Nacogdoches AAUW Honors 2024 Woman of the Year

Merilyn Walton will be honored as the 2024 Nacogdoches AAUW Woman of the Year at a brunch, Saturday, April 20, 2024, 10:00 am, at the Lumberjack National Club, 3001 US Hwy 59. Since 1985, Nacogdoches AAUW has presented the annual award to a woman who has contributed significantly to the Nacogdoches community. In addition to Walton, seven women will be honored for their service in specific areas of the community: Laura Culpepper, Constance Engelking, Lauren Gaudette, Kendra Lockett, Sharon Ninness, Dawn Stover, and Ann Wilson.

Proceeds from the brunch support the Nacogdoches AAUW Scholarship presented yearly to an SFA student. Anyone who wishes to celebrate the honorees by making a donation to the AAUW Scholarship Fund is invited to contact Dr. Audrey Young at

Merilyn Walton-Woman of the Year

 Merilyn Walton grew up in Eastern Kentucky. At age six, she knew she wanted to attend college and then serve as a missionary. After graduating from college, her calling took her to Africa in 1968. She returned to the United States and received her masters degree, returning to Africa to honor her commitment to a career as a missionary. While in Africa, Walton met her husband Max Walton. In 1993, the couple chose to retire in East Texas, where Max was born and grew up. They purchased a home in Nacogdoches and moved there permanently in 2005.

Walton soon became active in First Baptist Church, taking on the ministry of teaching 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. She also joined several community service organizations, including Newcomers, Nacogdoches County Retired Teachers Association, the Bridge Club, and Nacogdoches AAUW.

As a member of Newcomers, Walton took on the role of delegate to the Nacogdoches Federation of Women’s Clubs, an organization that maintains and provides financial support for the Old University Building on the TJR Campus. Within the Federation, Walton has most recently served as Second Vice-President for Hospitality, preparing for functions and meetings held at the OUB and working with the Nacogdoches ISD Maintenance Department to ensure that the OUB receives routine maintenance, repairs, and cleaning.

As a member of AAUW, Walton has served on the Expanding Your Horizons and the Woman of the Year Event Planning committees. She has chaired the EYH Door Prize Committee, the Woman of the Year Selection Committee, and the Scholarship Selection Committee for many years.

Walton has also served the entire Nacogdoches community as a member of the City Planning Committee, developing a comprehensive plan for the entire City of Nacogdoches. She serves by focusing on underserved areas of Nacogdoches, hoping to bring a better quality of life to all residents of Nacogdoches.

Dawn Stover-Beautification

Dawn Stover joined the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in November 2021 as the study leader/agronomist at the East Texas Plant Materials Center in Nacogdoches. She recently received the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief’s Conservation Stewardship Award for Community Service.

Prior to her current service, Stover spent more than two decades as a Research Associate at Stephen F. Austin State University, where she developed an extensive program to collect, propagate, display, and distribute plants native to the Pineywoods of East Texas. She was responsible for elevating the semiannual plant sales to a successful regional event.

Stover has also served as a member of First United Methodist Church, Nacogdoches Junior Forum, City of Nacogdoches Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and Keep Nacogdoches Beautiful Board of Directors. She is a founding member of the Garden Capital of Texas Committee.

Through her various service roles, Stover has been responsible for the selection and placement of more than 2,000 trees throughout Nacogdoches for Texas Arbor Day, developed the Friends of the Forest Trail in Pecan and Pioneer Parks, implemented 7 native plant monarch waystation gardens in Nacogdoches and Lufkin, and initiated the Nacogdoches Median wildflower planting north of the Nacogdoches.

Stover earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology from West Texas A&M University and a Master of Science in Agriculture from Stephen F. Austin State University. She is a member of the Pineywoods Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas.

Laura Culpepper-Community Service

Laura Culpepper spent her childhood years in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, before going to college in Syracuse, New York. After graduating from Syracuse University in 1985, she worked for large architectural firms in Washington, D.C. where she gained experience designing sizeable corporate, commercial buildings; and then in Birmingham, Alabama where she focused on healthcare buildings and other commercial projects.

Laura is the mother of six children. She moved to Nacogdoches in1996 when her husband accepted a position with SFA, starting her own business as an architect in 1999. She worked from her house for many years while her children were small, and later opened an office on Main Street where she continues her business today.

In addition to her work as an architect, Laura has become an advocate for mental health, spiritual renewal, and suicide prevention. After the loss of her son, Ross in 2018, and seeing the limitations of the mental health system first-hand, she co-founded The Village Nac in 2020 where she serves as Mission Director and Chair of the Board of Directors.

The Village Nac addresses the needs of those suffering from chronic mental health issues and homelessness. It is not a mental health facility, but a faith-based, 21-acre, live-in environment that is conducive to healing – where there are no ties to insurance companies and no time constraints for getting well.

Laura does her best to balance work and life responsibilities with her leadership role in the non-profit world. She is a grandmother of four, a published poet, and loves to write, read, and play the piano to unwind.

Constance Engleking-Community Service

Constance Ann Engelking was born in Little Falls, New York. She attended Mojave High School in the Mojave Desert and later graduated from Trinity High School in Euless, Texas in 1978. She graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University and earned her Bachelor of Science degree with a minor in Foods and Nutrition in 1982. Constance started and operated her own business of furniture refinishing for over 20 years, worked as a correctional officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and was a “first hire” when Lowes came to Nacogdoches. At the age of 52, she became a dual licensed funeral director and embalmer, later becoming a manager of Cason Monk Metcalf Funeral Directors where she served for 16 years.

In 2020, Engleking became the Co-founder and On-Site Director of The Village Nac. She is a faithful, live in, on-site “Villager” who devotes her time and creativity to helping establish a safe community for those who suffer from chronic mental health issues and homelessness to experience God’s unconditional love. She oversees and coordinates a host of day-to-day operational needs to keep projects moving forward and to keep things running smoothly. The village is the most rewarding experience she has ever had and is also the most demanding challenge she’ll ever encounter.

Her passion for the Village evolved from the need of her own family who had to learn more about the devastating challenges people face when their brains are not working properly. She lost a son who suffered from severe mental health challenges and hopes that the Village becomes a model for others to look to for support.

She is a mother of four sons and grandmother of nine grandchildren.

Sharon Ninness-Community Service

Dr. Sharon Ninness has resided in Nacogdoches for the past 34 years with her husband Chris. Recently retired as adjunct professor in the doctoral program for Educational Leadership at Texas A&M-Commerce, she previously taught graduate special education and undergraduate secondary courses at Stephen F. Austin State University. Ninness holds a BA, M.Ed., and Ed.D. from SFA and an M.Ed in special education from Texas Women’s University.

Prior to working in higher education, Dr. Ninness taught at public and private elementary and secondary schools in self-contained, multi-age, resource, and G/T pull-out settings. Sharon is a member of Phi Delta Kappa International, Nacogdoches AAUW, and the SFA University Women’s Club. Previously, she received two PDK service awards, one from the SFASU chapter and one from the TAMU-C chapter. Last year, she was recognized as the Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers—Deep East Texas Chapter.

For the previous two years, served on the Board of Solid Foundation, writing grants and serving as secretary. She also collaborated with Gary Lee Ashcraft to acquire $25,000 in grant funding to replenish the Nacogdoches County Relief Fund after a disastrous F-3 tornado hit Cushing. Having written several grants, Dr. Ninness has presented grant writing workshops to various organizations and university classes.

Dr. Ninness currently serves on the Board of Nacogdoches HOPE Food Pantry as corresponding secretary, manages Jo’s Diner—A Kitchen of HOPE, leads the evening operation of food distribution, directs activities in the Resource Center, delivers food to homebound seniors, and writes grants. She has also served as the chair of the Nacogdoches County Hunger Relief Coalition. Dr. Ninness is committed to social justice, cultural proficiency, equity, democratic leadership, and inclusive practices.

Lauren Gaudette-Health Services

Lauren Gaudette has worked for 56 years as a nurse, 27 years an Army nurse and 28 years as a Family Nurse Practitioner, providing health care to civilians and soldiers from 1969 to the present.  She is currently semi-retired.

Some of Gaudette’s civilian work experience includes working as camp nurse seven summers at Pine Cove Camp in Flint, Texas, at Camp Huwani in Timpson, Texas, at Kids Across America in Branson, Missouri, and at Easter Seal Camp in Virginia. 

In addition to practicing as a nurse, Gaudette has educated future nurses at the following colleges and universities: Incarnate Word College, five years; Stephen F. Austin State University, two years; Angelina College, 12 years; and Texas A&M Corpus Christi, ten years.

As part of medical teams, Gaudette has served in the mission field in many countries, giving health care to those in need living in austere conditions. She most recently served in Zambia last summer on a medical mission with Youth With a Mission out of Lindale, Texas. During that trip she provided medical care in three different villages to hundreds of people. Gaudette will serve this upcoming summer with a Nacogdoches group providing medical care in Ecuador. 

Within the Nacogdoches community, Gaudette serves different organizations with her healthcare expertise. Twice a month she provides education and blood pressure screening at Jo’s Diner, a free lunch venue for the community located at the HOPE Resource Center.  As a member of AAUW, she volunteers as one of the onsite nurses for the Annual Expanding Your Horizons Math and Science Exploration for Middle School Girls.

Gaudette holds a BSN from Texas Women’s University, MSN from UT Health Science Center San Antonio, and Post MSN FNP from UT Medical Branch.

Ann Wilson-Historic Preservation

Dr. Ann Wilson had the privilege to become a Nacogdoches resident when she joined the faculty in the College of Business at Stephen F. Austin State University in 2003. Dr. Wilson holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Arkansas and a PhD from The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in Oxford, Mississippi. Dr. Wilson’s career of over 50 years included working in the private sector in business and government and teaching on the secondary, post-secondary, and collegiate levels. She also has held many leadership positions throughout her work career.

Upon retirement from SFA in 2019 after 16 years, she was awarded Professor Emeritus status, and she still serves on the advisory board for the Department of Business Communication and Legal Studies in the College of Business at SFA. Additionally, Dr. Wilson has spent her retirement volunteering for several women’s organizations in Nacogdoches. She is honored to have served since 2022 as President of the Federation of Women’s Clubs where she has assisted in historical preservation of the Nacogdoches Old University Building. Dr. Wilson also volunteers as an office assistant as well as serves as a Stephen Leader and Minister at her church, First United Methodist Church.

Kendra Lockett-Sports

Kendra Lockett, a native of Kilgore, Texas, attended Stephen F. Austin State University, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology.

During her college years, Lockett not only excelled academically but also showcased her athletic prowess as a valuable member of the Lady Jacks soccer team. She was named Collegiate Southland Conference Freshman of the Year in 2000, and Southland Conference Champions in 2003. This experience laid the foundation for her love of sports, setting the stage for a career dedicated to coaching and inspiring young athletes.

Lockett has dedicated nearly two decades to teaching and coaching in Nacogdoches ISD. She has led her team to several play-off appearances, along with being named District Coach of the Year in 2018 & 2022. Over the years, she has imparted her knowledge and passion for sports to countless students, making a lasting impact on their lives.

Currently, Lockett serves as the Head Boys and Girls Cross Country Coach and the Head Girls Soccer Coach. Her commitment to nurturing the potential of her student-athletes goes beyond the field, emphasizing not only skill development but also fostering qualities like teamwork, discipline, and resilience.

In her personal life, Lockett is the wife to Michael Lockett and a proud mother to three boys: Mikail, Micah, and Kai. As her children pursue their own passions in sports, Lockett actively participates in and cherishes the moments spent attending their various sporting events.

Beyond the busy world of coaching and teaching, Lockett values her time with family and friends and understands the importance of balance and cherishing the connections that make life truly fulfilling. Kendra Lockett, a dedicated educator, coach, and family person, continues to inspire and shape the future of young athletes in the Nacogdoches ISD.