Baylor University Announces Recipients of Baylor Alumni Awards and Dates for Baylor Alumni Week Celebration

February 23, 2021

Media Contact: Lori Fogleman, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-709-5959
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WACO, Texas (Feb. 23, 2021) – Baylor University today announced the recipients of the 2021 Baylor Alumni Awards, which honor individuals who embody the distinctive mission of the University and celebrate their remarkable achievements. A virtual award recognition event will kick off a weeklong celebration of Baylor alumni, parents and friends who lead and serve in our world.

Baylor Alumni Week, April 11-18, will provide a wide range of opportunities for alumni, parents and friends to join in virtual events that share information, entertain and provide opportunities to connect and renew the Baylor spirit, including a conversation with President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D., about the challenges and progress of the University against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baylor Alumni Week will begin April 11 with a celebration of the Baylor Alumni Awards recipients.

“Celebrating members of the Baylor Family who have committed their lives to excellence in their professions and service to others is an important expression of our University mission. It also is an important reminder that each day, as we pursue the work of the University to equip tomorrow’s leaders and servants, we are preparing our students to positively impact their communities and professions in profound ways," President Livingstone said. "Baylor is honored to recognize the recipients of this year’s Baylor Alumni Awards for their outstanding contributions and achievements to Baylor and society. Celebrating the entire Baylor Family through Baylor Alumni Week is our way of expressing deep gratitude to all those who love this University and support its mission.”

This year’s Baylor Alumni Awards recipients are:

The Alumni of the Year honor is awarded to a graduate who has demonstrated remarkable achievement in the previous year. This year’s Alumnus of the Year is Dr. Gary J. Sheppard, BA ’87, an internal medicine physician in private practice in Southwest Houston. Sheppard has lived a life of service to others in his career as a physician and as a community volunteer, a participant in numerous professional medical organizations and an active member of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, where he serves on the Board of Trustees, the Courtesy Corps (for more than 40 years) and as director of the Handbell Choir.

After earning his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Sheppard served as a Medical Resident at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. In 1994, he joined Southwest Memorial Physician Associates and today is a partner in the practice.

Throughout his career, Sheppard has been a strong advocate for the healthcare needs of underserved populations with an emphasis on hypertension and diabetes. He previously served on the trustee board of the National Medical Association, including serving as chair, and the MDACC Center for Research on Minority Health. While serving as Chief of Staff at Memorial Hermann Southwest, he also served on the Memorial Hermann Hospital System board of directors. Sheppard currently serves as the president of the Harris County Medical Society, the largest county medical society in the nation.

Facing the COVID-19 pandemic and patient fears about visiting a physician office in 2020, Sheppard worked to keep his clinic open, keep his staff employed and remain available to patients who needed their care. He is an often-quoted advocate for healthcare in Houston and in 2020 was a trusted source for the Houston Chronicle, where he shared insights on the state of healthcare and importance of partnering with your physician in the midst of the pandemic.

The Young Alumni of the Year honor recognizes a graduate age 40 or under who has demonstrated remarkable achievement in the previous year. This year’s Young Alumna of the Year is Jessica Cope, BFA ’15, president, co-founder and resident director of The Hopeful Theatre Project in Dallas-Fort Worth.

After graduation, Cope was a “Fairy Godmother in Training” at The Walt Disney World Resort before returning to Fort Worth and beginning her work as a Baby Imaging Specialist at Cranial Technologies. In this role, she helps treat infants with plagiocephaly and brachycephaly.

In 2018, Cope began pursuing her passion project – a non-profit theatre company that would not only give actors a place to hone their craft, but also give back to the community. The Hopeful Theatre Project is unlike most theater companies in that 100% of ticket proceeds from every show go directly to charity. In 2019, Hopeful had three full-production shows that successfully raised thousands of dollars for charities, including The Ronald McDonald House Charities, Make-a-Wish Foundation and Salvation Army, among others.

When not working or wearing many hats at The Hopeful Theatre Project, Cope can be seen performing around the DFW Metroplex. She recently received a nomination for best leading actress in a musical for her performance as Tracy Turnblad in HAIRSPRAY. Cope has led by example and shown other performers, crew members and musicians that a life for leadership and selfless service can bring pure joy.

The Pro Ecclesia Medal of Service is awarded to individuals whose broad contributions to Christian ministry have made an immeasurable impact. This year’s honor goes to Daniel Roby, BA ’04, chief executive officer of Austin Street Center in Dallas. Founded in 1983, Austin Street Center provides safe shelter for and meets the basic needs of the most vulnerable homeless.

Austin Street is the largest low-barrier shelter in Dallas that serves men, ages 45 and older, and women, ages 18 and older. Each person who finds shelter with the Center is provided a safe place to sleep, as well as showers, clothing and meals. Further, the Center provides employment and education resources, mental health services, transportation and much more in their commitment to help clients transition from homelessness to independence.

As CEO, Roby has doubled the number of case managers, initiated diversion and aftercare programs and embraced the “Housing First” model of shelter management. In addition, under his leadership, Austin Street Center executed a $15 million capital campaign to support the construction of a 60,000 square-foot, 24/7 emergency shelter and day service center slated to open in 2022.

Roby is active in the city’s conversations about the needs of the homeless and has served as a member of the board of directors of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance and chair of the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) committee. He currently serves on the executive council of the Continuum of Care. Roby also was appointed by former Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to participate in the City of Dallas Commission on Homelessness. In 2017, the Center for Nonprofit Management named Roby, Nonprofit CEO of the Year.

The Pro Texana Medal of Service recognizes an individual whose contributions in furthering the mission of Baylor have made an immeasurable impact in the public or nonprofit sector. This year’s recipient is Timothy Head, BA ’98, MSW ’04, JD ’08, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Faith & Freedom Coalition is committed to educating, equipping and mobilizing people of faith and like-minded individuals to be effective citizens and to influence public policy at all levels of government.

Head has been integral in helping create six legislative bills that were passed in the last several years – most notably, the passage of landmark federal prison reform commonly known as the First Step Act, as well as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). Many call the First Step Act the most meaningful reform of the federal criminal justice system in over 30 years. Head also serves on the board of directors for the Council on Criminal Justice.

Prior to joining the Faith & Freedom Coalition, Head worked as the district director for a member of the Texas congressional delegation and as chief of staff and policy adviser to members of the Texas Legislature. Before working in public policy, Tim did missionary work in Asia, the Middle East and Europe and worked on staff at Antioch Community Church in Waco.

Contributions to the Professions in Media & Arts is awarded to an individual for dedication to advancing his or her chosen field and making a significant impact in our world. This year’s award is presented to Brett James, BS ’91, award-winning songwriter, singer and producer.

James is a native of Oklahoma who came to Baylor to pursue a path toward a career in medicine. After graduation, he began medical school at the University of Oklahoma, but a different dream took shape. Soon, James made his way to Nashville, and after a brief time as a recording artist, began his remarkable journey as a songwriter.

After more than two decades and 500 recorded songs across musical genres to his credit, James is one of the most productive and versatile songwriters in Nashville. In 2006, James earned the Grammy for Best Country Song, among other honors, for “Jesus Take the Wheel,” recorded by Carrie Underwood. He earned his first ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year honor that same year. In 2009, James achieved two of his three Music Row “Triple Play” awards for three No. 1 songs in a single chart year, and earned ASCAP Songwriter of the Year for a second time in October 2010.

James also is a leader in the songwriter community for both his incredible success and his work with Nashville Songwriters Association International, where he previously chaired the legislative committee and championed copyright reform, and now serves as music-business liaison. He has also served 18 years on the board of directors of the Country Music Association and has served as both a governor and trustee of the Recording Academy.

James has topped the Billboard Country chart with 26 No. 1 songs and many more top 20 singles, including recent hits from Underwood, “Love Wins” and “Drinking Alone,” and Kenny Chesney, “Knowing You.” In April, 2020, James released a new EP of his own, I Am Now, and in November, was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

A new award, the Alumni by Choice of the Year, will be presented for the first time in 2021. The award is presented to an individual who was previously nominated and selected as an Alumni By Choice recipient, and who has achieved distinction through exceptional contribution to our international, national, state or community welfare. This year’s inaugural recipient is Merrie Beckham, who also holds the distinction of being named Baylor University’s first Alumni by Choice by then-Chancellor Abner McCall and President Herbert Reynolds in 1986.

Merrie is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and after graduation went to work for Standard Oil Co. in San Francisco. Merrie met and married Sparkey Beckham, a 1949 Baylor graduate, while he was stationed in California in the Air Force. After completing military service, the couple settled in Texas and built a remarkable legacy of service to the community.

The Beckhams are active members of Park Cities Baptist Church, where Merrie was instrumental in beginning the first Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) group in north Texas in 1986. For more than 35 years, she has mentored young mothers in their journey. In 2000, she was honored by the national organization as Mentor of the Year.

Merrie’s life of service to her community has been honored by many. She was named the Dallas Baylor Women’s Council Distinguished Person of the Year. She is a recipient of Baylor’s W.R. White Meritorious Service Award, and in 2020, the Beckhams were awarded the Russell H. Perry Free Enterprise Award from Dallas Baptist University in honor of their spirit of generosity and service to the community.

Merrie is a regular speaker at Baylor’s Alumni by Choice celebrations. The Beckhams believe so strongly in the program, they recently committed to endow its continued success. The Merrie Beckham Alumni by Choice Endowed Fund will support the work of Baylor’s Institute for Oral History to record and preserve the history of the Alumni by Choice program and its members.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 19,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.