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Oprah Was Here

What Does It Take to Host One of the Most Famous People in the World—with Just 10 Weeks' Notice?

Oprah Winfrey gathers with six scholarship recipients
Oprah with the first six students awarded scholarships in her name. From left, Coral Gonzalez Diana, Daphne Shakira Naut, Flore Stécie Norcéide, Ashlie Grasa, Winfrey, Jaime Waldron and Nicholas Abourizk.

09/06/2019
By Sarah Corbett

Do not underestimate the power of a handwritten letter.

Of course, it helps if its author is the award-winning novelist Andre Dubus III. And, if you’re UMass Lowell, it helps if Andre Dubus III happens to teach in your English Department.

When Dubus wrote Oprah Winfrey a thank-you note after his novel “House of Sand and Fog” was featured on “Oprah’s Book Club” in 2000, she actually read it. More important to this story: She remembered it.

(“Of course I wrote her a note,” Dubus says today. “She quite literally changed my life.” He is referring, in part, to the fact that his book’s inclusion in Winfrey’s club, and his subsequent appearance on her TV show, played an important role in the millions of copies “House” went on to sell. It was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, shortlisted for the National Book A ward and transformed into an Academy Award-nominated film.)

Winfrey says she receives a surprisingly small number of letters from “Book Club” alumni, and so when Dubus reached out 15 years later to ask her for a favor, she recalled him fondly. Dubus spent three years going back and forth with her team, trying to persuade Winfrey to come to UMass Lowell as the featured guest in the university’s Chancellor’s Speaker Series.

“What really got Oprah to come to Lowell was hearing from us that she would do only good things if she came here, good things for young people who might very well need a helping hand now and then, young people who, like her, started out with little more than their dreams.” -Andre Dubus III
At the end of last summer—after learning that the event would lead to many student scholarships—she decided it was “worth firing up the jet for.” Plus, Winfrey says, “it was a really good letter.”

She confirmed the date on Sept. 7, giving the university a little over two months to pull off what most organizations spend the better part of a year preparing for: Hosting perhaps the world’s most influential and well-known woman.

The campus has had practice hosting big-name visitors, to be sure: The two guests who preceded Winfrey in the Chancellor’s Speaker Series were bestselling author Stephen King and three-time Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep.

But Winfrey is in a league of her own. King and Streep drove themselves to campus, for Pete’s sake—and not just because they happen to live close enough. Winfrey, on the other hand, can’t take a step without the world noticing. Her every moment is accounted for, her every move clocked.

It’s safe to say that pressure was felt at UML. But we River Hawks thrive under pressure.

Looking back now, Winfrey’s visit is a blur.

But what is clear is that the university had never before experienced anything like it.

Records were broken all over the place—from the number of tickets sold, to the amount of sponsorship support secured, to the level of media attention.

“We knew right away that this was not only a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide an incredible experience for our campus and our community, but also to raise a lot of amount of money for student scholarships,” says Chancellor Jacquie Moloney. “But I think we were all surprised by the response.”

Highlights from Oprah's visit to campus last fall.
Almost immediately, the university signed on three $100,000 title sponsors—Liberty Mutual Insurance, Suffolk Construction and the Marty Meehan Educational Foundation—an unprecedented figure at UML. Another three dozen sponsors at varying levels would follow.

Student tickets sold out in two days. Calls were fielded from all over the country. C-SPAN wanted to live-stream. People magazine requested access.

A 91-page operations guidebook—and a team with representatives from literally every corner of the university—was required to manage everything from security to stage design to snacks (Winfrey’s green room requests were surprisingly simple: sparkling water with a straw, cut fruit and veggies, raw almonds).

But never did the university lose sight of the brass ring: more money that would allow more deserving students to get a quality education. Proceeds from “A Conversation with Oprah Winfrey” went straight to the Oprah Winfrey Scholarship Fund. The first six recipients were selected after a rigorous process in which deserving students were nominated and vetted by the Financial Aid Office. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but share a common life circumstance: Each bears the financial responsibility of their education. All face significant personal challenges, and all work part-time jobs.

Winfrey’s story is not unlike those of many UML students. As she told the crowd at the Tsongas Center that night in November, she understands what it’s like to struggle and has come to believe that “education is the door to freedom, the rainbow that leads to the pot of gold."

Dubus says that this belief, and that connection to the UMass Lowell story, was a factor in her decision to come to the university.

“It became clear to me that what really got Oprah to come to Lowell was her knowing that she would be doing a lot of good for young people who, in general, don't have anything just given to them,” he says. “It was hearing from us that she and her powerful influence would do only good things if she came here, good things for young people who might very well need a helping hand now and then, young people who, like her, started out with little more than their dreams.”

Young people like Flore Stécie Norcéide, a junior who is studying electrical and computer engineering.

“This scholarship makes a big difference to me—as soon as I heard about it, I called my family in Haiti,” she says. “Oprah’s generosity and warmth make me hope that one day, I can be that important person for someone else.”

oprah-collage

Norcéide wasn’t the only one to feel that way. The Oprah Effect lingered on campus and around the city for days.

“Saying she was inspiring doesn’t do it justice,” says Moloney. “Oprah shared so much wisdom and kindness, and truly touched the hearts and souls of both this university and this city. And that was before she absolutely shocked us by matching the money we had raised. Words can’t express the impact $3 million will have on students’ lives. We are so grateful.”

It appears to be mutual. The next morning, Dubus got a text from Winfrey.

“I have a flip phone and don’t text—nor have I ever been on social media nor seen an emoji or a meme—but I can receive texts,” he says. “And the morning after that magical night, I got one from Oprah, telling me what a great night it was and thanking me for being so ‘persistent.’”

Unpracticed in the intricacies of replying to texts, Dubus pressed the call button instead and Winfrey picked right up, he says.

“She said, ‘Andre, is this you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Oprah, is this you?’ And then we had a lovely conversation about UML and the night before, where she again said how glad she was to make the trip.”

Not nearly as glad as we are. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at how the magical night came together.

Thank You To Our Top Oprah Sponsors

Title Sponsors ($100,000)

  • Liberty Mutual Insurance Inc.
  • Marty Meehan Educational Foundation
  • Suffolk Construction

Benefactors ($50,000)

  • Demoulas Foundation
  • Eastern Salt Company Inc.
  • Saab Family Foundation

Friends ($25,000)

  • Bank of America Merrill Lynch
  • Circle Health
  • Comcast/Spectacor
  • Nancy L. Donahue
  • Koya Leadership Partners
  • MFS Investment Management

  • Jacquie and Ed Moloney
  • Soho Development – Jim McClutchy
  • Stephanie Behrakis Liakos – The Behrakis Foundation
  • UMass Foundation