UM to Award Three Honorary Doctorates at May 9 Commencement

Pictured: Bill Franke, Bonnie HeavyRunner and William S. Yellow Robe Jr.

The University of Montana will confer three honorary doctorates during its May 9 Commencement exercises.

UM benefactor and respected businessman William “Bill” Franke will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Business. The late Bonnie “Sim-Sin” Heavy Runner, a tribal court judge and staunch advocate for Native American causes, will receive a posthumous Honorary Doctorate of Law. William S. Yellow Robe Jr., a noted playwright and educator, will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.

“It is our great privilege to present these honorary doctorates to three outstanding individuals,” UM President Seth Bodnar said. “All three have led lives of tremendous impact and service, and we are honored to count them among the UM Family.”

Franke will be the featured speaker at the 9 a.m. Commencement ceremony. Yellow Robe will speak at the 2 p.m. ceremony. HeavyRunner will be honored during both ceremonies, which will take place in the Adams Center. For more about spring Commencement, visit

Franke is a renowned corporate leader and business pioneer with a legacy of achievements in forest products, banking, retail and financial companies, and, most notably, the airline industry. He now serves as managing partner of Indigo Partners LLC, a private investment company that invests in air transportation.

Franke also is respected as a dedicated mentor to young business people, as well as a teacher and generous philanthropist who has made a substantial impact at several institutions, including UM.

Despite his roots in Texas and South America and his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University, Franke has a deep appreciation for Big Sky Country and UM, where both the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation and the Franke Global Leadership Initiative bear his name.

HeavyRunner was raised as one of 13 children in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation. A two-time UM graduate, HeavyRunner received an undergraduate degree in social work and a juris doctorate from the Alexander Blewett III School of Law, where she was the only American Indian law student in her class.

Beyond her numerous and impressive accomplishments as a lawyer, educator and civil rights advocate, HeavyRunner was the founding director of UM’s Native American Studies Department. She worked as a tribal court judge, administrator and consultant. Before her death in 1997 at age 46, she received many awards recognizing her unrelenting efforts to support American Indian communities, victims of domestic violence and other disadvantaged groups. The main entrance and lobby of UM’s Payne Family Native American Center was named in her honor in 2010.

Born in Poplar, Yellow Robe teaches as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maine. He cultivated his writing and performing art skills at UM before launching a career as a skilled playwright, author, poet, educator and actor.

He is the recipient of numerous awards, and his creative works have brought an American Indian perspective and experience to many new audiences. His mentorship of young Native students and playwrights has boosted the prominence of American Indian theater in the United States. His plays include “The Star Quilter,” “Rez Politics,” “Sneaky,” “A Stray Dog” and “Mix Blood Seeds,” among many others.

Yellow Robe is a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes.


Contact: Paula Short, UM Strategic Communications spokesperson, 406-243-4023,