Arleas Upton Kea has been selected by the University of Texas Exes Association as a Distinguished Alumna for 2020. Since its creation in 1958, the have been the Texas Exes’ highest honor, reserved for an elite group of alumni whose professional successes and service to the University is both extraordinary and outstanding. Only three hundred and sixteen alumni from the University of Texas have received this Award since its founding in 1958. One hundred and forty-seven of these recipients are now living. There are a little over 500,000 living graduates of the University of Texas and more than one million alumni since going back to its founding in 1885.
The formal awards ceremony which will be held in the Spring of 2021 has been compared to the “Oscars,” since the two award ceremonies share much in common: a star-studded crowd, an impressive video tribute of each recipient, and even a red carpet. In addition, each recipient receives a custom-made burnt orange blazer, a symbol of the University of Texas. The blazer is emblazoned with insignia signifying this distinguished high honor.
Kea was born and raised in the small south-central Texas town of Schulenburg. She is one of four children of Henry and Lillie Mae Upton. While the economic circumstances of her family were modest, Arleas’ parents provided a loving and nurturing home environment. Her father was self-employed in yard maintenance, landscaping, and gardening. Her mother worked as a housekeeper for several affluent families in Schulenburg. Although her parents did not graduate from high school, they understood the value of education, and they were a strong and positive force in making sure that she worked hard to make good grades and receive a good education. After all the children were grown, Arleas’ mother remained committed to the importance of education, and the elder Upton went back to school to obtain her GED.
Arleas spent 12 years in the public-school system in Schulenburg. She began her primary education at the segregated J.A. Greene School in Schulenburg. After school integration came to Schulenburg public schools, Arleas was in the first group of African Americans bused to the newly integrated School District.
Arleas graduated as Salutatorian of her class of 1975 at Schulenburg High School. With the strong encouragement of her parents and her teachers she was a student leader throughout her four years of high school. In addition to graduating as Salutatorian, Arleas served as President of the National Honor Society, President of the Future Teachers of America, co-editor of the school newspaper called the “Shorthorn”, and President of the Thespian Society. She participated in the winning University Interscholastic League One Act Play in Austin and she was a member of her high school’s successful debate team, and a winner of many persuasive speaking contests. She was also a member of the track team.
Because of her outstanding academic and student activity record, Arleas was selected by the high school faculty for the honor of delivering the Commencement Address to the graduating Schulenburg High School Class of 1975. Arleas gives much credit to several of her most outstanding teachers, most notably I.E. and Lila Clark for their excellent teaching and personally motivating mentorship. At a young age they inspired Arleas to be a good writer and groomed her as a public speaker.
The Clarks further mentored Arleas by taking her on regular “culture” trips to Houston, Austin, and San Antonio to attend the opera, ballet, selected movies, symphony, museums, and athletic events. Later in life, as Arleas returned to Texas for events, she was a frequent guest at the Clark’s home, the historic Bermuda Valley Ranch. Another significant role model for Arleas was her Aunt Cleo Greenwood. Greenwood was a beloved community activist, public speaker, and a poet. She encouraged Arleas to always strive for excellence. Arleas was further inspired by her cousins, Adolph Thomas and Shirley Thomas, of Schulenburg. Adolph was the first black to serve as a State Trooper in Texas while Shirley was a registered nurse. Arleas also received special encouragement from her uncle, Andy Rice, a role model who grew up in Hallettsville, earned his degree on a football scholarship, played in the first Super bowl game, and retired after ten years of playing professional football to enjoy a career as a high school coach and businessman. An additional role model for Arleas was her older brother, Henry, the first of her siblings to attend college, now a retired Colonel from the US Army, and Vietnam veteran, who attended Prairie View A & M College on a military scholarship.
Kea speaks fondly of her hometown and attributes her success to many in her community who gave her a good start while growing up. She was able to attend the University of Texas because of the numerous community-based scholarships she received due to her strong academic and extracurricular record. Her parents, now deceased, were proud to see Arleas graduate as Salutatorian at Schulenburg High School and four years later with honors from the College of Liberal Arts from the University of Texas. They also proudly observed her graduation from the University of Texas School of Law at the prestigious Sunflower Ceremony held each year on campus at Townes Hall. Kea received a Bachelor of Arts with honors from the College of Liberal Arts in 1979 and a Juris Doctorate from the Law School in 1982.
Kea currently serves as Deputy to the Chairman and as Chief Operating Officer of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in Washington, D.C., where she is a primary advisor to the Chairman and Board of Directors. She oversees the operations of this important federal agency with global impact, which is responsible for promoting the stability and the safety and soundness of our Nation’s banking system. A dedicated public servant, she assisted in resolving two national financial crises and received numerous honors for her work, including recognition as a finalist for the Service to America Medal of Honor and serving on a Presidential White House Advisory Committee. Kea has met with two Presidents in the White House. In addition, she has the distinction and honor of having taught a session on financial literacy at the Oprah Winfrey School for girls in Johannesburg, South Africa.
A woman of many firsts, throughout her life, Kea was the first African American to assume several significant positions of leadership at the FDIC, including her present position, as well as the position of Deputy General Counsel and the Ombudsman among several other positions. She also holds the distinction as the first black President of the UT Law Alumni Association and in recognition of her significant and lasting contributions to the Law School, her portrait is now permanently displayed in the halls of the law school. She was also the first woman of color inducted to the prestigious Orange Jackets organization which serves as the official hosts for UT. In addition, she served as a UT Law School Foundation Trustee, is a member of the Center for Women in Law and the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She was also selected as a member of the current class for the Direct Women Corporate Board Institute, an elite group of senior women lawyers who possess the skills for board service.
Upon hearing of her selection for the Distinguished Alumna Award, Kea commented that receiving this Award could not have happened without the help and support of many people, including her parents, her siblings, extended family, teachers, friends, and classmates, who shared experiences and helped to shape her life and guide her as she grew up. She also indicated that she remains engaged, often traveling from Washington, D. C., to speak at or support events at the University of Texas, in an effort to ensure that students who come after her have even greater access to the top faculty at UT that she experienced. Arleas was personally mentored by Dr. Barbara Jordan, Congresswoman and UT professor. She continues with this tradition by of giving back to the University by mentoring undergraduate and law school students and she hopes that through her work, more lives will be transformed just as hers has been.
Kea is the first person from Fayette County and the fifth person from the surrounding Central Texas areas to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award since it was created in 1958. The four prior distinguished recipients from this area are John and Elizabeth Shatto Massey, natives of Colorado County, Texas and James Truchard, also a native of Colorado County. The late Jean Wilhausen Kasper of Shiner, Lavaca County, Texas also received this recognition.
Mrs. Massey has served as the Chair of the University of Texas Development Board, Co-Chair of its Capital Campaign, and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Chancellors Council of the University of Texas System. Mr. Massey has served as a Trustee of the Texas Foundation, Chairman of the Texas Law School Foundation, and President of the Texas Exes. Both Mr. and Mrs. Massey have received UT’s very highest honor, the Presidential Citation. In 2012 Mr. Massey was also inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame. Dr. James Truchard founded the highly successful National Instruments Corporation in Austin and Mrs. Jean Wilhausen Kasper served as President of the Texas Exes.
Kea is licensed to practice before the Supreme Court of the State of Texas and the United States Supreme Court. She is also a member of the National Bar Association and a past vice-president the Jack and Jill of America Service Organization for children. Kea has a passion for advocating for the rights of those who often don’t have a voice to speak and this motivated her to serve on the Board of Directors for a Washington, D.C. Adoption Agency. After this service, Kea and her former husband adopted two infant children. She served as president of the Parent Teacher Association for two different schools as her children were growing up. She is an active member of the congregation and the Board of Trustees of the Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church in Washington D.C. She is a previous member of the Lomax A.M.E. Zion Methodist Church where she as a trail blazer as the first woman to be appointed to the Steward Board, a leadership Board of the Church. Kea continues to remain involved in her hometown local community and frequently speaks at her home church, St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Schulenburg. She is also a nationally sought-after public speaker on a variety of topics.
Since this Award was created in 1958, recipients have included some of the following notable luminaries: first lady Laura Bush; Heisman Trophy Winner Earl Campbell; Academy Award winning actor Matthew McConaughey; CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite; Admiral William McRaven, former Chancellor of the UT System and officer in charge of US Special Operations Command; Greg Abbott, Governor of Texas; Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady; Kay Bailey Hutchison, former United States Senator and permanent ambassador to NATO, Rex Tillerson; retired Chief Executive Officer of Exxon Mobil Corporation; Tom C. Clark, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court; Lloyd Bentsen, former Secretary of the Treasury and United States Senator from Texas; C.R. Smith, former Chairman of American Airlines and United States Secretary of Commerce; and Denton Cooley, heart surgeon.
Five additional award recipients will be honored along with Kea at the Awards ceremony on UT’s campus in April. They are Paul Begala, political analyst for CNN, Brené Brown, author, public speaker and professor, Craig Dykers, architect, Jeanne Klein, a prominent patron of the arts and advocate for public education, and Gabriella Franco Parcella, Investment Manager.