College awards Bicentennial Medals to distinguished alumni

Williams College President Harry C. Payne presented seven of the college’s Bicentennial Medals at a private ceremony April 9. Established in 1993 on the occasion of the college’s 200th anniversary, Bicentennial Medals honor members of the Williams community for distinguished achievement in any field of endeavor.

The honored recipients were: Tsong-zung Chang ’73, curator and dealer of contemporary Chinese art; Martha M. Coakley ’75, Middlesex County District Attorney; Dominick Dunne ’49, writer; Henry N. Flynt ’44, civic leader; James P. Stearns ’70, emergency coordinator for CARE International; Joseph C. Thompson ’81, director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; and Martha A. Williamson ’77, executive producer of the television series “Touched by an Angel” and “Promised Land.”

Dominick Dunne

The first award was presented to Dunne, whose career has spanned television, films and writing. After graduating from Williams in 1949, he began working in the new media of television and eventually worked as stage manager for such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, and Ginger Rogers. He was executive producer of the series “Adventures in Paradise.”

He then turned to film, producing such critically acclaimed titles as “The Boys in the Band,” “The Panic in Needle Park,” and “Play It As It Lays.”

His switch to writing followed the murder of his daughter, actress Dominique Dunne, by a former boyfriend. The journal he kept of the trial appeared in the magazine Vanity Fair. The killer was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and was released after three years in prison. As a member of the National Victims Advocacy Council, he lectures and meets with parents of murdered children and other victims.

In addition to regular contributions to Vanity Fair, including the first interview with Imelda Marcos after fleeing the Philippines, he has written the best-selling novels “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles,” “People Like Us,” “An Inconvenient Woman” and “Another City: Not My Own.”

In his presentation of the Bicentennial Medal to Dunne for distinguished achievement as social observer, Payne remarked, “May your remarkable skills as social long continue to reveal the rights and wrongs of a society still groping to find its moral bearings.”

James P. Stearns

The next recipient was Sterns who after graduating from Williams in 1970, teaching in Australia, and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, joined CARE International for whom he has worked ever since on relief projects in Africa.

As emergency coordinator, he is responsible for international and regional logistics, including procurement and transportation, recruitment, personnel management, finance and budgeting and donor relations in response to man-made emergencies, wars and political actions.

He is currently assisting in food provision to the roughly 100,000 people internally displaced by political turmoil in Sierra Leone. Earlier this decade he helped initiate aid to Rwandan refugees in Tanzania and lead the CARE team in Mogadishu, Somalia during and following the U.S. military intervention known as Operation Restore Hope. He has also worked in Rwanda, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Angola.

In recognition of Stern’s achievements in emergency humanitarian relief, Payne said, “through this longstanding devotion, you have saved countless lives, built opportunity, brought hope, and forged a brighter future for many of our world’s neediest people. That such vital work has generally taken place in obscurity represents yet another wrong, one that your alma mater is pleased this night to address.”

Tsong-zung Chang

The third presentation was to Chang, who is considered the foremost advocate of Chinese contemporary art. In 1977, four years after graduating from Williams, Chang opened the Hanart TZ Gallery in his native Hong Kong.

As curator, agent and mentor, he has become the prime advocate of Chinese contemporary art in both Asia and the West. Because much of this work questions established understandings of Chinese history and contemporary experience, it is not well supported within the country and these artists need the attention and support that Chang has focused on them to survive.

The artists he has brought exposure to include painter Qiu Shi-hua, political pop artists Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan, and sculptor Ju Ming, some of whose outdoor work has been placed around the Williams campus. Chang’s exhibitions have traveled around the world, including to London’s Marlborough Gallery and the Venice Biennale.

For Chang’s achievement in Chinese contemporary art, Payne was proud to announce that, “You [Chang] have spearheaded at least three major developments in Chinese contemporary art: its recovery from the demoralization that followed Tiannamen Square, its dealing with issues surrounding the return of Hong Kong, and its embrace of sculpture as a legitimate medium along with the arts of the brush.”

Martha Williamson

The next award was presented to Williamson, whose “Touched by an Angel” and “Promised Land” are among the most watched and critically praised programs on television. They are particularly noted for pioneering the treatment of religious themes in prime time.

“Touched by an Angel,” with more than 20 million viewers per week, chronicles how three angels (played by Della Reese, Roma Downey, and John Dye) touch the lives of people struggling in some way with life and in a variety of ways bring the message that God loves them. In “Promised Land,” an unemployed construction worker, played by Gerald McRaney, and his family travel the country in a trailer looking for work and for opportunities to do good.

Williamson, who graduated from Williams in 1977, began writing for television in 1984 on programs for Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers and Walt Disney Television, among others. Her first staff writing position was with “The Facts of Life.” Her first producing credits were with “Jack’s Place” and “Under One Roof.”

She has won numerous awards, include the Templeton Prize, the Anti-Defamation League’s Deborah Award, the Catholics in Media Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Responsibility in Television Award.

Williamson was scheduled to receive her medal last year but was unable to attend at the last minute.

About her accomplishment in television drama Payne said, “With Touched by an Angel and Promised Land you have become the first women ever solely to executive produce two hour-long dramas simultaneously on network television and, perhaps more remarkably, have pioneered the treatment of religious themes in prime time. In a medium awash with wryness and cynicism, you deeply engage tens of millions of people each week with cathartic stories of struggle, hope and redemption.”

Henry Flynt

The fifth award of the evening was presented to Flynt. In addition to his work as long-term director of the college’s financial aid program, Flynt has played a pivotal role in the development of Historic Deerfield (Mass.) and in the civic life of Williamstown.

A 1944 graduate of Williams, he has served as a trustee of Historic Deerfield since its founding in 1952. Along with a term as president, he has also served as chair since 1986. The museum consists of more than 60 houses of the 18th and 19th centuries within the Old Deerfield Historic Landmark.

In Williamstown, he has served on or led the board of virtually every civic and educational organization. He has been president of the Williamstown Community Chest and Rotary Club, chair of Pine Cobble School and the 1753 House Committee, co-chair of the 1765 Bicentennial Committee, treasurer of the Williamstown Theatre Festival and board member of the Williamstown Historical Commission.

He has served as trustee, deacon, clerk and long-term moderator of the First Congregational Church.

For all Flynt’s accomplishments as a civic leader, Payne was happy to pleased to announce that, “You [Flynt] have accomplished all this with an extraordinary modesty that is itself a blessing to us all and that only deepens the pleasure that we take in honoring you today.”

Martha Coakley

The following award was presented to Coakley who was elected Middlesex County District Attorney last November. She previously served as head of that office’s Child Abuse Prosecution Unit and has also investigated and prosecuted violent felony and white collar crimes.

From 1987 to 1989 she was special attorney for the Department of Justice assigned to the Boston Organized Crime Strike Force, for which she focused on organized crime, public corruption and labor and IRS criminal investigations.

She has served as president of the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association and as a member of the state’s Children’s Justice Act Task Force. In 1997 she won the Democratic nomination for state representative from the 13th Suffolk District.

A native of North Adams, Mass., she graduated from Williams in 1975.

In recognition of Coakley’s achievements in the pursuit of justice for victims of abuse, Payne noted that, “the harm done to vulnerable individuals, young and old, in Middlesex county and nationwide, has been reduced by your good efforts, for which all of us in your native north Berkshire are understandably proud.”

Joe Thompson

The final award of the evening was presented to Thompson who helped develop the concept of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) while working at the Williams College Museum of Art and has served as director of MASS MoCA since its approval by the state legislature in 1988.

He has led the 11-year effort to convert a 13-acre historic mill complex in North Adams, Mass. into a multi-disciplinary center for visual, performing, and media arts. The process leading to this May’s opening has involved creative re-imagining of the museum’s original concept, handling of changing politics at the state house, and successful fund raising.

The 1981 Williams graduate also has organized three projects that proceeded the opening: the first solo exhibition of the visual art of David Byrne, called “Desire”; the “Clocktower Project,” a permanent sound art installation by Christina Kubisch; and “EarMarks,” an exhibition of seven site-specific sound art installations in northern Berkshire County.

Payne was especially proud of Thompson’s achievement in service of both contemporary art and northern Berkshire. He noted, “it has been an odyssey of epic proportions. Long ago given up for dead and armed only with your considerable wits and the fierce loyalty you inspired in your band of troops, you have in a journey of more than ten years felled the Cyclops of Boston politics, navigated between the Scylla of false hopes and the Charybdis of despair, resisted the Siren call of more lucrative prospects, and survived on the barley meal of low pay and even no pay.”

Williams awarded 23 Bicentennial Medals in 1993 and has added six or seven in each year since.