Midlakes Announces ‘Graduates of Distinction’ Awards

APRIL 25, 2022 — The Midlakes Graduates of Distinction program returns to recognize a successful entrepreneur, a senior executive at the National Science Foundation, and an educator who taught at Midlakes for 35 years.

The program, established in 2016, recognizes outstanding alumni of Midlakes High School and other honorees who have made significant contributions to society or achieved outstanding accomplishments while forging successful careers.

This year’s inductees were selected two years ago but their induction was put on hold due to the pandemic. The 2020 inductees are Paul Sheppard, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel currently serving as executive officer for the Office of Polar Programs within the National Science Foundation; Jeff Knauss, an angel investor and entrepreneur who co-founded and was the CEO of a highly successful and fast-growing digital marketing agency; and Jeanne Smith, a retired Midlakes Primary School teacher.

Each inductee will be recognized in front of family, friends, school leaders, and community members during a celebration from 4-6 p.m. on Friday, May 6 that will include a tour of Midlakes schools, visits with staff and students, and an hors d’oeuvre reception at Warfield’s Restaurant in Clifton Springs.


Col. Paul R. Sheppard, USAF, retired, is the executive officer for the Office of Polar Programs within the Division of GeoSciences in the National Science Foundation.

In this role, Sheppard coordinates and synchronizes the internal and external activities of Office of Polar Programs staff supporting the U.S. Government’s polar research. He also leads National Science Foundation policy coordination with the National Security Council for the development and management of the national security policy for both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Before this appointment, Sheppard was the chief program manager for the U.S. Antarctic Program, where he was responsible for contract oversight and support of U.S. operations throughout the continent of Antarctica. He had managerial oversight of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Antarctic Services Corporation (Leidos Corp.) logistical and operational support.

He joined the National Science Foundation following 28 years of military service culminating with his position as the Deputy Commander, Joint Task Forces Support Forces Antarctica and Commander, Thirteenth Air Expeditionary Group, headquarters Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.


Jeff Knauss is a serial entrepreneur and angel investor. His entrepreneurial journey started as the CEO and co-founder of Digital Hyve, a full-service digital marketing agency that had offices in Syracuse and Rochester.

Digital Hyve was named the 52nd fastest-growing private company in the United States by Inc. Magazine in its annual Inc. 5,000 edition, where the company was listed as the fifth-fastest growing marketing and advertising company in the nation. Digital Hyve was listed on the Inc. 5,000 list four years in a row.

Jeff has been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, Adweek, Fortune Magazine, Facebook.com Success Stories, Statista, and on multiple television news networks.

In 2021, he sold Digital Hyve to a large, independently owned ad agency, Butler Till, which resulted in 56 employees becoming employee-owners of the new company through an employee stock ownership plan. This has been Jeff’s proudest professional moment as it honored the employees that helped build Digital Hyve.

He is currently a partner and investor in more than 10 businesses in such fields as medical research, professional networking, mobile payment apps, food service, recruitment, and e-commerce.

In 2021, Jeff received an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from SUNY Oswego after graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in public relations with a concentration in marketing.

Before starting Digital Hyve, he spent eight years in broadcast.

Jeff is also very engaged with his community. Currently, Jeff serves on five Board of Directors, including Community Bank, N.A. and Community Bank Systems, Inc.; Loretto Foundation; United Way of CNY; CenterState CEO; and the SUNY Oswego Foundation.

In 2021, Jeff and his wife, Heta, started the Knauss Foundation, which is focused on helping break generational poverty cycles through children’s health and well-being, education, and career pathing.

Jeff lives in Skaneateles with his wife and their two children, Max and Lila.


Jeanne Smith, a resident of Clifton Springs, taught first grade in the Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School District for 35 years, but her service to the children and the community has continued long after her years at Midlakes.

The 2019 Ontario County Senior of the Year award recipient served as “The Story Lady,” reading to young children at the Clifton Springs Library for 25 years; was the coordinator of the Clifton Springs/Phelps Meals on Wheels program for 31 years; and spent nearly 30 years crafting birthday gifts to the residents of the Clifton Springs Hospital Nursing Home.

The SUNY Geneseo graduate has also volunteered extensively in the Clifton Springs United Methodist Church and has been involved in Delta Kappa Gamma International, an organization promoting the professional growth of women educators and excellence in education.


The Midlakes Graduates of Distinction will be celebrated on Friday, May 6 during a reception and induction ceremony starting 4 p.m. at Warfield’s Restaurant Lounge & Bakery, 7 W. Main St., Clifton Springs. Tickets ($20) for the reception are available at the Midlakes High School Main Office, Sandy’s Floral Gallery, and Phelps Hometown Pharmacy. For more details, nomination forms, and other information on the Midlakes Graduates of Distinction program, visit Midlakes.org/GraduatesofDistinction.