COLUMBIA, Mo. - One graduate from the University of Missouri may stick out from the crowd Saturday.
Mel West, 94, is being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Missouri for his humanitarian work, about three quarters of a century after he first attended the school. The university has only given out about 400 honorary degree since 1892.
At a reception for West on campus Friday, guests told stories about him and sang him happy birthday.
West is a retired pastor in Columbia known for his stories. He posts on Facebook daily to his 3,000 friends and even published a book with stories, wit and wisdom.
West is known in the community and around the world for his humanitarian work. The list of projects he has worked on is probably longer than most resumes.
Some of the projects he has started or worked with include:
- Missouri Heifer Project
- Missouri Habitat for Humanity
- The Recycling Warehouse
- The Prison PATCH Program
- The Green Hand Project
- Developing three homes for abused women and children
Even though he is extremely grateful for the honorary degree, West said he is still sure to share the credit.
"I never expect anything like that. And I'm rather humbled and a bit troubled because the things I've done I've done with so many other people," he said.
One project West is best known for in Columbia is Mobility Worldwide, once known as PET.
Mobility Worldwide now makes hand crank wheelchairs for people around the world. West says there are very few paid employees and the organization is mostly staffed by volunteers. Mobility Worldwide gets many supplies from companies around mid-Missouri, including Hubbell Power Systems in Centralia, Orscheln Farm and Home and more.
West began making the wheelchairs after a missionary he and his wife, Barbara, were shipping supplies to said there was a need for them in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"And I said, 'OK. I'll go home and do that.' And people asked, 'How'd you have the audacity to think you could?' Well, I had a friend, and Earl Minor down at Marshfield, Missouri who was a product designer," West said.
"Took about a year to go through four or five prototypes," he said. "We selected one we thought would work. We sent it over, and I said 'Put it in the worst place you can and see how it works.' There he did, it worked well, and that began it then."
Mobility Worldwide has shipped wheelchairs to more than 90 countries and has 24 workshops around the United States and the world.
Dave Roseberg has been volunteering at Worldwide Mobility since 2011. He said in the typical week in Columbia, the volunteers build about 40 to 45 carts. The PET carts come in different sizes, and either with hand cranks or handles to pull or push.
Roseberg said he has known West for years.
"Mel's really an inspiration guy," Roseberg said. "If you hear him talk, you know, one of his, I call it sermons, he will he'll convince you that you can save the world if you really put your mind to it."
Roseberg said West's award was well deserved.
"He's the backbone, you know, the founder, the backbone of this organization making it work. And I think it's recognition of let's say worldwide good that he's doing," he said.
Although Mobility Worldwide is such a large project, West still tells stories about the other work he is proud of, such as Habitat for Humanity. West helped start Habitat for Humanity in Columbia and surrounding counties.
"They have now built 150-something homes and they just bought the land for 150 more," he said.
West says one of his favorite stories is about a woman he met who was working at the retirement community where he lives. She was a refugee who moved to the United States with her family and now lives in a Habitat home. She is working on getting a degree in chemistry.
He says on top of a place for people to live, it also provides work for many retirees who do not want to become stationary.
Keith Jaspers served on the Habitat for Humanity International board of directors and the board of directors for the Rainbow Network with West, and his known him for 35 or 40 years.
He said West has helped those networks grow by introducing new people and helping with the everyday work.
"With Mel and Barbara, it's always about putting faith into action, taking the intangible and making it tangible, and Mel has just been the best in the world at doing that and being an inspiration to all of us," Jaspers said.
He said the university's honorary doctorate speaks highly of West and the university itself.
Walt Hays came from Alaska for West's reception.
"I'm 82 years young, and when I grow up, I'd like to be like Mel West," he said.
Hays has volunteered to raise funds for Mobility Worldwide.
"It is a life-changing thing to see a person who is literally crawling on the ground, disabled by polio, birth defects, war amputation, land mine injury, to all of a sudden have mobility," he said.
He said West is a great example of what it means to be a servant leader.
West says all of his humanitarian work has taught him and many others what being happy truly means.
"We, and I say we, all of us, because so many volunteers working, have learned the difference between fun and joy," he said. "Fun is, for example with the Jimmy Carter work camps, 500 of us go on Sunday and for five days we would build houses and put 'em up rapidly and do it well, and that's fun. But on Saturday we'd move in the families, and that's joy."
He and Barbara also support students in Nicaragua.
"We help them with money to go to high school and college. And writing the check is fun. It's not very big, really. But when you get a letter back from them that they've graduated and they're going to be an engineer, or they're going to be nurse, or a doctor, or a teacher, that's joy," he said.
West says the PhD from the university really is full circle.
"Absolutely none of this would've happened if we had not come to the university."
He says he has the university to thank for their help with his projects, but also for his wife.
"None of this would've happened had I not come to the university and met Barbara here. And we have been full partners in everything we have done for 74 years," he said. "The university has played a key role in our lives and we need to remind ourselves of that all the time."