Congratulations to Tony Award-winning playwright and screenwriter David Henry Hwang and singer-songwriter, producer, and actor Leehom Wang’98, who were among the eight outstanding individuals who received honorary degrees at Williams College’s 227th Commencement Exercise on Sunday, June 5, 2016. Other recipients included Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, who was the principal speaker; Pulitzer Prize-winning author and science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert who delivered the baccalaureate speech; Sarah Bolton, current dean of the college at Williams and president-elect of The College of Wooster; author and illustrator Eric Carle; writer and commentator Frank Deford; and Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet.
Described by The New York Times as “a true original,” David Henry Hwang (Doctor of Letters) is an American dramatist whose work includes the plays M. Butterfly, Chinglish, Yellow Face, Kung Fu, and Golden Child, as well as the Broadway musicals Aida (co-author), Flower Drum Song (2002 revival), and Disney’s Tarzan. America’s most-produced living opera librettist, he has written four works with composer Philip Glass, including 1000 Airplanes on the Roof. In September, the San Francisco Opera will present the World Premiere of Hwang and Bright Sheng’s Dream of The Red Chamber, helmed by Stan Lai. Hwang has won a Tony Award and three OBIE awards, and he has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. His screenplays include Possession (co-writer), Golden Gate, and M. Butterfly. He is a writer/producer for the TV series The Affair, and he is currently developing an original series, Shanghai. Hwang won the 2011 PEN/Laura Pels Award, the 2012 Inge Award, the 2012 Steinberg “Mimi” Award, a 2014 Doris Duke Artist Award, and the 2015 IPSA Distinguished Artist Award. He attended Stanford University and Yale Drama School and was recently the Residency One Playwright at New York’s Signature Theatre. Hwang holds honorary degrees from Columbia College, Chicago, Dr. of Letters, 1998; American Conservatory Theatre, MFA Acting, 2000; LeHigh University, Dr. of Letters, 2011; USC, Dr. of Literature, 2013; and SUNY Purchase College, Dr. of Fine Arts, 2015. He directs Columbia University’s School of the Arts M.F.A. program in playwriting.
“When the play you write as a college senior wins an Obie, what do you do for an encore? In your case a whole lot. That undergraduate effort, which portrayed clashes between established Asian Americans and newcomers, began your career-long exploration of ethnicity and identity and the misunderstandings, some powerful and some poignant, that result when cultures collide. It is a career of enormous range. You have worked with Philip Glass and with Disney. You have written for stage, screen, television, and dance, and are the most produced living opera librettist. M. Butterfly, a deconstruction of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, exploded Western stereotypes of Asians, was the first play by an Asian American to appear on Broadway, has been staged in more than four dozen countries, and has been made into a movie. It also made you the first Asian American to win a Tony Award for Best Play. You went on to co-write the book for Aida, with music by Elton John and Tim Rice, and reworked for modern sensibilities Rodgers and Hammerstein’s creaky Flower Drum Song. It all began, you have said, by taking your grandmother’s oral history when you were ten. That curiosity, that initiative, that interest in the fluidity of identity continue to enlighten through your art cultures much in need of learning how to meaningfully engage.”
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Leehom Wang ’98 (Doctor of Music) is a Chinese-American singer-songwriter, music producer, actor, and film director, known as the “king of Chinese pop.” His work blends pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, classical, and traditional Chinese music ranging from aboriginal folk music to Beijing opera. He is the best-selling Mandarin-language musician of his generation and has released 15 solo studio albums. He has won four of Taiwan’s Golden Melody Awards and 15 Chinese Music Awards. In addition to his musical career, he has acted in several movies, including Ang Lee’s thriller Lust,Caution (2007); Little Big Soldier (2010), an action comedy co-starring Jackie Chan; and Love in Disguise (2010), a romantic comedy that Wang also wrote, directed, and scored. His most recent film is Michael Mann’s cyber thriller Blackhat (2015), in which he stars alongside Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, and Viola Davis. Wang was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., and he double-majored in music and Asian studies at Williams. By the time he graduated, he had already released four albums. His fifth, Revolution, released in August 1998, became his breakthrough album, winning him Golden Melody Awards for best producer and best male singer.
“Wait, this is crazy. You became a teen idol while living in Williamstown? You’ve somehow managed to blend pop, rock, jazz, hip-hop, and R&B, along with aboriginal folk music and Beijing opera? Your albums have sold millions and millions. You’ve packed venues in more than one hundred cities, from the Bird’s Nest Stadium to the Hollywood Bowl? You have more than 50 million followers on social media? You carried the torch for both the Beijing and London Olympic Games and performed in the Beijing closing ceremony? You have gazed up at diners from the placemats at McDonald’s, and loomed over pedestrians from building-size posters? Inspired by you, swooning middle school girls in Taiwan have formed a Williams College Fan Club? Ang Lee cast you in a movie? You’ve been in films with Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, and Jackie Chan? You’ve been dubbed the King of Chinese Pop, one of the biggest celebrities in Asia, and one of the One Hundred Most Inspiring Asian Americans of All Time? Your stated mission is to bridge east and west through pop culture? You grew up in Rochester? The Mandarin you do all of this in you first learned at Williams? And you developed your chops crooning with The Springstreeters? To borrow one of your album titles: Unbelievable!”
Bryan Stevenson (Doctor of Laws) is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., a nonprofit that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. He has successfully argued several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including a recent ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 and younger are unconstitutional. He and his staff have won reversals, relief, or release for more than 115 wrongly condemned death-row prisoners. Among Stevenson’s numerous awards and honors are an American Bar Association Wisdom Award for Public Service, MacArthur Fellowship, Olof Palme Prize, American Civil Liberties Union National Medal of Liberty, National Public Interest Lawyer of the Year Award, Gruber Prize for Global Justice, and Ford Foundation Visionaries Award. He graduated from Harvard Law School and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has been awarded 21 honorary degrees, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a professor of law at New York University. He is the author of The New York Timesbestseller Just Mercy.
“The great-grandson of slaves, the grandson of a murder victim, a former student of a segregated elementary school, you bear the marks of society’s long racial bias, which you have dedicated your life to extinguish. While at Harvard Law School, you joined The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and went on to found the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. With scant resources other than your formidable drive, you have represented indigent prisoners and those who have been denied the right to vigorous defense. You have won reversals, relief, or release for more than one hundred wrongly convicted prisoners on death row. Your broader legal victories include one that eliminated excessive and unfair sentencing, another that addressed the abuse of prisoners and the mentally ill, and a third that deemed unconstitutional sentences of mandatory life without parole for children seventeen and younger. At the same time you have initiated major anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts to attack the deep, persistent roots of racial inequality. Desmond Tutu has called you America’s Nelson Mandela. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King said, “but it bends toward justice.” Impatiently you dangle, often dangerously, from the end of that arc to hasten the day when at very long last it meets the horizon.”
Elizabeth Kolbert (Doctor of Letters) has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999. Her most recent book, The Sixth Extinction, received the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015. She also was the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, and The Prophet of Love: And Other Tales of Power and Deceit. She is the editor ofThe Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009. Her three-part series on global warming, “The Climate of Man,” from whichField Notes was adapted, won the 2006 National Magazine Award for Public Interest as well as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine writing award and a National Academies Communication Award. In 2010 Kolbert won the National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism, and she has received a Heinz Award, Guggenheim Fellowship, and Lannan Literary Fellowship. Prior to joining the staff at The New Yorker, she worked at The New York Times, first heading up its Albany bureau and later writing the Metro Matters column. Kolbert is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College.
“You have snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, climbed the Andes, swum the Tyrrhenian Sea, and even spelunked a Vermont cave filled with dead bats . . . all to report the story of your career—how humans are rapidly changing Earth’s ecosystems. We pump greenhouse gases into the air, acidify the sea, and move species to habitats unprepared by evolution to absorb them. The result is the largest wave of extinctions since the asteroid hit of sixty-five million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and so much else. This would be easy for a busy world not to notice without focused testimony such as yours. The natural systems involved are complex as are the techniques used to study them; your gift is to find and to tell with clarity the stories that make it all real. Your pieces in The New Yorker and your books Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction carry a prophetic voice—clear, unflinching, persistent. It is a voice that has gained widening acclaim, from a Pulitzer Prize to an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We take particular pride that from your distant adventures it is to this small town, surrounded by this natural beauty, that you return to think and to write. For it is not just the story of your career that you are telling, but the story of our lifetime.”
Sarah Bolton (Doctor of Science) has been dean of the college since 2010, and in November she was named the 12th president of The College of Wooster, a role she will assume on July 1. As dean, with broad responsibility for all aspects of students’ personal and academic growth, she has focused on students’ experiences both in and out of the classroom, built programs for first-generation college students, and worked to improve student safety and address issues of equity and inclusion. Bolton joined the physics faculty at Williams in 1995 after completing her B.S. at Brown University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in physics at the University of California at Berkeley. Her research explores the properties of novel, nanostructured materials that have features made up of only a few atomic layers. Her work has been published in journals including Physical Review,Journal of the Optical Society of America, and the Journal of Quantum Electronics. At Williams, she has served as chair of the physics department and chair of the Faculty Steering Committee. Williams honored her in 2009 with the Outstanding Mentor Award for Fostering Inclusive Academic Excellence.
“Words fail. But they’re all I’ve got, so here goes. A nerd, in the highest and best sense of the term, you have navigated deftly one of the last male-dominated fields in academe, and, even more impressively, have defied the clear illogic of appointing physicists to administrative positions. No one believes more deeply in the value of the liberal arts. No one more relishes the life of the mind. No one is more devoted to the academic and personal development of students. No one is more sensitive to those for whom this is not an easy place. No one has a sharper strategic sense of how to advance this critical work, or is more capable of empowering students to sustain and improve their own community. No one is a more reliable colleague . . . is more giving of her time and attention. No one exhibits more generosity of spirit or is more authentic in every conversation. No one more courageously steps into fraught situations. No one has set a more powerful example of what it means to be an engaged member of an academic community. And, most importantly, no student, now and for years to come, will not have benefited from your truly awesome work. In appointing you president, The College of Wooster has made a wise choice. But they have no idea what they are getting, because, as I said, words fail.”
Eric Carle (Doctor of Fine Arts) is an internationally bestselling and award-winning author and illustrator of books for very young children. His best-known work, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, has been translated into 62 languages and sold more than 41 million copies since its publication in 1969. Carle has illustrated more than 70 books, most of which he also wrote, and more than 132 million copies of his books have sold around the world. Born in Syracuse, N.Y., but raised and educated in Germany, Carle returned to the U.S. in 1952 and took a job as a graphic designer in the promotion department of The New York Times. His career as a book illustrator and author began with 1967’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Carle has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Original Art Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Illustrators, an NEA Foundation Award for Outstanding Service to Public Education, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the American Library Association. In 2002, with his wife Barbara (who passed away in 2015), Carle co-founded the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass.
““Uncle August, tell me a story,” you would say. “First you have to wind up my thinking machine,” he would reply. This was the cue for you to turn the imaginary spring beside his head until he shouted “Halt, I have a story for you.” Years later—after moving to Germany, and back to America, and working as a graphic artist for The New York Times and an advertising agency—it was you who became the storyteller, through more than seventy books, in more than sixty languages, that have sold more than one hundred and thirty million copies. Along the way, you helped change the genre: introducing collages, colors, and compositions inspired by your love of artists such as Renoir, Picasso, and Klee, and by using die-cut pages that sprang to life, blurring the line between book and toy. You have been the master also of playfulness, as when one day on a whim you punched a hole through a stack of paper, which passed through your own thinking machine and emerged as the track of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. A sign of success, Emerson said, is to have won the affection of children, and perhaps no one has done that more than you. Hundreds of children write you letters each week. You have become, in a way, the world’s Opa—the grandfather onto whose lap millions of small children continue to climb in delicious anticipation of another story of simple beauty and delight.”
Frank Deford (Doctor of Letters) is the author of 18 books, a monthly commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition, senior correspondent on the HBO show Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, and senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, where he began his career in 1962 after graduating from Princeton. He has been elected to the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters and voted U.S. Sportswriter of the Year six times. Called “the world’s greatest sportswriter” by the magazine GQ, Deford has received numerous awards for his print and broadcast journalism, including the National Magazine Award for profiles, an Emmy, and a George Foster Peabody Award. In 2013, President Obama honored Deford with a National Humanities Medal for “transforming how we think about sports.” Two of Deford’s books—the novel Everybody’s All-American and Alex: The Life Of A Child, his memoir about his daughter who died of cystic fibrosis—have been made into movies.Sports Illustrated named Everybody’s All-American one of its Top 25 Sports Books of All Time. Deford is chairman emeritus of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, having served as its national chairman for 16 years.
“Benjamin Franklin Deford, you have electrified the field of sports journalism, with writing and broadcasting that crackles with insight, erudition, and an overhand smash of your namesake’s wit. Half the joy of watching sports is talking about them afterward—a genre in which you are the A-Rod . . . Wait, I take that back, the Barry Bonds . . . No, not him either . . . How about the Hank Aaron? Six times your peers have voted you U.S. Sportswriter of the Year. Twice the Washington Journalism Review has named you national magazine writer of the year. A triple threat, you are also an ace broadcaster and the author of almost a score of books, half of them novels. Since 1979, your commentaries on NPR have more often quoted Shakespeare than Berra and eschewed the ranting that now marks so much of sports commentary. Your focus, less on the score than on the characters, heroic and fallen, who play the games, encompasses much more than the world of sports, as your early attention to tennis and to female athletes hastened the growth of both in the nation’s consciousness. One reason you have been able to keep these subjects in perspective has been, by your account, the loss of your daughter to cystic fibrosis, as told in your book Alex: The Life of a Child. As a result, your career has run not only long, but deep.”
Carrie Hessler-Radelet (Doctor of Laws), the 19th director of the Peace Corps, began her career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa, where she taught secondary school. A member of a four-generation Peace Corps family, she went on to work in public health for more than two decades, where her focus was on HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health. She also was involved in establishing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. At the Peace Corps, Hessler-Radelet has led efforts to revitalize volunteer recruitment and improve volunteer support and risk reduction. She has forged new partnerships, including the Global Health Service Partnership, which sends physicians and nurses to teach in developing countries and has increased the agency’s focus on girls’ education through the Peace Corps’ Let Girls Learn program in coordination with the government-wide Let Girls Learn initiative launched by the President and First Lady. Previously, she served as vice president and director of the Washington, D.C., office of John Snow Inc., overseeing health programs in more than 85 countries. She holds a master’s degree in health policy and management from the Harvard School of Public Health and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Boston University.
“Member of a four-generation Peace Corps family, you volunteered with your husband in Western Samoa, living in a thatch hut, teaching high school, helping to design a national public awareness campaign on disaster preparedness, and building the kind of “powerful relationships of trust” that have represented the heart of the corps since its founding. When years later your grandmother asked, “What are you going to do with your one life?” you chose to devote it to global health. As an international consultant, you lived and worked in more than 50 countries, and when the chance came to reconnect with the Peace Corps you leapt. Under your leadership the corps has rethought every aspect of its operations. You have encouraged greater use by volunteers of technology, tackled head on issues of volunteer safety, and put more emphasis on helping returned volunteers transition to careers. Applications to the Peace Corps have since hit historic highs. By encouraging communities to embrace adaptive change, the corps now helps host countries to deal with such issues as gender inequality, economic instability, and health challenges. As importantly, volunteers, as you have done throughout your career, are doing the important work of making friends in a fractured world.”
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Examiner.com, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.