GW will confer honorary degrees on four distinguished individuals at the May 16 Commencement ceremony on the Ellipse.
In keeping with the recent trend of honoring GW community members, the University will give degrees to alumni Luther Brady and former Gen. John Shalikashvili and to former professor Gail Kern Paster. The school will also honor Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman.
University Marshal Jill Kasle, who oversees Commencement preparations, said it was “no accident” that three of the four degree recipients are GW community members.
“In recent years, President (Stephen Joel) Trachtenberg has really been keen to invite people with a GW connection,” Kasle said.
Officials chose to honor Lederman, who won the Nobel Prize in 1988, because of his accomplishments in the field of physics and his efforts to explain complex scientific phenomena to non-academics.
“His mission in life is to take this terribly complex field and make it accessible for you and me,” she said.
Following speeches by Trachtenberg and two student speakers, each of the four honorees will make brief remarks before the class of 2004 becomes recognized as GW graduates.
Students can seldom go anywhere on campus without encountering the influence of Luther Brady. A leading oncologist and arts benefactor, Brady has donated several sculptures to the University in recent years.
Brady, who received degrees from GW’s undergraduate and medical schools, is currently a member of the Board of Trustees. He is also the namesake of the Media and Public Affairs building’s second floor art gallery.
Brady has procured several art pieces for the University, including a statue of Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin and a Sam Maitin sculpture that stands outside University Police headquarters.
In a phone interview last week, Brady, a professor at Drexel University’s Hahnemann School of Medicine, said the works of art create color and interest in places that previously went unnoticed.
“It brings focus to the space, enlivens an empty space – makes it active,” said Brady, a former executive committee chairman of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“It serves to create an interest and that the University is not only about school,” he continued. “It’s about a lot of other things.”
Brady came to GW at the age of 16 during World War II and quickly met “wonderful” people who studied part time while working for the government and military. He also recalled memorable professors who piqued his interest in art and medicine.
“To me,” Brady said, “it was an incredible experience and an incredible time.”
Asked what he would say to the 20,000 people expected to gather on the Ellipse May 16, Lederman, a world-renowned physicist, remarked, “I think I’m just supposed to look wise.”
“After four years of hard work at a university, a few sentences from a purportedly wise person isn’t very helpful,” Lederman said.
A winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1988, Lederman is the director emeritus of Chicago’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Lederman, who has received honorary degrees from several universities, said he would tell graduates that good grades are not necessarily indicative of future success.
“It isn’t really a precursor of ultimate accomplishment because the thing that leads to success is something you can’t measure – imagination, creativity,” said Lederman, who described himself as a “modicum above average student” in high school and college.
“That’s a simple message – one that tends to resonate with a lot of students.”
Gail Kern Paster
In 2002, after teaching at GW as a full-time English professor for 28 years, Paster moved across town to the Folger Shakespeare Library, where she serves as its director.
During her years at GW, Paster said she saw the University improve its academic standing and students’ quality of life.
“Then it was an ambitious university, but its ambitions were pretty much unfulfilled,” Paster said of GW during her first few years in Foggy Bottom. “It has gone so far down the road of becoming a great national university.”
When she graduated from college in the mid-1960s, Paster said she “had the sense that everything (was) open and available.” After graduation, Paster worked for a publishing house in New York.
“There’s nothing better than being young and poor in New York City,” she said.
Paster added that she “couldn’t be more appreciative” of receiving an honorary degree from GW, which she credited with “nurturing my career for 28 years.”
After receiving his master’s degree in international affairs from GW in 1970, Shalikashvili climbed the ranks of the military, eventually becoming chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton. He is currently a visiting professor at Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies.
Shalikashvili last visited GW in March when he joined Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry at a national security policy address in the Jack Morton Auditorium. He could not be reached for comment last week.
A native of Poland, Shalikashvili has held Army posts in Germany, Italy, Vietnam and Korea.