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University of Iowa News Release

Dec. 13, 2004

France Bestows Knighthood On UI Alumnus, Iowa Native

A Runnells, Iowa native and University of Iowa alumnus has been named a knight in France's Order of Academic Palms, or l'Ordre des Palmes académiques, an honor created by Napoleon himself.

But don't expect Bryan Watkins to go around slaying dragons, rescuing fair maidens or hanging around castles in a polished suit of armor. Instead, he plans to continue teaching French at Harry A. Burke High School in Omaha.

And whatever you do, don't call him Sir Bryan.

"France abolished all titles of nobility during the French Revolution," Watkins said. "My official title actually comes after my name, 'Bryan Watkins, Knight in the Order of Academic Palms,' but not before."

The Academic Palms is the oldest civilian award given out and is second only in age to the Legion of Honor. Created in 1808 by Napoleon Bonaparte to honor university professors, the award was extended in 1866 to non-educators for their exceptional work in the area of education. In 1955, French President René Coty created the Order of Academic Palms with three ranks: knight, officer and commander. The Academic Palms, today, can be bestowed upon educators and non-educators alike who have devoted their lives to the expansion of the French language and francophone culture in the world.

In notifying Watkins of the honor, Jacques Treffel, Inspector General and National President of the Association of the Members of the Order of Academic Palms, wrote: "I send you my very warm and sincere congratulations for this wonderful award that honors you and attests to the perfect quality of services that you have rendered to the teaching of the French language and culture in your country."

Watkins said someone anonymously nominated him for the honor in spring 2003. Colleagues were subsequently asked to write letters on his behalf, and Watkins himself had to pen a letter describing his career as a French teacher.

While he has received an official letter from the president of the Association of the Members of the Order of Academic Palms announcing his selection, he said he doesn't know yet when the official ceremony will take place bestowing the honor on him. At some point, though, the cultural attaché from the Consulate General of France in Chicago will confer the award, possibly in Omaha.

Watkins attended Southeast Polk High School in Runnells, where his French teacher, Diane Larson, inspired him to study the language. From 1985-1990 he studied French as an undergraduate at the UI and then spent a year studying at the University of Angers as an exchange student. He took a year off before completing his classes through the UI College of Education for teacher certification, which he received in 1992.

Currently working on his master's in education through UN-Lincoln, he is married to Gayle Smith and they have two daughters, Francine and Elizabeth. 

Watkins has taught French for 13 years. At Harry A. Burke High School in Omaha, he teaches French levels I, III, IV and Advanced Placement French. Through AP he is helping start a dual enrollment program that will allow his high school students to earn undergraduate credit from the University of Nebraska and, by virtue of the arrangement, he will become an adjunct professor at UN-Omaha while still teaching at Burke High.

In addition to teaching, Watkins is past president of the Nebraska International Languages Association and the Nebraska chapter of the American Association of Teachers of French. He is also a reader for the Advanced Placement French Language Examination and travels to Ewing, N.J. each year to grade the AP French Language exam. 

He has made seven trips to France to date, two of them with Burke High students.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Media: Stephen Pradarelli, 319-384-0007,