TOP RIGHT: Dannebrog icon Harriett Nielsen holds a photo of her daughter, Ramona Graves. The photo was taken in 1973 when Ramona was a princess in the Ak-Sar-Ben court. Ramona was a 1969 Centura High School graduate and earned her first degree at Kearney State College in 1973. (For The Independent/Elizabeth King)

DANNEBROG — Harriett Nielsen is proud of her daughter Ramona. But then again, she has every right to be.

Hart Energy recently honored Dr. Ramona Graves as the Pinnacle Award Winner, recognizing a lifetime of impact in the energy industry. The awards luncheon also gave accolades to those recognized as Oil and Gas Investor’s 25 most Influential Women in Energy.

Graves, 67, has roots that run deep in Central Nebraska. She is a Dannebrog native, graduated from Centura High School with the Class of 1969, earned her first degree at Kearney State College in 1973.

“When I come back to Dannebrog to visit my mom, my brother, sister-in-law and extended family, I still tell people that I am going home,” she said. “Dannebrog will always be home to me. The foundation of my life was laid here. It is where I learned how to work (really hard work), how to laugh (mostly at myself), how to treat people with respect and kindness and how to try, fail and try again.”

Graves — professor and head of petroleum engineering at Colorado School of Mines — earned the award for her “extraordinary impact on the energy industry and for raising the standards of her students as individuals and of the industry as a whole.”

“I try to instill the same values in my students that were taught to me in Dannebrog — work hard, laugh often, treat people with respect, and don’t be afraid to fail,” she said.

Nielsen paused while recently flipping through a scrapbook filled with her daughter’s numerous achievements.

“When Ramona was in school, her teachers would remark how intelligent she was and how she excelled in her studies,” Nielsen said. “She’s got some stubborn Dane in her, because when she makes up her mind to do something, she just does it.

“I’m just so very, very proud of all of her accomplishments. She’s a pretty big deal!”

Harriett Nielsen, 90, is a bit of a living legend herself. She owned and operated Harriett’s Danish, a mainstay gathering place in Dannebrog for over 23 years. Roger Welsch helped launch the corner café into the limelight when he hosted “Postcards from Nebraska,” a segment on the popular CBS Sunday Morning program, decades ago.

The awards luncheon was on Feb. 6 in downtown Houston. According to an interview conducted by Hart Energy and published in the awards program, when Graves left home to pursue a doctorate in petroleum engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, her father gave her a hug and said, “Gee, honey, I hope you find a husband this time.”

That was life in rural Nebraska in the mid-1970s. Graves’ father was a farmer and a rural mail carrier.

The interview article said Graves was already unconventional, having left a career as a high school math and physics teacher to start a masters degree program in chemical engineering at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Graves’ first day at the doctorial program at Mines was an introduction to an entirely new world.

“I knew nothing about the industry other than what I’d read,” she said. “I didn’t know any petroleum engineers. I didn’t even know anything about the school except that it was in Colorado, close to skiing.”

But despite this, Graves quickly became entranced with the discipline and the oil and gas business.

Graves has followed a traditional academic career path, rising through the ranks of assistant professor to associate professor, full professor and department head of petroleum engineering. Today, she is the dean of the College of Earth Resource Sciences and Engineering. For the past 12 years, she has been heavily involved within shaping strategic policy for the university as a whole.

As dean, Graves oversees not only petroleum engineering, mining engineering, geology and geophysics, but also economics and business, as well as humanities, arts and social sciences. Her college spans the spectrum from identification and extraction of natural resources to economics to public policy and the social license to operate.

All of these areas are combined into one college. It’s a very unique organizational structure, Graves said, and it facilitates the sharing and cross-fertilization of ideas.

Not only was Graves recognized and applauded by her mother and her industry peers, she was recently featured in a book authored by Maria Angelo Capello and Hosnia S. Hashim, “Learned in the Trenches.”

The book details the lives and accomplishments of two women. One of those women is Dr. Ramona Graves.

From the book’s introduction:

“This book shares the learnings and perspectives of two pioneer women who waded the many challenges posed by multi-culturalism and gender in one of the corporate environments more rigid and traditional in the business world: the energy sector in the Middle East.”

The authors continued with the accolades for Graves in her section of the book:

“There are people who innovate with every step they take. There are people who easily motivate everyone around them. And there are people who push you to be the best you can be. Ramona Graves is a special kind of person who encompasses all these kinds of people into one being.

“In 2012, she was appointed Dean of the College of Earth Resource Sciences and Engineering, the first dean of the new college and only female dean on the campus of the Colorado School of Mines. A school with worldwide prestige and one of the oldest institutions in the United States, founded in 1874, ranked as the top institutional engineering institution in the world. Hers is not a minor accomplishment, in this era of empowerment of women, as the Colorado School of Mines did not have a woman in a leading role this important in its more than 143 years of history.

“She was the first woman ever to obtain a PhD in Petroleum Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines and the second woman to get a PhD in Petroleum Engineering in the United States, and one of the first 10 women in the world to accomplish this feat.”

Graves has taught an estimated 12,000 students over her career, in more than 350 courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels. She has supervised 500 thesis students.

The chapter added: “Ramona is an accessible giant. She is a tornado of positive energy and passion for good quality education in petroleum engineering, and one feels blessed to have been touched by this strong wind!”

Graves always returns to her Central Nebraska roots.

“When I received the Pinnacle Award for lifetime achievement and contribution to the industry, I was honored and a bit embarrassed,” she said. “My career as a petroleum engineer has allowed me to travel the world, meet amazing people, and learn about cultures far removed from Nebraska.

“Yet, I’m modestly uneasy with what I have become, because in my heart I’m still a Nebraska girl who is just working hard and doing the job she loves. You shouldn’t be awarded for that!”

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