By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — St. Ambrose University (SAU) presented the McMullen Award on Dec. 6 to trustee and distinguished alumnus Tom Higgins and the late Richard Bittner, a former trustee, community philanthropist and longtime SAU supporter. The awards ceremony took place after Mass in Christ the King Chapel on the Feast of St. Ambrose. The university livestreamed the Mass and award ceremony.
Bishop Thomas Zinkula, who chairs SAU’s Board of Trustees, presided at the Mass and SAU President Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, conferred the awards. The award is named in honor of the university’s founder, Bishop John McMullen, and is presented annually to individuals who embody the university’s mission of enriching the lives of others.
The recipients (Jeff Bittner accepted on behalf of his late father) stood separately in the front of the sanctuary for the ceremony, which followed pandemic safety protocol.
Bittner was an attorney, entrepreneur and philanthropist who served as CEO of the Bechtel Trust from 1987 until his death in 2019. Under his guidance, local organizations received tens of millions of dollars in support of the arts, education and scientific research. He also served as a university trustee for 16 years.
Sister Lescinski said then-SAU President Ed Rogalski offered an honorary degree to Bittner for his service and commitment to the university, but he declined. “Dick refused. His generosity and acts of kindness were not about earning praise for himself, they were about supporting young people and doing good.”
Over the years, St. Ambrose received more than $6 million in support from the Bechtel Trust. After receiving the award, Jeff Bittner said his dad was famous for long-winded speeches. However, the son promised to be much shorter in his remarks. “I thank Sister Joan, Dr. Rogalski, bishop and all of St. Ambrose University for bestowing this on him.”
Higgins, a 1967 St. Ambrose graduate, is the founding donor for SAU’s Institute for Person-Centered Care and the Master of Public Health degree program. His passion for supporting quality health care began shortly after his graduation, with the founding of a drug crisis intervention clinic in downtown Davenport and, a few years later, as the U.S. Welfare Commissioner and a senior White House staff member in the Carter administration.
Higgins is the founding CEO and chairman of Prosetta Biosciences, and a leading proponent of the person-centered approach to health care that empowers individuals and their families to direct the work of teams of health and human service providers to serve individual needs and values. He gave back to the community through service on numerous boards including the Human Rights Watch, SCAN Foundation and 3rd St. Clinic.
After receiving the award, Higgins admitted to he was not known for short speeches, either. He expressed appreciation for “this award from a university that I love very much.” He noted the spirit of the university lives on in the community.