College honors alumni with Bicentennial medals

The College awarded six Bicentennial Medals last Friday to alumni who have made significant accomplishments in their fields and have contributed to the greater good of the world. This year’s recipients were Alvin B. Kernan ’49, Charles H. Shaw ’55, John W. Kifner ’63, Robert Timothy Coulter ’66, Mitchell J. Besser ’76 and Patricia Hellman Gibbs ’82. The ceremony followed a reception in Goodrich and dinner in a lavishly decorated Lasell Gymnasium in their honor.

Following a performance by Good Question, Robert L. Bahr ’67, president of the Society of Alumni, opened the evening with remarks about the College and about the medals to be awarded. “When you go through the alumni register to find people of special accomplishment,” he said, “it’s like what in ‘Top Gun’ was called a target-rich environment.” In addition, he spoke of former medal winners, most of whom still work in the fields for which they were awarded medals, which he likened to “a brief intermission before the curtain rises on the second act.”

In the post-Sept. 11 world, Bahr upheld Bicentennial winners as people who continue to show us “just why the heck we’re here” and what we stand for. “This is not just an award about good ideas, but how you promulgate, how you shape, how you act out those ideas.”

Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College, awarded the medals in order of seniority according to class year. The medalists, most of whom had tears in their eyes, all received standing ovations from the three hundred Williams alumni, students and community members present for the ceremony.

Alvin B. Kernan ’49

Kernan, who studied at Oxford and Yale after graduating from Williams, went on to join the faculty at Yale and Princeton as a professor of literature. At Yale, he “set the example of a lively and engaged teacher and prolific, much-cited scholar,” said Schapiro. “[Kernan] developed a reputation for wisdom and integrity and as someone willing to challenge established points of view, often with refreshing wit,” he added. At Yale, he also served in major administrative positions such as chair of the literature major, director of humanities, associate provost and acting provost. At Princeton, he served first as professor and dean of the graduate school and subsequently as director of the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowships in the Humanities. His books about his experiences in the Pacific theater of World War II and his book, “In Plato’s Cave,” about his academic career at Williams, have both been highly acclaimed. “Your teaching, scholarship, administration and perhaps most of all your appropriately irreverent candor, have greatly enriched all of higher education,” Schapiro concluded.

Charles H. Shaw ’55

Shaw, who has been a key figure in urban development throughout the country, is known for working on Manhattan’s U.N. Plaza, the Williams Center in Tulsa, Century City in Los Angeles, the Museum Tower Residence above New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and, most notably, Homan Square in Chicago, where he converted the former Sears catalog headquarters into hundreds of affordable housing units. A key aspect of the complex is the Homan Square Community Center Campus, which has elaborate facilities for education, counseling, health care and recreation. “Chicago’s Lake Point Tower bucked convention as the nation’s tallest residential building, then set the model of how to lure people back to city living,” Schapiro said. “You began your career believing that America’s downtowns could be saved and were vital to the country’s future…. Now, when the history of the resurgence of our cities is written, one of the central figures will turn out to have been you.”

John W. Kifner ’63

Kifner, a journalist at The New York Times currently stationed in the Middle East covering the Israel-Palestine conflict, has written for the Times for three decades. Since his accounts of the shootings at Kent State, he has “been where the fur is flying …, writing for the newspaper of record the first draft of the history of virtually every story of action and conflict from the campus of Kent State to the caves of Tora Bora.” His work has taken him around the globe to the Iranian Revolution, Beirut, Kosovo, Wounded Knee, drugs battles in the Bronx, the World Trade Center disaster and wars in the Middle East. “Readers know that when crucial news happens, John Kifner somehow will be there,” said Schapiro. “Deeper reading into your account of Kent State reveals that you had been ten feet from one of the students shot dead. How many other times you have risked your life in pursuit of the truth we will never know.”

Robert Timothy Coulter ’66

Coulter, head of the Indian Law Resource Center, which he co-founded in 1978, has fought for the rights of indigenous peoples throughout North, Central and South America. “You have helped whole communities from being moved and their lands destroyed,” said Schapiro. The Yanomami, Mayagna, Seminoles, Mohawk and countless other indigenous tribes have benefited from his persistent fighting for their rights. “You have been the intellectual backbone of the indigenous movement with your writing. After decades of being criticized, your ideas are now being embraced.” Coulter helped organize the first United Nations meeting on indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, and helped draft the pending United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Mitchell J. Besser ’76

Besser has worked for decades with women – particularly expecting mothers – who are HIV- and AIDS-positive. In addition to helping to ensure their safety and education during pregnancy and labor, Besser established a maternal health care system in Micronesia and cared for HIV-positive women in San Diego. He became an AIDS specialist on his own time and at his own cost in order to help solve a problem “that many considered unsolvable.” Now working in South Africa, where the AIDS problem is more severe than in many places and where he saw “the most vulnerable and neglected women and children being devoured by bad healthcare,” he helps to reduce HIV transmission from infected mothers to their babies. Now, said Schapiro to Besser, “babies are being born healthy that would have died without you.”

Patricia Hellman Gibbs ’82

Gibbs, who truly believed that “doctors don’t need more bureaucracy; they need to practice medicine,” gave up a comparatively easy career as a traditional physician to co-found the San Francisco Free Clinic with her husband. The clinic is open to the uninsured residents of the city, who make up nearly a quarter of its population. “The Victorian building you converted in the Richmond District quickly grew into a center providing family care to thousands of patients, who pay only what they can,” said Schapiro. “Since they are the city’s working poor and unemployed, most pay nothing.”

Nonetheless, Gibbs manages to raise almost half a million dollars annually to fund the clinic, which employs local physicians who volunteer their time
for “the satisfaction of providing care where it is most needed.” Managing her family of seven and the clinic is no easy thing, but Gibbs continues to provide for the community and has won the California Academy of Family Practice Family Physicians of the Year award with her husband and the Bay Area HIV Prevention Award.

The Bicentennial Medal has been awarded annually since the College’s 200th anniversary in 1993. To date, 72 alumni have been honored with the Medal.