Dr. Rev. Alex Gee and his family all together hold 13 degrees from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Now, Gee has been named of the 15 UW-Madison graduates honored with 2023 alumni awards from the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
“It’s really exciting. I’m feeling really, really honored. I’m really pleased,” Gee tells Madison365. “Anytime your alma mater, particularly a world-class university like UW-Madison, recognizes you as one of its outstanding alumni, that’s really cool.”
Gee is one of the seven winners of the Luminary Award, along with six Forward Award winners for rising stars and three Distinguished Alumni Awards, Wisconsin Alumni Association’s highest honor and most high-profile and long-standing award. This year’s Distinguished Alumni Award winners are Rajiv Batra, Steve Bornstein, and William Campbell.
“These individuals are a living reminder of the tremendous impact that UW-Madison has on the world through the achievements and contributions of alumni,” says Sarah Schutt, chief alumni engagement officer and executive director of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, in a statement.
Gee is the longtime senior pastor of Fountain of Life Church on Madison’s south side, president and founder of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development and its renowned initiative, Justified Anger.
He is also the founder and CEO of The Center for Black Excellence and Culture, a Black-inspired, Black-designed and Black-led project that will celebrate Black culture in South Madison. The Center, set to break ground in the spring of 2024, is a community-wide effort to bring together a collective Black brilliance to affirm, inspire and advance the Black community in Madison and beyond, according to its mission.
But back in the fall of 1981, he was just a 17-year-old freshman on a large UW-Madison campus … straight up the road from Park Street where he was growing up in South Madison.
“I remember feeling that UW was such a huge place and I felt a sense of pride to be attending it because the University of Wisconsin is the place that drew my mom from Chicago to Madison … and so it felt cool,” Gee remembers. Gee’s mother, Verline Gee, brought her young children to Madison from Chicago in the early ’70s to pursue a new life and new opportunities. “It felt like a different world from where I grew up in South Madison because the community and the university really didn’t touch that much. Even though where I grew up on Fisher Street [on Madison’s South Side], it was only a 15-minute bike ride [to campus]. I used to ride my bike to college because there was no parking.
“I remember I was a little overwhelmed by the classes. My first class was a five-credit geology course in the Science Hall. I had math and English classes. Getting used to the large lecture halls after coming out of the small rooms of Madison West High School was a real adjustment,” Gee adds. “But I loved meeting students from all over the place.”
In college, Gee was the vice president of the Black Student Union and he held a
series of UW-Madison positions related to student services and minority recruitment.
“UW-Madison was a chance to reinvent myself because there’s a lot of anonymity when you’re there,” Gee remembers. “In college, I became the vice president of the Black Student Union. I remember things were going on on campus around that time and Black students were starting to really organize. It was a cool time to be on campus.
“I also found out in college that I was intelligent. My grade point average in college was better than my grade point average in high school because I was engaged,” Gee adds. “I had a chance to pick what I wanted to study. And I didn’t know I was smart. Sitting in classes, being challenged, writing papers … I think part of being an intellectual was not just your GPA, but enjoying knowledge. I started to enjoy knowledge and I started flourishing.”
Gees says he remembers taking many courses in Afro-American Studies, which would become his major, along with economics.
“I took so many courses that my advisor said, ‘I know you’re an econ major, but you have enough credits for an Afro-Am major.’ I was taking those Afro-Am classes because it helped to place me in the world … because I didn’t know about the contributions of Black people and the history talked about and the role of the Black church, and I’ve never had the intersection between my call as a pastor and my love for history,” Gee says. “And it was the academy that brought those two together.
“So I didn’t know that the church had played a role in civil rights. And so I think between the work and the classes and realizing my intelligence and then learning about the intersection of faith and the Black church and the social and civil rights movements, there was so much convergence for me at UW-Madison … along with working in the [Academic] Advancement Program, so that I could give back to other students,” Gee continues. “I look at what I’m doing now — at Nehemiah, the [Fountain of Life] church, the Center [for Black Excellence] — and I realized that a lot of the framing of that, a lot of the training, and the affirmation of that … happened at UW-Madison. And so I look back and genuinely can see how UW really helped to shape me for what I’m doing today.”
Gee joins six other 2023 Luminary Award winners — Zachary Ellis Jr., Jessi Kendall, Jay Laabs, Nicolaas Mink, Patricia Marroquin Norby, and Dana M. Peterson.
The Wisconsin Alumni’s Luminary Award recognizes alumni who “serve as aspirational examples for others through their accomplishments in the areas of leadership, discovery, progress, and service.” It celebrates extraordinary Badgers who have demonstrated exceptional achievement in their professions, service or philanthropy. For a full list of Wisconsin Alumni Award winners and their biographies, click here.
“Getting this award really touched me,” Gee says. “The University of Wisconsin-Madison taught me skills that have helped me with what I have been doing in life to this day. So what I love about this award and recognition is that the university has really helped to shape me … the university and that experience and that space and those opportunities.
“UW gave me the opportunities to redefine myself and to discover myself and my sharpness and my relevance in a way that’s really, really meaningful,” he adds. “And that’s what universities want to do.”