Each year, St. Catherine recognizes outstanding graduates who demonstrate excellence in leadership and service to others.
The 2018 Alumnae Award winners — Kay Wilhelmy Bauer ‘59, Linda Theis Thrasher ‘88 and Kristen Vogel Womack ‘08 — are not only leaders, they’re champions for women.
Classmates have called Kay Bauer brave for her decision to enter military service. “Really, I was just too poor to finish college any other way,” says Kay. She was the oldest of 13 children, and, college funds were scarce. After changing her major to nursing as a junior, she needed a fifth year to finish a bachelor’s degree. Signing on to serve in the U.S. Navy provided the tuition assistance Kay needed to graduate.
With a St. Kate’s nursing degree in hand, Kay entered the Navy. She anticipated a two year stint, but it turned into a 35-year career during which she reached the rank of captain. Kay served at bases in the U.S., Guam, Japan, Vietnam and Italy, including a tour during the Vietnam War. There, she treated U.S. soldiers, as well as Vietnamese civilians in need of medical care.
In the early 1980s, Kay and other female Vietnam War veterans attended meetings aimed at getting a memorial in Washington, D.C. Through those meetings, she met others who, like herself, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Since the Veterans Administration (VA) offered no PTSD care to women at the time, she formed a support group. The 25 Vietnam War nurses still gather regularly. They also got their memorial. In 1993, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated, honoring all women who served during the war.
After her military career, Kay worked as a critical care nurse at United Hospital in St. Paul. The main difference between military and civilian nursing? Autonomy.
“When I had a ward, nobody — not even the president of the United States — came on my ward without permission ahead of time,” Kay explained.
Now retired, Kay has stayed active by volunteering. She designed and taught a CPR courses all over Minnesota. She runs the gift store at her church. At the VA, she advocates for women veterans through the Sister to Sister program. She attends medical appointments, taking notes and offering support, so no veteran has to see a doctor alone.
All along, Kay’s St. Kate’s friends have played a part in her life. From exchanging letters during her deployments to regular lunch gatherings to caring for classmates as they age, the friends are now more like family.
From Capitol Hill to the corporate boardroom to Midwestern farms, Linda Thrasher has been a leader.
As a young law school graduate, Linda moved to Washington, D.C. While anxiously searching for her first job, she called the St. Kate’s Alumnae Association. The first thing she heard from Ruth Brombach was “Linda, it’s so nice to hear from you. How can I help?” Ruth provided contact information for alumnae in the area, and Linda reached out to each one. She soon secured a job on Capitol Hill, where she had a chance to shape issues at the national level in areas from agriculture to tax and trade legislation.
In 2004, Linda was the only woman on the executive team that launched Mosaic, a Fortune 500 company. She helped take the $10B company public, and got the chance to ring the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
Linda was later the CEO of DigitalTown, then ventured out to create a Greenfield Nitrogen, a fertilizer company, with two co-founders. When the plant is up and running, it will benefit farmers in Iowa and Minnesota who apply ammonia fertilizer to their corn crops.
Linda credits her St. Kate’s education with her ability to navigate a variety of roles and industries.
“St. Kate’s gave me a liberal arts platform from which to pivot,” Linda explained. “I was an English and political science major. I never took a single business class, yet I’ve spent most of my career in the business world. I’ve learned about manufacturing, finance, and chemistry. I had the critical thinking skills to learn these areas because of my liberal arts background.”
Despite a busy professional and family life, Linda has made community service a priority. She’s served at St. Kate’s, as chair of the Alumnae Council and a Board of Trustees member, among other things. Linda has also supported the YWCA of Minneapolis, Greater Twin Cities United Way and Second Harvest Heartland.
Through all her experiences, Linda has not forgotten the value of networks. “Be diligent in building your networks personally and professionally,” she advises young graduates. “It is through my networks and relationships that I’ve been able to open doors I never expected to.”
Kristen Womack has been lauded for her work as a leader and innovator in the tech industry. Named one of Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal’s 40 Under 40, and as co-founder of Hello Mom, a Minnesota Business Most Likely to Succeed award winner, Kristen has made a name for herself.
When Kristen landed at St. Kate’s, the power of learning in an all-women environment hit her like a ton of bricks. Watching her peers speak up in class was a revelation. In her core course The Reflective Woman, she learned about how language can hold women back, like by saying “I’m sorry” when they don’t need to apologize. A communications major, she studied language and how it influences culture.
After St. Kate’s, Kristen was hired at Best Buy, and felt at home in a role involving technology, which had been a significant part of her pre-college work. In the 10 years since graduation, she has founded companies, built teams, launched products, led departments (within both startups and Fortune 500 companies), consulted, and served as a board member.
After having a supportive mentor herself, Kristen now works to open doors for others. Her work with the Twin Cities Geekettes and Hack the Gap, which she co-founded, allow her this mentoring opportunity. Both organizations seek to advance women in tech and close the gender gap in the industry.
At a Twin Cities Geekettes class, she remembers watching surprised student faces when the instructor answered a question with, “I don’t know, let’s Google it to find out.”
“Understanding that it’s okay to look for help, that gives women permission to not have to know everything,” Kristen explained. “Women often apply for jobs only when they meet every qualification listed, and they’re holding themselves back. They don’t need to know everything; they just have to know where to look for answers.”
One of Kristen’s latest projects is a text-based app called Hello Mom, which offers support to moms. This project is another passion for Kristen, who has her sights set on making Hello Mom so successful that she can use the platform to advance causes she cares about, like parental leave and mental health support for moms.
“Eventually, I hope everyone values life enough to value those who give life,” she says.
The Alumnae Award winners will be honored at the President's Luncheon on June 23, during Reunion weekend. The luncheon will take place in Rauenhorst Ballroom in Coeur de Catherine from 11:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Learn more or register to attend on the Reunion web page.