Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard and co-founder of the foundation that bears his name, will join a former Wyoming state superintendent in being awarded honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Wyoming next month, the school announced Friday.
Shepard and Judy Catchpole, who served as the top educator in the state from 1995-2003, will receive doctor of humane letters degrees at the university’s commencement events May 18. Both women are UW alumni who graduated from the school with degrees in education. Recipients of honorary degrees can be nominated by UW alumni, current or former trustees, or faculty members.
A longtime Casper resident, Shepard founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation in December 1998, two months after her son was beaten and left for dead tied to a fence outside of Laramie. According to the university, she has spoken at more than 900 events in 25 countries. Along with the foundation’s other pro-LGBTQ activism, the group helped pass the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Protection Act. The law extends federal hate crime statutes to include a victim’s perceived gender, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity.
Shepard was the executive director of the foundation from 1999 until 2009. She currently serves as the president of its governing board. The 20th anniversary of her son’s death was in October; that same month, his ashes were interred at the Washington National Cathedral.
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A message sent to the foundation Friday seeking comment was not returned. The honorary degree is the most recent award earned by Shepard, who has previously been recognized by LGTBQ organizations for her support of the community.
“What Judy has done in the 20 years since her world was forever changed is nothing short of extraordinary,” Philip Dubois, chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, who was UW’s president at the time of Matthew Shepard’s murder, said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Rather than allowing her grief and (others’) hate to consume her, she drew strength from it and emerged as a true modern-day civil rights leader. Her tireless work on behalf of the LGBTQ community has brought about important change and has inspired and encouraged countless individuals.”
In the UW release, retired U.S. District Judge William Downes praised Shepard’s “quest for justice” and noted that “Wyoming and humanity are the beneficiaries of her selfless service.”
Catchpole was twice elected the top educator in Wyoming. She headed the state’s Education Department during years of seismic changes to public education here, including the Campbell County Supreme Court decisions, which transformed how schools were funded and built in Wyoming. The press release also notes that she “ushered in” other reforms, including to assessments, content standards, charter school policy and teacher certification. She also served on national educational governing bodies.
Catchpole previously served on the Natrona County school board, according to the university, and started her career as a preschool teacher.
Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann