Standing Out: UM Names 2023 Distinguished Alumni

MISSOULA – The University of Montana Alumni Association has selected six recipients for this year’s Distinguished Alumni Awards. 

Recipients of the award are individuals who have distinguished themselves in a particular field, bringing honor to the University, the state or the nation. The recipients are respected in their careers and communities. Distinguished Alumni Award recipients are selected by a committee of UMAA members.

The award winners are:

A picture of Susan Adams.

Dr. Susan B. Adams, Ph.D. ’99, of Oxford, Mississippi, is an international expert on fish and crayfish ecology. Her research has ranged from cold water fish and amphibian ecology in Montana's mountain streams to discoveries about crayfish on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

She is a recognized local, regional, national and international expert on crayfish and is regularly invited to speak and collaborate on international projects. She has described new crayfish species, documented the effects of land management on crayfish and authored more than 70 scientific papers.

Described as the “Jane Goodall of crayfish,” Adams has made science accessible to a variety of audiences. She was elected to serve as president of the International Association of Astacology [study of crayfish]. The state of Montana turned to her when they needed an expert to lead their recent statewide crayfish investigations.


A picture of Paul Carpino.

Paul Carpino, BA ’54, of Spokane Valley, Washington, is a social work graduate but describes himself as “more a social justice and peace activist than a traditional social worker.” He worked for decades on behalf of underrepresented and underserved populations in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and across the country.

He preferred systemic changes that addressed the root causes of hunger and homelessness and viewed direct service programs as ineffective. He taught low-income people how to speak up for themselves and press their issues with those in power at the local and statewide levels. He was instrumental in organizing the Montana State Low Income Organization (MSLIO) that became a force in changing laws so that programs to assist the poor became more accommodating to them.

He and two other runners founded the “Run for Peace,” a relay from New York City to Seattle. Their mission was to promote nuclear disarmament. Carpino believed the nuclear weapons industry unfairly affected low-income residents of the manufacturing and testing sites.


A picture of Smoke Elser.

Arnold “Smoke” Elser, BA ’64, of Missoula is a legendary packer, author, teacher, conservationist and UM education grad. For 60 years, Elser ran an outfitting business from his historic barn in Missoula’s Rattlesnake Valley and became an important voice in the U.S. conservation movement.

He testified in the U.S. Senate for the Lincoln-Scapegoat Wilderness in 1972 and was instrumental in the designation of the Great Bear Wilderness in 1976 and the Wild and Scenic River Act in 1968. He literally wrote the book on horse and mule packing (“Packin’ In On Mules and Horses,” Mountain Press, 10th edition). He is author of many handbooks and informational materials on light-on-the-land backcountry travel with horses and mules – all of which became standards for the recreationist and the outfitting industry and the basis for the Montana accreditation exam for professional outfitters.


A picture of Michael Marie Munson.

Dr. Michael Marie Munson, BA ’04, MEd ’08, of Polson is an expert in the field of Indian education, not only in Montana but nationwide and around the world. Her vast knowledge and expertise were invaluable resources for the state of Montana with the Office of Public Instruction’s Indian Education efforts. She assisted with the development and publication of high-quality Indian Education for All model lesson plans and curriculum resources that are still being used throughout Montana classrooms.

Munson has provided highly engaging, effective and culturally relevant professional development for educators in Montana. She brings an insider perspective to the unique issues facing American Indian students and is committed to the goal of providing all students, both on and off the reservation, a high-quality education. Munson plays an integral role in the historic work of Salish language revitalization efforts, and her nominators wrote that her influence will be felt hundreds of years from now.


A picture of Steve Nelson.

Steve Nelson, BA ’70, of Missoula is a driving force in business development in Missoula. After graduating from UM, Nelson joined the army. In his military career, he reached the rank of major before retiring.

He took on a second career, owning and operating several small businesses in Missoula, as well as purchasing and developing the Bonner Mill Industrial Park, which now houses several locally owned businesses that are mainstays of Missoula’s economy. Additionally, Nelson gives back to his community and alma mater through service.

He is a member of the National Board of Grizzly Athletics and serves as the co-chair of the YMCA’s Capital Campaign board.


A picture of Lawrence Pettit.

Dr. Lawrence Pettit, BA ’59, of Helena served as the first commissioner of higher education in the Montana University System after the position was created in the 1972 Montana Constitution. During his time as commissioner, his accomplishments include curriculum development and reform and implementation of uniform fiscal policies.

Under his leadership, the Board of Regents approved a partnership with the University of Washington School of Medicine that allowed Montana students opportunities to attend medical school. Pettit also worked to develop better relationships with Montana’s Native American community.

He has served in a number of academic positions, including president of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He served in various positions at Southern Illinois University, American Council on Education, Southern Illinois University and the University System of South Texas, as well as the Texas College and University System.

He was both a student and professor of political science and worked in the Montana administrations of Gov. Tom Judge, Sen. Lee Metcalf and Sen. James Murray. He has mentored dozens of political science students and candidates.


UMAA and UM will welcome these outstanding alumni to campus during Homecoming week for an awards banquet. To learn more about the award or this year’s recipients, please visit UMAA’s website. 

For questions or additional information, email, call Jodi Moreau at 406-243-6124 or email


Contact: Jodi Moreau, associate director UM Alumni Association, 406-243-6124,