The best and the brightest.
Twenty years ago, when the Quad-City Times launched its Salute to Academics & Achievements recognition program, the goal was to honor graduating high school seniors from public and private institutions across the region as outstanding students and leaders.
Since then, more than 9,000 young men and women — selected by their schools — have won accolades for their performance in and out of the classroom.
The 1992 Salute to Academics & Achievements group was recognized in a story with these words:
“Many of you excelled with your talents. Many flourished as leaders. Others regularly brought home straight-A report cards.
“The Quad-City Times applauds you as you graduate and seek your future.”
Two decades later, the Times wondered, where are the first Salute honorees now? What did their futures hold?
Here is a look at a few of those graduates from the inaugural issue.
From bands to budgets: Zac Cockayne
At 17, Zac Cockayne was known for his long, dark hair and rocking out in a band.
The photo of him included in the 1992 Salute to Academics & Achievements for Davenport West High School reflects that image, but the
37-year-old version of himself looks and thinks a bit differently now, Cockayne said with a laugh.
“I loved being in a band, but I guess I realize I’m not all that musical,” he said. “I just looked like I should be in a band back then.”
Twenty years later, Cockayne is a short-haired husband and father, working as a budget analyst for the U.S. Army’s Joint Munitions Command based at the Rock Island Arsenal.
For the past two years, he has been stationed as a civilian employee in Germany.
He and his wife of eight years, Julie, and their sons, Jack, 6, and Max, 2, expect to stay overseas another year before transferring back to the Quad-Cities.
But he still has fun thinking about high school, and he definitely remembers how excited he was to be included in the first Salute section, selected by his school in the Leadership category.
Off the top of his head, Cockayne named several others from his class who were featured, and for good reason, he said. Those students were really smart and got excellent grades.
“It was a really big surprise,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I was picked to be in a group with those guys.”
Cockayne, listed in 1992 as the son of Rolly Cockayne and Marianne Hamilton, never considered himself to be a “scholar.” Instead, he figures his involvement in a long list of extracurricular activities, including the band Glass Menagerie, is what landed him the recognition, he said.
“I balanced fun with school activities,” he said.
After high school, Cockayne went to St. Ambrose University in Davenport, staying close to home so he could “stay together with the guys who were in the band,” he said.
And he made another major decision of his life around that time, too: He cut off his long hair during his freshman year of college, he said.
Cockayne received an accounting degree and a master’s degree in business administration. He worked for a few different companies in the Quad-Cities before landing his current job with the Army about seven years ago. That opened a lot of doors.
“It was a big adjustment to move to Europe, but it’s been great,” he said. “I love it here, but I miss everybody back home.”
If he could go back and give his teenage-self some advice, it would be this: “Be more respectful of others, pay attention to those you aspire to be like and don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.”
Still flying high: Azeemuddin Ahmed
As the son of two doctors, Azeemuddin Ahmed had a pretty good idea when he graduated from Pleasant Valley High School in 1992 that he would be a doctor, too.
His Salute to Academics & Achievements profile noted that he planned to attend Augustana College in Rock Island and then go to medical school at the University of Iowa to learn to be an orthopedic surgeon.
And that’s how it worked out, with one slight variation. Ahmed decided emergency medicine was a better fit for him, and he completed a residency in that field at Michigan State University after completing his undergraduate work at Augustana and medical school at the University of Iowa.
Ahmed is now vice chairman and a clinical associate professor in the emergency medicine department at the University of Iowa and serves as medical director of the university’s AirCare program, which transports patients by helicopter to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He also earned an MBA at Iowa.
He and his wife, Faaiza, live in Coralville with their daughter, Issma.
Being named to the first group of Salute honorees was a point of pride for Ahmed and his parents, he said. He was nominated in the Leadership category.
“I considered it a tremendous honor,” he said.
In his role as a teacher, Ahmed said he encourages his students to find people in their profession who can aid and advise them and said he would give new high school graduates the same advice.
“It’s very important to seek out and identify great mentors,” he said. “They play an amazing role in your life.”
He said he tries to be a mentor to as many of his students as possible.
Hard work pays off: Corinne Nielson
Corinne Nielson says her parents emphasized academics over nearly everything else, and she had a laundry list of academic honors in high school to show for it.
Her devotion to her studies has continued after she graduated from Pleasant Valley High School. Nielsen earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s degree in genetics at Iowa State University, did research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, earned a Ph.D. in genetics at Harvard and now is doing research in developmental biology at the University of California, San Francisco, with hopes of becoming a professor.
She and her husband, Andrew Tucker, also have two daughters, ages 3 and 7 months.
Nielson said she thought it was a “big deal” to represent Pleasant Valley in the Humanities category in the first Salute section.
“Everything was a big deal to me,” she laughed.
Nielson said the best advice to new high school graduates is to be confident. She said she remembers what it was like to walk onto the campus at Iowa State and feel a little intimidated. She urged students to believe in themselves and their abilities but don’t forget to put in the work.
“I kind of feel like if I can do it, anybody can,” she said. “A lot of hard work will get you pretty far.”
The show goes on: Alice Wiley-Pickett
As a student at Bettendorf High School, Alice Wiley-Pickett earned recognition not only for her academic success, but also for her abilities in music and theater.
Her plans to major in music at the University of Iowa took a detour when she decided to go to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, instead, and major in history.
But her love of performing won out. After working in the San Francisco area as a commercial actress, Wiley-Pickett now has scaled back on her commercial work and directs children’s theater in northern California. Her husband, Kyle Wiley-Pickett, serves as musical director of the North State Symphony Orchestra in Chico, Calif., and the Juneau Symphony in Juneau, Alaska. Alice Wiley-Pickett also is active in theater in Juneau, and she and her husband have two sons, Grant, 2, and Ned, 5.
Wiley-Pickett, who was nominated in the Applied Sciences category, said she remembers being pleased that Salute to Academics & Achievements recognized students who excelled not only in traditional academic fields, but also in the arts, journalism and leadership. She said her experience has taught her the importance of being open to new ideas.