Skip to main content

WVU to bestow Honorary Doctorates to five extraordinary people at May Commencement ceremonies

No thumbnail image for this story
Margie Mason, Don Panoz, Jayne Ann Phillips, Kathryn Vecellio and Bill Withers will receive honorary degrees during West Virginia University's commencement exercises this year. 
Download full-size

West Virginia University will award four Honorary Doctoral Degrees and one Presidential Honorary Doctoral Degree this May, recognizing individuals who enriched our world through their talents, their passion and their commitment to giving back. This year’s honorees are:

• Margie Mason, Doctor of Humane Letters, Reed College of Media

• Don Panoz, Doctor of Business, College of Business and Economics

• Jayne Anne Phillips, Doctor of Humane Letters, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences

• Kathryn Vecellio, Presidential Doctor of Counseling Psychology, College of Education and Human Services

• William Harrison “Bill” Withers, Jr., Doctor of Music, College of Creative Arts 

“At West Virginia University, we are always challenging ourselves to go first, to reach higher and to achieve more. These individuals have done that throughout their careers,” said President Gordon Gee. “They are truly inspirational, especially to the students who can look to them as they chart their own paths in the world.”

Provost Joyce McConnell, who chairs the selection committee for the university’s Honorary Degree program, said she was “humbled and astounded” by this year’s honorees. “These are people who have committed to an artistic identity, to an avocation or to a vision for changing the world,” she said. “Every one of them embodies the commitment to excellence that is at the core of our university mission.”

This year’s Honorary Degree recipients are either natives of West Virginia, graduates of WVU, or both. They have all been honored nationally and even internationally for their achievements in their chosen fields. 

Margie Mason is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who has reported for The Associated Press from more than 20 countries. She has been based in Asia for the past 14 years, first as a regional medical writer and then as Indonesia bureau chief.

Mason’s investigative journalism has long focused on women, children, poverty and human rights abuses. In 2016, she was part of a four-member team of female reporters who won more than 30 journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, for groundbreaking work that exposed a slave island in a remote part of Indonesia where fishermen were held in cages and forced to work for years.

The series of stories traced the supply chains for some of America’s largest grocery stores and pet food brands—including Wal-Mart, Kroger, Fancy Feast and Iams—and demonstrated the ways these companies were tainted by slave-caught fish. The impact of publication was powerful: laws were passed, companies were shut down, perpetrators were jailed and more than 2,000 slaves were freed and sent home.

Mason has covered many major international stories over the years, including SARS, bird flu, the 2004 Asian tsunami and the hunt for the Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared in 2014. In 2009, she co-wrote an award-winning project about the rise of global drug resistance. She is among a small number of foreign journalists to ever report from inside North Korea.

A native of Daybrook, Mason graduated from WVU’s Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism (now the Reed College of Media) in 1997. She started her reporting career at age 19 as an intern at The Dominion Post in Morgantown and later worked for the AP in Charleston. In 2000, she reported overseas for the first time, covering the 25th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon in Vietnam with her mentor, the late legendary AP reporter George Esper, who went on to teach journalism at WVU.

Mason was awarded a journalism fellowship for Asian studies in 1999 from the University of Hawai’i. She was also a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard University, where she studied in the School of Public Health.

Donald Panoz was born in Ohio and raised in a small West Virginia town. After attending Greenbrier Military Academy and serving a tour of duty in the United States Army, Panoz studied pharmacy at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1961, Panoz and Army buddy Milan “Mike” Puskar founded Milan Pharmaceuticals. Milan evolved into Mylan, today one of the world’s leading producers of generic drugs. The company now sells an estimated 1,300 products to more than 140 countries and territories worldwide.

In the 1970s, Panoz moved his family to Ireland, where he founded Élan Corporation. This company transformed healthcare with the development of the transdermal method of medication delivery, the technology that led to the nicotine patch. After going public in 1985, Elan set Wall Street records with three consecutive years of 100 percent profit growth.  Élan was the first Irish company to be publicly listed on the U.S. stock exchange. As founder, Panoz today retains more than 300 pharmaceutical industry patents.

In 1980, Panoz and his wife turned their attention to building world-class resorts. Their successful luxury properties now attract vacationers in Georgia, Scotland, California and Australia. Panoz’s varied interests also include motorsports. As founder and owner of the American Le Mans Series, he is considered by many to have brought professional sports car racing back to prominence in the United States. He has also pioneered innovative vehicle design, from the world’s first successful hybrid race car to the DeltaWing® vehicle, and founded Élan Motorsports Technologies, a leading race car constructor. Today Panoz is chairman of the DeltaWing® Technology Group.

In 2013, Panoz was inducted into the Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame, joining a select group of only 29 entrepreneurs, including Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison. He has also been inducted into the WVU Business & Economics Hall of Fame. His philanthropic contributions (made with his wife) have benefited causes as varied as breast cancer treatment, teens in crisis and the effort to end malaria infestations in third world countries.  

Jayne Anne Phillips was born and raised in Buckhannon. Her first book of stories, Black Tickets, published in 1979 when she was 26, won the prestigious Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Featured in Newsweek, Black Tickets was pronounced "stories unlike any in our literature . . . a crooked beauty" by Raymond Carver and established Phillips as a writer "in love with the American language."

Phillips has been praised by fellow writer Nadine Gordimer as "the best short story writer since Eudora Welty" and Black Tickets has since become a classic of the short story genre. Phillips’ first novel Machine Dreams, set in fictional Bellington, West Virginia, elegantly and astutely observes one American family from the turn of the century through the Vietnam War. The novel was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of twelve Best Books of 1984.

Since then, Phillips has published another short story collection (Fast Lanes) and four more novels (Shelter, MotherKind, Lark and Termite and Quiet Dell), all to critical acclaim.  She has won or been shortlisted for almost every major literary award in the United States, as well as numerous international awards, and her work has been published in 10 languages.

Quiet Dell, her most recent novel, is a mesmerizing retelling of a harrowing true crime, a 1931 multiple murder that took place in a West Virginia hamlet of the same name. The tragedy was one of the first nationally sensationalized crimes in America; the story preoccupied a rural town and the Depression-era nation for months. Through the revelation of secrets both terrible and beautiful, Quiet Dell recounts the connections woven between us even in tragedy.

In addition to publishing her own work, Phillips has also taught writing at Harvard University, Williams College, Boston University, New York University and Brandeis University. She is currently University Professor of English and Director of the Rutgers University-Newark Masters of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing. 

Kathryn Cottrill Vecellio is a West Virginia native who graduated from WVU’s College of Human Resources and Education (now the College of Education and Human Services) with a BS in Biological Sciences in 1971 and a master’s in Guidance and Counseling in 1972. 

Although Vecellio and her husband of 42 years, Leo, have a home and business in West Virginia, their primary residence is Palm Beach, Florida, where she has served as a community leader, development volunteer and philanthropist. Vecellio has been honored to serve as a trustee for more than two dozen philanthropic leadership boards and committees, among them the National Board for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; Western Pennsylvania/West Virginia Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; Palm Beach United Way; Center for Children in Crisis; Center for Family Services; Schepens Eye Research Institute and Massachusetts Eye and Ear (both affiliates of Harvard University); the Cleveland Clinic Health and Wellness Center Board; the American Heart Association’s Palm Beach County Market Board of Directors; and the Tiffany Circle of the American Red Cross.

A staunch supporter of WVU and fellow West Virginians, Vecellio established both the Dr. Clarence C. and Maxine D. Cottrill General Dentistry Scholarship in the School of Dentistry and a continuing education endowment in honor of her father’s efforts in establishing the School of Dentistry. The endowment supports WVU dental students, graduates and professors with cutting-edge information presented by well-known dental experts. Vecellio also founded the Kathryn C. Vecellio Scholarship for students who demonstrate academic merit, financial need and volunteer/service involvement at the College of Education and Human Services, where she served on the Visiting Committee for 20 years and is a member of the Hall of Fame. The Vecellio’s family foundation has provided more than 380 academic scholarships for students from West Virginia and Florida.

In recognition of her lifetime career of service, Vecellio has been recognized by or received awards from numerous organizations and institutions. With her husband and two sons, she owns the Vecellio Group, Inc., which has been one of the nation’s top 400 contractors since 1938. The Vecellio family believes that education is of utmost importance and that the fulfillment we receive in life is in direct proportion to what we give.

Bill Withers is one of America’s premier singer/songwriters. Combining soulful warmth, a folksy, genuine feel and an immediately recognizable voice, Withers has sung his way into the hearts of millions.

Withers attributes this to his own uniquely American story: as he describes it, a rural childhood and an urban-international adulthood. He was born in Slabfork, West Virginia, the youngest of six children in a small coal-mining town. Withers' father, a miner, died when Withers was 13. Just four years later, Withers enlisted in the United States Navy. He served his country for nine years, during which time he traveled throughout Asia and was inspired to try his hand at singing. After his discharge from the military, Withers moved to Los Angeles and recorded demos in hopes of landing a recording contract.

In 1971, Withers signed to Sussex Records. He went on to write hits such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us” and “Lean on Me.” His songs have been covered by many other artists, including such luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Maroon 5, Paul McCartney, Sting and Diana Ross. They have also been featured in numerous feature films and major network television shows.

Withers was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (by Stevie Wonder and John Legend) in 2015. Additional honors include multiple Million-aires citations from Broadcast Music Incorporated, induction into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and a Clio Award for songwriting and production in advertising. The Complete Sussex & Columbia Albums Collection, representing Withers' nine full-length albums, received a 2014 Grammy Award for Best Historical Recording.

Forty-six years since his debut, Bill Withers’ songs still resonate as vibrant touchstones in the American musical cannon. Withers articulates his philosophy clearly: “I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel. I feel that it is healthier to look out at the world through a window than through a mirror. Otherwise, all you see is yourself and whatever is behind you.”

This year’s Honorary Degree recipients will be recognized in the Commencement program and be presented with their degree and officially “hooded”—given a doctoral hood in the color symbolic of their academic discipline—by President Gee at the appropriate graduation ceremony.

The Honorary Degree program at West Virginia University is administered by the Office of the Provost.  More information about the program, including a list of all past recipients of the degree, criteria for the successful nomination and the nomination form can be found here.

-WVU-

ac/04/27/17

CONTACT: Ann Claycomb
Assistant Vice President for Strategic and Academic Communication
304.293.9919; ann.claycomb@mail.wvu.edu

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.