Smith ’87, an entrepreneur and business owner, married Hayley (Couey) Smith ’88. Dane Smith ’82 is also a business owner and is married to Judy (Elder) Smith ’88.

This family of alumni were very active in Greek organizations during their college years and remain involved to this day, supporting scholarships at GSW provided by these organizations. They have made a tremendous impact throughout South Georgia as educators, business owners and leaders.

The Family Legacy Award recognizes one family with a tradition of attending GSW through multiple generations with continued interest in and support of the University. Outstanding service to GSW, the Alumni Association, their communities and their professions are also considered.

Ervin Anderson ’93

After receiving his master’s degree and serving five years in the United States Navy, Anderson taught math for 34 years at GSW before retiring as Senior Lecturer Emeritus in 2019. While at GSW, he was on most every faculty committee, has served as faculty advisor to many organizations across campus, and founded GSW’s African American Male Initiative (AAMI) in 2008 which, even in retirement, he still directs to this day. “Mr. A”, as he is affectionately known by his students, was awarded Teacher of the Year in 2004 by the Student Government Association and has since been recognized by the Georgia Association of Developmental Education for his long-term contributions to the organization.

Mr. A has loved sports all of his life and played on the All Navy Team in Chicago, IL in 1982. He has supported the GSW athletic program and been a fixture at all sporting events from the teams of the past to the champion programs of the present. He played intramural football, softball and basketball for over 20 years (holding all of the records because of his longevity). He continues to support scholarship funds and has been a consistent contributor to the Hurricane Club (now Canes 360) for over 30 years. He currently serves on the GSW Alumni Association Board of Directors, a position he has held for over ten years. His commitment to GSW and his impact on the countless students he has taught and mentored have left a lasting impression on the University.

The GSW Athletics Hall of Fame Award recognizes excellence in competition as a student-athlete, coach or advocate.

These Alumni Award winners will be recognized at the Gold Force Gala on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. The event begins with a cocktail reception and silent auction starting at 6 p.m. followed by dinner and the awards ceremony at 7 p.m. with live music from the A2Z band to end the evening.

Individual tickets ($125), tables of 8 ($1,000) and sponsorships are now available online at Deadline to register is Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. For more information, call the GSW Alumni Association at 229-928-1373 or email