Author and English professor Andre Dubus III surveyed the group of honorees at the May 13 Commencement Eve Celebration — an Academy Award-winning actor, an acclaimed writer-actress and two highly successful businessmen — and smiled.
“What strikes me as really remarkable, and actually quite poignant,” Dubus said, “is that everyone up here is the product of a public university. We’re all state school kids.”
Now in its ninth year, the Commencement Eve Celebration honors outstanding members of the graduating class, honorary degree recipients and distinguished alumni. But the lively Q&A that Dubus moderated to open the evening was also a celebration of public universities like UMass Lowell, and the high-quality education they offer.
“I’m proud to say that all of my higher education has been at public universities,” said John Kennedy ’70, the retired president and CFO of Nova Ventures Corp. and one of this year’s honorary degree recipients.
Donald LaTorre ’59, ’07 (H), who received the distinguished alumni award, called himself a “big supporter of public universities, because they’re our future.” The retired president and COO of the Engelhard Corporation, LaTorre now runs his own management consulting firm.
Actor and Massachusetts resident Chris Cooper credited the training he received at the University of Missouri’s “remarkable drama department” with laying the foundation for a successful film career that included his 2003 Oscar for “Adaptation,” as well as memorable performances in “Lone Star,” “The Bourne Identity,” “Seabiscuit” and “August: Osage County.” (He also gave a shout-out to his 6th grade public school teacher, Miss Sheffield, “who recognized my shyness and slowly, slowly coaxed me to express myself.”)
‘You will change the world. The world is a better place, beginning tomorrow.’ -John Kennedy ’70
Cooper and his wife, actress Marianne Leone Cooper (“The Sopranos,” “Goodfellas,” “Joy”), both received honorary degrees. Leone Cooper is also an author, and Dubus called her memoir, “Jesse: A Mother’s Story,” which chronicles the life and untimely death of the Coopers’ son, who was born with cerebral palsy and died at age 17, “one of the finest I have ever read.”
“We moved back to Massachusetts so that our son — who was quadriplegic and nonverbal and brilliant — could be educated in public schools,” said Leone Cooper, a Boston native and the daughter of Italian immigrants. The Coopers had to fight to have Jesse mainstreamed in their local public school, where he went on to become an honors student. “All I can say,” Leone Cooper said with a laugh, “is never mess with an Italian mother.”
Chancellor Jacquie Moloney ’75, ’92 began the evening by honoring more than two dozen members of the Class of 2016 with Chancellor’s Medals for academic achievement, student leadership, community service, and diversity and inclusion. UMass Trustee Philip Johnson presented the top academic honor, the Trustees’ Key Award, to three students: Aya Adam Awadallah, an English major from Haverhill; Timothy Miskell, a computer engineering major from Somerville; and Shivam Patel, a biology major from Lowell. Marielle Handley, an exercise physiology major and softball player from Durham, Conn., received the University Scholar-Athlete Award.
John Kennedy offered the graduates a few parting words of advice. “You are going into the world with a world-class education,” he said. “You will change the world. The world is a better place, beginning tomorrow. Never, ever, ever be anything but proud of your university and your education. And fear nobody.”