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French professor earns prestigious honor

Toumi awarded Les Palmes académiques for contributions to French education, culture

By Scott Tappa
J. Ingrid Lesley and her late husband enjoyed traveling internationally, getting their passports stamped in France on several occasions. Yet, beyond some of the most basic phrases such as “merci beaucoup!”, her understanding of French was limited.
After Lesley’s husband passed away, she began studying the language at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as an auditing, nontraditional student. After 10 years, she has reached the point where she will hear a phrase in English and think the words in French.
"The French language has become my lover,” she says with a smile.
Ingrid credits World Languages and Literatures faculty such as Marcia Parker (emerita) and Beverley David with fostering her love of French, but has taken her gratitude a step further in the case of Alek Toumi. Thanks to Lesley’s nomination and support from David, colleague Vera Klekovkina, department chair Richard Ruppel and others, Toumi was recently honored with Les Palmes académiques, one of the highest honors awarded by the French government recognizing outstanding contributions to education and culture.
The Palmes académiques was created in 1808 by Napoleon I and made a decoration in 1866 under Napoleon III, at which time the honor was extended to non-teachers who had rendered illustrious service to French education. The “palms” is the country’s oldest nonmilitary decoration. Both foreigners and French living abroad who contribute actively to the expansion of French education and culture may be recognized.
In the U.S., dossiers for nominations and promotions are typically prepared by the French Consulates and forwarded to and reviewed by the French Embassy. They are then transmitted to the French Ministry of National Education in Paris, which makes the final decision on French and foreign recipients. This is the procedure followed by Lesley, who was inspired after learning of a Palmes académiques recipient in a DePaul University alumni newsletter. Lesley says Toumi is richly deserving of the honor.
 “He brings life to the French language in the classroom, he brings energy,” she says, citing Toumi’s use of French films and in-depth discussion of Albert Camus, on whom Toumi has written 10 books. It is believed Toumi is the first person associated with UW-Stevens Point to receive the honor. Details of when and where Toumi will officially receive the honor from the French Consulate in Chicago are yet to be determined.
“I was really surprised, it’s very flattering,” he says. “This puts the department, college and UWSP on the map. We are a teaching institution, and the Department of World Languages and Literatures is very strong. My colleagues Beverley David and Vera Klekovkina are excellent teachers, and this gives recognition that UW-Stevens Point gives students great teachers that can teach at any Big Ten or even Ivy League school.”

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