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Pulitzer Prize, Grammy winners among West Virginia University commencement speakers

Mason, Withers, Commencement 2017

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A West Virginia University alumna who delved into the unseemly world of Indonesian slavery and brought home a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and a Grammy winning Mountain State native whose music has been covered by legends of the industry and sung at presidential inaugurations top the ranks of speakers at the University’s commencement ceremonies this year.

WVU will hold commencement exercises at all 15 colleges and schools over a three-day period May 12-14.

Margie Mason, (’97) was part of a four-member team of female Associated Press reporters who won more than 30 journalism awards, including a Pulitzer, for groundbreaking work that exposed a slave island in a remote part of Indonesia where migrant fishermen were being held in a cage and forced to work against their will for years. The series of stories used satellite technology, Customs data and shoe-leather journalism to meticulously trace seafood caught by the enslaved men from Indonesia to Thailand and all the way to the United States. The work revealed that supply chains at some of America’s largest grocery stores and pet food brands were tainted by the slave-caught fish. The stories led to laws being passed, companies shut down, perpetrators being jailed and more than 2,000 slaves freed and sent home. 

Mason, who grew up in Daybrook, will speak at the Reed College of Media commencement at 9 a.m. May 12 at the Coliseum.

Bill Withers’ songs “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” not only topped the charts, but became the background music for scenes in several motion pictures including Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Jerry Maguire, Jackie Brown, Notting Hill, The Bodyguard, American Beauty, The Heat and The Secret Life of Pets. Artists like Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, Maroon 5, Linda Ronstadt, Paul McCartney, Sting, Jimmy Buffet and Diana Ross have all covered Withers’ songs. Withers was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. “Lean On Me” was performed at inauguration ceremonies for presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Withers will speak at the College of Creative Arts commencement at  2 p.m. May 12 in the Creative Arts Center.

Woody Thrasher, West Virginia’s newly-appointed secretary of commerce and WVU alumnus will address graduates at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, where he is a distinguished alumnus. Thrasher was the president and CEO of The Thrasher Group, Inc., a leading mid-Atlantic engineering and architectural firm headquartered in Bridgeport. He began that business with his father and three employees, but saw growth in the company that now employs 300 people in six states. In addition to his engineering pursuits, Thrasher also held interests in commercial and residential developments in north central West Virginia through High Tech Development LLC, the developing company of the White Oaks Business Park. He is the chair of the WVU Alumni Association board of directors.

Thrasher will speak at the 1 p.m. commencement exercises held at the Coliseum May 13.

Tony Caridis voice will be familiar to those attending the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences commencement. Caridi, the radio play-by-play announcer of the WVU Mountaineers, is the state’s most popular sports voice, and has provided play-by-play for several national networks, including ESPN and Westwood One Radio. He recently completed his 21st season as a radio announcer and 31st season with the Mountaineer Sports Network. He has been honored as West Virginia Sportscaster of the Year and for his play-by-play work by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association. He’s hosted his own nightly statewide sports talk show on the MetroNews Radio Network since 1986. Caridi recently released his first children’s book Where, Oh Where, Oh Where Could We Go?, a whimsical trek around the Mountain State.

The CPASS commencement exercises take place at the Coliseum at 1 p.m. May 12.

Author Jayne Anne Philips is known for her books and short stories set in her native West Virginia. Machine Dreams, her first novel, is set in fictional Bellington and observes an American family from the turn of the 20th Century through the Viet Nam War. The book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award and chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the 12 Best Books of the Year. Her second book Fast Lanes, a collection of short stories, was praised in the Los Angeles Times as “stories that hover on the edge of poetry.” Her 2009 novel Lark and Termite garnered praise from Alice Munro, who said Phillips’ words “cut like a diamond, with such sharp authenticity and bursts of light.” The book was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critic’s Award and was included in the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times. Lark and Termite was chosen an 09 Best Book of the Year by San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Christian Science Monitor, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Barnes and Noble Review and The Financial Times (UK). Phillips’ works are published in 10 languages. She has taught at Harvard, Williams, Boston University, NYU and Brandeis. She is currently University Professor of English and director of the Rutgers University-Newark MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Phillips will speak at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences (Bachelor’s) commencement ceremony at 12:30 p.m. May 14 in the Coliseum.

Donald E. Panoz has lived the epitome of the entrepreneurial dream with interests in pharmaceuticals, resorts, race cars and wine. His career began in 1961 when he and his Army buddy Milan “Mike” Puskar founded Milan Pharmaceuticals in White Sulphur Springs. Now Mylan, the company has become one of the world’s leading producers of generic drugs and sells an estimated 1,300 products to more than 140 countries and territories. Panoz moved to Ireland, where he founded Élan Corp., the company that developed the transdermal method of medication delivery, technology that led to the nicotine patch. The company set Wall Street records for growth, posting 100 percent increase in profits for three consecutive years, and was the first Irish company to be publicly listed on the U. S. Stock Exchange. Panoz then turned to resort-building, beginning with Chateau Elan Winery and Resort near Atlanta. The five-star resort boasts an award-winning winery, championship golf courses and internationally acclaimed spas. He next built St. Andrews Bay Golf Resort and Spa in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Diablo Grande Winery and Resort in northern California. When his son launched a sports car company, Panoz made his own mark on that industry by acquiring several high-profile motorsports companies with a wide diversity of applications. As owner of the American Le Mans Series and three race tracks—Sebring International Raceway, Road Atlanta and Mosport International Raceway—Panoz has prominent holdings in virtually every division of the motorsports industry. He became the 29th inductee into the Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame in 2013, joining the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Mary Kay Ash, Bill Gates, Debbi Fields, Richard Branson, Sara Blakely, Ted Turner and Warren Buffet.

Panoz will speak at the College of Business and Economics commencement ceremony at 5 p.m. May 13 at the Coliseum.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice-president and executive dean of health sciences center of WVU, is a two-time graduate of WVU and a national leader in personalized medicine and in pulmonary and critical care medicine. Marsh has concentrated his efforts in determining how to help individuals stay healthy and how to create ecosystems to make this easy. Marsh’s research has focused on defining the underlying mechanisms that determine health and disease. He holds more than 20 patents or patent disclosures and has been responsible for more than $20 million in National Institutes of Health funding as principal investigator, co-PI, co-investigator and mentor. He has published more than 140 papers in peer-reviewed journals. He serves on national scientific advisory committees for organizations such as the National Institute of Health, the American Thoracic Society, the Sarnoff Cardiovascular Research Foundation, GlaxoSmithKline and Caris Life Sciences. He is a Fellow in the American College of Physicians and an elected member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation. 

Marsh will speak at four commencement ceremonies: the School of Medicine and the School of Pharmacy (Ph. D.), 9 a.m., May 12, Okey Patteson Auditorium; the School of Medicine (M.D.), 6 p.m. May 12, Creative Arts Center; School of Dentistry, 8 a.m., May 13, Creative Arts Center; School of Nursing, noon, May 13, Creative Arts Center.

Ali Stroker is a groundbreaking performer, making history as the first actress in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway when she originated the role of “Anna” in Deaf West’s acclaimed 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. She is also the first actress in a wheelchair to graduate from the NYU Tisch drama program. Stroker starred in 12 episodes of Oxygen’s The Glee Project,  and placed second in competition and won a guest role on Fox’s Glee. She is currently filming multiple episodes of the Kyra Sedgewick ABC series Ten Days in the Valley. Stroker earned a Barrymore Award nomination for starring as Olivia Ostrovsky in The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and has soloed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C., New York’s Town Hall and the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts. She is the co-chair of Women Who Care, which supports United Cerebral Palsy of New York City, and a founding member of Be More Heroic, an anti-bullying campaign that tours the country and connects with thousands of students each year.

Stroker will speak at the School of Medicine: Professional Programs commencement exercises at 4 p.m. May 14 at the Coliseum.

Rear Admiral Margaret M. Kitt is the deputy director for program at the National Institute for Occupational Safety in Morgantown, where she shares with the NIOSH director the responsibility for the institute’s research and program operations. She also oversees the NIOSH Global Health Programs. Prior to her assignment with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NIOSH, Kitt was a senior flight surgeon in the United States Air Force. During her 14 years with the USAF, she managed and directed flight medicine clinics, optometry clinics, education and training, bioenvironmental engineering, public health, medical readiness and health promotions. She joined the CDC as an epidemic intelligence officer in the U.S. Public Health Service in 2002, working in the NIOSH Division of Respiratory Disease in Morgantown. She joined the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center in Reproductive Health to work on an HHS Secretarial Initiative in Kabul, Afghanistan. The initiative helped create occupational safety and health activities within the Afghanistan Ministry of Public Health, addressing needs of healthcare workers. As a Senior Commissioned Corps Officer, she has served in a leadership role in many emergency operations including the Deepwater Horizon, Ebola virus and post-Hurricane Katrina responses. She has won a PHS Commendation Medal, Outstanding Service Medal, Outstanding Unit Citations and the HHS Secretary’s Award for Distinguished Service.

Kitt will speak at the School of Public Health’s commencement ceremony at 3 p.m. May 12 in the Okey Patteson Auditorium.

Sam England’s commitment to West Virginia State Parks began with his childhood and his first job in 1977 at Twin Falls State Park. England continued his state parks work in summer months through high school and college, landing his first full-time job at North Bend State Park as a naturalist the day after graduating from WVU with his degree in wildlife biology in 1984. A 40-year career path also includes serving as park superintendent at Moncove Lake, Greenbrier and Stonewall Resort state parks. England worked on several special state-wide projects, including the development and opening of both Stonewall Resort and Chief Logan Lodge and the first electronic reservations systems. He was appointed chief of the West Virginia State Parks and Recreation Section of the Division of Natural Resources by then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. England earned his MBA from WVU in 2007.

He will speak at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design’s commencement ceremony at 4:30 p.m. May 12 at the Coliseum.

Frank Devono is the superintendent of Monongalia Schools, having previously served as the administrative liaison for Harrison County Schools and as a school principal for 25 years. Devono was named West Virginia Superintendent of the Year in 2011 and is a past National Distinguished Principal, as well as Technology Administrator of the Year, West Virginia Department of Education Friend of World Language and the West Virginia General Education Award. Schools under his leadership earned National Blue Ribbon and State Exemplary Status. He is a recognized educational leader who has been appointed to the West Virginia Center for Professional Development’s Board of Directors and Principals’ Leadership Academy Advisory Council. Additionally, he has served as a presenter for the Southern Regional Education Board and the West Virginia Department of Education. Devono earned his master’s degree in educational administration and a doctorate in curriculum from WVU.

Devono will speak at the College of Education and Human Services commencement exercises at 9 a.m. May 13 at the Coliseum.

James Miltenberger has taught piano at the WVU School of Music for more than 50 years. He has been named an Outstanding Teacher by the College of Creative Arts on several occasions, the first in 1972. In 2015 he was named a Teacher of Influence by the WVU Alumni Association, and most recently a 2017 Music Teachers National Association Fellow. Miltenberger’s performing career includes solo recitals in major cities (Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, Washington, D. C., Chicago and Paris. He has performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony of Thailand. The Miltenberger Jazz group was formed in 1970 and has performed extensively in the U.S. and Europe. The group plans another European tour next year. He has performed as a soloist with a number of WVU groups, including the WVU Symphony, the WVU Wind Symphony and the WVU Alumni Band. Miltenberger has performed and presented at more than 10 international professional organizations, collaborating with faculty colleagues. Most recently, he led a group of students and alumni in a presentation at the 2017 National Convention of MTNA in Baltimore. He has performed in school in nearly every county in West Virginia, primarily with WVU percussion and the jazz group, and is active in fundraising for the Steinway Campaign, the WVU Piano Festival and the scholarship that bears his name.

Miltenberger will speak at the commencement ceremony of the College of Creative Arts at 2 p.m. in the Creative Arts Center.

Joan Gorham is a professor of communications studies and associate dean of academic affairs in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. Gorham’s primary research area is in instructional communication, studying the relationship of low-inference teacher behaviors (i.e. eye contact, using humor) to student motivation, affect and learning. She has taught classes dealing with nonverbal communication, interpersonal and intercultural interaction, public communication, speech writing, mass media and media literacy at high school, undergraduate and graduate levels, and for teachers throughout West Virginia. Gorham serves on editorial boards of several journals and as editor for The Speech Communication Teacher, as well as for 18 editions of Annual Editions: Mass Media published under McGraw-Hill’s Contemporary Learning Series. Gorham provides ready counsel and logistical support for countless department- and faculty-initiated ideas and proposals. 

Gorham will speak at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences (Master’s and Ph.D.) commencement ceremony at 9 a.m. May 14 at the Coliseum.

John Taylor is the Jackson Kelly Professor at the WVU College of Law, where he teaches Constitutional law, criminal procedure, torts, education law and a seminar on the law of church and state. Taylor writes primarily about First Amendment issues in the public schools. He received the WVU College of Law’s Significant Faculty Scholarship Award in 2006 for his article titled Using Suppression Hearing Testimony to Prove Good Faith Under United States vs. Leon. Before joining the faculty at WVU, Taylor clerked for the Honorable M. Blane Michael on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

Taylor will speak at the College of Law’s commencement exercises at 10 a.m. in the Creative Arts Center May 12.

Wesley Kafka is graduating magna cum laude from the WVU School of Pharmacy. The Clarksburg native has earned both the Fruth and the Walgreens Diversity and Inclusion Excellence Scholarship. Kafka was class president, a member of the WVU chapters of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, the American Pharmacists Association Academy of Student Pharmacists, the Beta Eta chapter of Kappa Psi, the Alpha Eta chapter of Phi Lambda Sigma and the Alpha Mu Chapter of the Rho Chi academy pharmacy honor society. He was also a School of Pharmacy student ambassador, student representative to the School of Pharmacy Alumni Association, part of the Rho Chi Tutoring Committee and the Kappa Psi Risk Management Committee. He was on the Dean’s List and completed the Pharm.D./MBA dual-degree program. Kafka is completing his first-year pharmacy residency at Charleston Area Medical Center.

Kafka will speak at the School of Pharmacy commencement ceremony at 4 p.m. May 13 in the Creative Arts Center.



CONTACT: University Relations

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