Speakers and Award Recipients
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers addressed the 2023 graduating class.
Richard Powers, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author
Honorary Doctor of Humanities
Richard Powers, prolific author of 13 novels, polymath, and celebrated tree whisperer, will deliver the keynote address for the commencement ceremony honoring Oberlin’s Class of 2023 on Monday, May 22.
Powers’ compelling, genre-busting writings on environmentalism, music, diversity, and the implications of technological innovation have received praise and recognition from readers and reviewers alike.
His novel The Echo Maker won the National Book Award in 2006. Powers is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Overstory — “the best novel ever written about trees, and really, just one of the best novels, period,” in the words of author Ann Patchett.
“Trees used to talk to people all the time,” Powers writes in The Overstory. “Sane people used to hear them.” Fans of the cerebral bestseller, an epic spanning generations that challenges the primacy of humans in life and literature, include Barack Obama. “It changed how I thought about the earth and our place in it,” the former president told the New York Times.
Powers’ work makes him an especially apt choice to address Oberlin’s 190th graduating class, says Valerie Hotchkiss, the Azariah S. Root Director of Libraries and professor of English and book studies. “The themes he deals with are so central to values that Oberlin holds—namely, the conundrum of living responsibly in the modern world and the importance of the humanities and humanity in our struggle to do so.”
Like so many Oberlin graduates, Powers has many talents. An accomplished student of vocal music, he trained in the cello and also plays guitar, clarinet, and saxophone.
Powers was born on June 18, 1957, in Evanston, Illinois. A voracious reader—he devoured Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle in fourth grade—he believed he was “destined to become a scientist.” He enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study physics, but a charismatic teacher convinced him that literature was “the perfect place for someone who wanted the aerial view,” he said. He switched his major to English and earned two degrees in the subject.
The midwesterner moved to Boston, where he worked as a computer programmer. He quit his day job to write his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. “I thought: I’m going to put everything that I know in this book, because I’m never going to get another shot at this,” Powers recalled. “…Afterwards, I figured, I’d have to go back and do jobs that people are willing to pay for.” The critical reception persuaded him he could make a living as a writer.
Powers joins a list of notable authors to visit campus as Oberlin commencement speakers, among them Robert Frost (1937), Alex Haley (1976), Maya Angelou (1983), and David Sedaris (2018). He will also be awarded an honorary doctor of humanities degree.
The address will be livestreamed as part of commencement weekend festivities.
Honorary Degree Recipients
Christl Donnelly ’88, Award-Winning Epidemiologist
Honorary Doctor of Science
A statistician and epidemiologist who studies the spread and control of infectious diseases, Christl Donnelly is head of the Department of Statistics at the University of Oxford and former deputy director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modelling at Imperial College London. Her research investigates statistical and biomathematical methods of analyzing the patterns of diseases such as COVID-19, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and influenza. She has also worked on animal diseases such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (mad cow disease), foot-and-mouth disease, and bovine tuberculosis.
At Imperial College, where she began teaching in 2000, Donnelly was a founding member of the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology. She was also a senior member of Imperial’s COVID-19 Response Team, whose work informed government policy in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Donnelly holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Oberlin and a master of science and doctor of science in biostatistics from Harvard. She was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2015, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2016, and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2018. She also holds a Suffrage Science Award from the Medical Research Council London Institute of Medical Sciences, which celebrates women in science for their achievements and ability to inspire others.
Natasha Katz ’81, Tony Award-Winning Lighting Designer
Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts
Natasha Katz is a Tony Award-winning lighting designer who works extensively in the worlds of Broadway, dance, opera, concerts, and film. She earned her seventh Tony win and 15th Tony nomination in 2022 for the lighting design of MJ The Musical, which features the music of Michael Jackson. Her 65 Broadway show credits include Sweeney Todd, Some Like It Hot, Springsteen on Broadway, The Prom, Frozen, Follies, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Hello, Dolly!, plus the Tony Award-winning productions of Long Day’s Journey into Night, An American in Paris, The Glass Menagerie, Once, The Coast of Utopia, and Aida. Katz has designed five Broadway productions with Disney Theatrical, including its inaugural Beauty and the Beast. She has recreated her designs for many of these productions worldwide.
In the world of dance, Katz frequently works with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, collaborating on projects such as The Winter’s Tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Tryst, all with the Royal Ballet, and Like Water for Chocolate, which opens at the Metropolitan Opera in June. Her other Wheeldon collaborations include Continuum for the San Francisco Ballet, Carnival of the Animals and An American in Paris for the New York City Ballet, Cinderella for the Dutch National Ballet, The Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet, and Swan Lake for the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Katz’s film and television credits include Bruce Springsteen on Broadway and Diana for Netflix; Barrymore, starring Christopher Plummer; Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth; selected parts of the TV show Girls; Better Nate Than Ever for Disney Plus; and Fosse/Verdon for FX. In the concert world, she has designed concert acts for Tommy Tune, Ann-Margret, Shirley MacLaine, and the lighting for Prince on Saturday Night Live. Her permanent audio-visual shows include The Masquerade Village at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas, The Big Bang at the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and Niketown stores in New York and London.
A New York City native, Katz studied at Oberlin and, early in her career, was mentored by Roger Morgan, a lighting designer and theater consultant. Today, she shares her time and expertise with New York City public school students as a Wendy Wasserstein Project mentor for the Theatre Development Fund. She also sits on the board of the American Theatre Wing and The Studio School of Design. In 2019, she was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in New York.
Tommie Smith, Activist and Olympic Gold Medalist
Honorary Doctor of Humanities
Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith holds a historic place in African American history: He is the only man in track and field history to hold 11 world records simultaneously. During the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Smith won the 200-meter sprint finals with a time of 19.83 seconds, breaking world and Olympic records. As The Star-Spangled Banner played at the awards ceremony, Smith and his bronze medalist teammate, John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist in a stand for Black power, liberation, and solidarity. This unexpected event propelled Smith into the spotlight as a human-rights spokesman, activist, and symbol of African American pride. The story of the “silent gesture” was captured in several documentaries: HBO’s Fists of Freedom, ESPN’s Return to Mexico City, and the 2020 docudrama With Drawn Arms.
A year after his Olympic win, Smith completed a bachelor’s degree in social science at San Jose State University, followed by a master’s degree in sociology from Goddard College. He played for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1969 to 1971 and began a long career as a coach and educator, first at Oberlin, where he served as athletics director and head coach in track and field, men’s basketball, and football for six years, and then in California, teaching and coaching at Santa Monica College for 27 years.
Smith has been inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, and the California Black Sports Hall of Fame. He’s received countless honors, including the Sportsman of the Millennium Award, awards from the County of Los Angeles and the State of Texas, the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award, and the ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage Award. In 2021, General Mills honored him with a commemorative Wheaties box.
Smith’s autobiography, Silent Gesture, was published by Temple University Press in 2007, and last year he coauthored the graphic memoir Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice, which became a 2022 National Book Award finalist. Through the Tommie Smith Youth Initiative, his foundation, Smith continues to inspire athletes through training clinics, track meets, and educational programs that promote health and wellness and fight childhood obesity.
Joe Womack, Africatown Leader and Activist
Honorary Doctor of Humanities
Community activist Joe Womack is a retired U.S. Marine Corps major and co-founder of the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation. He was born in Africatown, Alabama, the historic community near Mobile founded by a group of enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States in 1860 aboard the last known slave ship, Clotilda.
Womack graduated from Mobile County Training School, the first public high school for Black students in Alabama, and received a degree in business administration from Saint Paul's College. For 20 years he served in the Marine Corps, leading operations in Japan, Korea, Florida, and New Orleans. He worked at the Shell/DuPont chemical plant in Axis, Alabama, for 16 years.
An inspiring leader who promotes positive and sustainable change, Womack leads a community organization called CHESS (Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe, & Sustainable) in Africatown. He helps to lead a variety of other organizations and nonprofits focused on supporting the restoration and flourishing of Africatown and its residents, including the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association, the Africatown Community Development Corporation, the Mobile County African American Summit, Black Military Workers of America, and the Mobile County Environmental Justice Action Coalition. As part of his enduring commitment to the community, Womack was one of three founders of the Africatown Heritage Preservation Foundation upon its incorporation in 2019.
Womack’s generosity and hospitality have been the foundation of a collaboration between Africatown and Oberlin College. Since his first visit to Oberlin in 2014, he has mentored more than 40 Oberlin students by serving on honors thesis committees, leading immersions in Africatown, and directing research projects on environmental justice and community development. His courageous and visionary leadership teaches and inspires Oberlin students to pursue strategic, long-term, on-the-ground work that leads to a more just and sustainable future.
Student Commencement Speaker
Sadie Owens ’23
Sadie Owens is a politics major from Canton, Ohio, with minors in educational studies, writing and communications, and philosophy.
Sadie has served as an advocate for all students through her passion for mentoring students with their adjustment to college. As a Peer Advising Leader, Sophomore Opportunities and Resources mentor, and Bonner Scholars senior intern, Sadie has been committed to the student experience by helping them navigate campus resources and educational opportunities.
Additional campus leadership engagement includes serving as the president of Pitch Please, working as a Resource Generation College Organizing Fellow, and participating on the Dean of Students Advisory Board.
Always thriving in collaborative and conversational environments, Sadie also serves as a course writing associate, where she partners with faculty and assists with writing pedagogy in a discipline-specific setting.
Cynthia A. Brown ’74, Longtime Oberlin Volunteer and Regional Alumni Coordinator
Forty years ago, Cindy Brown received a wonderful phone call, one asking her to help Oberlin alumni in the Columbus, Ohio, area to engage with the college and each other. Over the following decades, as the regional alumni coordinator in Columbus, Brown planned concerts, outdoor events, art museum lectures, and dinners. She invited Oberlin professors to talk with alumni about their fields and organized admissions events for prospective students.
Brown also created volunteer opportunities through which alumni could build something enduring. On the grounds of a wildlife rescue organization, alumni and students dug ponds, erected bird shelters, and planted vegetation, creating a permanent exhibit about backyard wildlife sanctuaries. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources donated several thousand native plants, and the Oberlin volunteers created a display about riverbank health in downtown Columbus.
Brown hosted receptions for Oberlin presidents and concerts by conservatory students at a historic governor’s mansion. She took part in a project that brought together the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Fisk University leaders, and Oberlin’s president for a lecture and concert, celebrating the two institutions’ historic relationship. She met alumni in Tokyo and worked with the Cluny Museum in Paris to host an event for alumni in Europe to meet with Oberlin’s president.
With the Oberlin Alumni Association, Brown chaired the nominations committee, served multiple terms on the trustee search committee, and led the executive board’s governance and bylaws committee.
Brown’s daughter, Kate Lansky, is a 2003 Oberlin graduate; her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Cunningham, was a student in 1872. Brown considers her time spent with alumni as a “spa for the soul” that leaves her renewed, inspired, and humbled. She wishes the same for all new graduates during the years ahead.
Eugene C. Matthews, Community Leader and Sustainability Professional
Distinguished Service to the Community Award
Eugene Matthews was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised in southwestern Ohio. After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served on the U.S.S. Yorktown for two tours of duty in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War. In 1972, he began work at Oberlin College as a maintenance electrician. He was promoted to electric shop foreman in 1982 and, by 1993, was director of the physical plant. He attended college during this time, earning an associate’s degree from Lorain County Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Baldwin-Wallace College. He left Oberlin in 1998 to become director of facilities services at Case Western Reserve University, retiring in 2016.
At both institutions, Matthews was active in campus sustainability and energy conservation efforts. His first conservation project at Oberlin, in 1977, was retrofitting incandescent lights to fluorescent fixtures in several campus buildings. His last assignment was participating on the design team for the Adam J. Lewis Center for Environmental Studies; he also mentored environmental studies students on the college’s energy use and analysis.
At Case, Matthews initiated the university’s first sustainability efforts, which included a campus recycling program and installation of renewable energy systems. He helped with the planning and design of new buildings and the renovation of existing facilities to meet U.S. Department of Energy LEED standards and was awarded the Bruce Jackson Award for Excellence in Mentorship for mentoring students on campus sustainability.
Upon retiring, Matthews returned to Oberlin, where he has served on the boards of Oberlin Community Services, POWER, and the Oberlin Heritage Center. With the city of Oberlin, he was a member of OPEC (Oberlin People’s Energy Cooperative), which led to formation of the first community solar cooperative in Ohio and installation of solar arrays on more than 30 homes, businesses, and a church. He served two terms on the city’s public utilities commission and on the Oberlin Climate Adaptation Task Force.
Matthews was also project manager for the First Church in Oberlin’s renovation campaign and is involved in renovations of the new Oberlin Community Services Building, formerly the National Association of College Stores building. He serves as project manager for the Wilson Bruce Evans Historical Home Society, which is committed to the historical restoration of the home of one of Oberlin’s most active African American abolitionists.