Distinguished Alumni Award


Robert Downer 61BA, 63JD

2015 Service Award

Robert "Bob" Downer, 61BA, 63JD, and Jane Downer are longtime advocates and ambassadors of the University of Iowa who have championed higher education, medicine, research, and the arts for decades.

An accomplished attorney at Iowa City's Meardon, Sueppel & Downer law firm, Bob Downer began his UI service as student body president in 1960-61 and never stopped contributing to his university's greater good. He is a highly respected leader in the legal community, with honors that include the Iowa State Bar Association's 2001 Award of Merit and longtime membership in the Iowa Legal Aid Hall of Fame. He also served as director of the Iowa Law School Foundation from 2000 to 2012 and recently completed his second and final six-year term on the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, this past spring—one of only a few regents in history to earn reappointment.

"I soon learned that service would enhance my own quality of life. The more you do for others, the more your own life is enriched."

Bob Downer's charitable legacy extends even further to include service as a member of the UI Health Care Board of Advisors and the UI Research Foundation Board of Directors, and he explains his community commitment through wisdom passed down from his maternal grandfather.

"Even though our family was not wealthy, I was raised with the belief that we were very fortunate—and that this good fortune carried with it an obligation to help others," he says. "I soon learned that service would enhance my own quality of life. The more you do for others, the more your own life is enriched."

Jane Downer has proven instrumental in her volunteerism with the Hancher Guild and its showcase, increasing the gift shop's annual profits to more than $120,000 in support of educational programs for children. She has also given generous time to activities benefiting UI Children's Hospital and as co-chair of "Arts & Minds: Building on Iowa's Creative Legacy," a $30-million campaign to rebuild the University of Iowa's flood-damaged arts campus, including Hancher Auditorium, the School of Music, and the School of Art and Art History.

"I was fortunate to meet Jane Downer in 1997, and I have been inspired ever since by her contributions," says Charles Swanson, 75BBA, 76MBA, Hancher's executive director. "Her passion for Hancher and the University of Iowa is contagious, and, because of her hard work, we have had many years of success with the showcase. I am truly grateful."

Adds Gail Agrawal, dean of the UI College of Law: "Bob and Jane are two of our most accomplished alumni and biggest fans. They are not only deserving of this award, but their receipt of it is long overdue."

Through their altruism and involvement, Robert and Jane Downer have done their part to preserve the University of Iowa's status as a world-class institution and actively demonstrate that "the purpose of life is a life with purpose."

The Downers are life members of the UI Alumni Association's Old Capitol Club and members of the UI Foundation's Presidents Club.


Bob Downer Volunteer Highlights
  • Iowa Bar Association president, 1995-96
  • Iowa Law School Foundation Board, 2000-2013
  • Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel ACTEC, state chair, 2000-05
  • College of Law Distinguished Alumni Award, 2013

About Distinguished Alumni Awards

Since 1963, the University of Iowa has annually recognized accomplished alumni and friends with Distinguished Alumni Awards. Awards are presented in seven categories: Achievement, Service, Hickerson Recognition, Faculty, Staff, Recent Graduate, and Friend of the University.


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The Krause Essay Prize and its $10,000 award is presented annually by a unique panel of judges: UI graduate students. Photo: Tim Schoon/UI Office of Strategic Communication Students in the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program's graduate seminar dug into their weekly reading assignments with particular enthusiasm this past spring?and for good reason. By the end of the semester, they were tasked with selecting the best of the bunch for a prestigious award on behalf of a university known for its literary tradition. This marks the 12th year that nonfiction graduate students served as judges for the newly renamed Krause Essay Prize, a national award presented to an essayist who pushes the boundaries of the genre through experimentation, exploration, and discovery. Thought to be the only national literary honor selected by students, the prize is accompanied by a $10,000 award for the first time this year thanks to a new partnership between the UI Nonfiction Writing Program and the Kyle J. and Sharon Krause Family Foundation. Shawn Wen, winner of the 2018 Krause Essay Prize, is the author of A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause. Her writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Seneca Review, Iowa Review, White Review, and the anthology City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis. This year's Krause Essay Prize recipient is Shawn Wen, a San Francisco-based multimedia artist and the author of A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause (Sarabande Books, 2017), a book-length essay on the life of French mime Marcel Marceau. Wen, whom students selected from a pool of 14 nominees, accepted her award at a ceremony in September in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber. Nicol?s Medina Mora Perez, a third-year MFA student from Mexico City, was among the prize judges in the spring seminar taught by author and Nonfiction Writing Program director John D'Agata (98MFA). Perez said that beyond discussing the merits of the nominated essays each week, class conversations revolved around how they define essay writing and the type of nonfiction they wanted to champion as representatives of the UI. By serving as judges, Perez says, students had the opportunity to read a broad selection of contemporary nonfiction that they may not have otherwise sought out. "By the end of the semester I had a clearer idea of the sort of work that people are publishing today, which includes stuff that I'd like to imitate and stuff that I'd rather not," Perez says. "I guess it's a bit like watching the World Cup with your soccer teammates: You see moves that you think are cool and want to steal for your own gameplay, but you also notice pitfalls that you should learn to avoid." Wen says she's been "over the moon" since learning she was selected as this year's Krause Essay Prize winner. A producer for Youth Radio in Oakland, California, Wen says discovering essay writing "was very much like falling in love" and has long admired the UI's approach to the genre. "When I started writing essays, I felt like all these dusty windows in my brain were opened, letting in light and fresh air," she says. "It's incredibly meaningful to me that my writing has been recognized by this program and its students." D'Agata dreamed up the prize in 2007 as a way to introduce his students to high-caliber essay writing and the many forms it can take. The professor asked colleagues from around the country to recommend their favorite essays from the past year, which he then compiled into a reading list for his seminar. As an added twist, D'Agata noted that submissions could be from any medium?including radio and film?as long as they were "essayistic." To give class discussions a sense of consequence, D'Agata had students evaluate each piece at the end of the semester and select a single award winner. Author Aaron Kunin received the inaugural Essay Prize, as the award was previously known, and it soon became an annual tradition. D'Agata's seminar students spend the semester dissecting the pieces, giving presentations, and writing critiques for the The Essay Review, the Nonfiction Writing Program's national magazine. Over the years, the class has crowned winners as varied as poet?Claudia Rankine, science writer Oliver Sacks, performance artist Sophie Calle, and the producers of Radio Lab. A current group of 14 writers and artists from around the nation serve as the nominating committee, includes luminaries like Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison (06MFA), and Kiese Laymon. "In the U.S. we do a great job teaching students about the powers and pleasures of reading and writing?poetry and fiction, but not so much with essays," says D'Agata, who in 2016 published an anthology titled The Making of the American Essay. "Essays are often an afterthought in literature classes in America." In 2017, the Kyle J. and Sharon Krause Family Foundation made a $500,000 donation to bolster the endowment of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program?the largest gift in the distinguished program's history. Founded in 1976, the Nonfiction Writing Program, a graduate program within the Department of English, is regularly ranked among the best in the nation and has launched the careers of alumni who have gone on to write for magazines like the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Harper's. "The Krause Foundation is about giving back and giving forward," says Elliott Krause (14MFA), a Nonfiction Writing Program alumnus who now works at the Wall Street Journal. "Helping fund the Essay Prize is a rare chance to do both. Eleven Krauses and counting have graduated from the University of Iowa; the Krause Essay Prize is a way to both express our gratitude for all Iowa has given us and be a champion for the arts." The support from the Krause family has not only allowed the program to award a cash prize for the first time, but also to invite winners to campus to present their essays and spend time with students and faculty. When Wen visited in late September, she taught a series of master classes for nonfiction students. D'Agata says that the foundation's support further legitimizes the idea of a student-driven award and its importance to the literary world. "It's also helping to bring attention to the entire genre," D'Agata says. "There are a lot of awards out there for works of fiction and poetry, but very few awards for essays. This award is saying, 'essays are awesome.' If you're an essayist, you don't hear that very?often. The Krause Foundation is helping to fix that." Krause Essay Prize Winners The UI Nonfiction Writing Program has awarded a national essay-writing prize annually since 2007. With support from the Kyle J. and Sharon Krause Family Foundation, the award was renamed the Krause Essay Prize this year. For more on the prize, visit krauseessayprize.org. 2018: Shawn Wen, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause 2017: Peter Middleton and James Spinney, Notes on Blindness 2016: Oliver Sacks, Gratitude 2015: Claudia Rankine, Citizen 2014: Sophie Calle, The Address Book 2013: David Rakoff, Waiting 2012: Lauren Redniss, Radioactive 2011: Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands 2010: Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, New Normal? 2009: Mary Ruefle, The Most of It 2008: Joshua Raskin, I Met the Walrus 2007: Aaron Kunin, Secret Architecture

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