WCU awards honorary doctorates during summer commencement

Levern H. Allen, the first African-American student to enroll at Western Carolina University, and Asheville native Tony L. White, a key player in the biotechnology revolution, received honorary doctorates as WCU held summer commencement exercises Friday, Aug. 4.

Image: Levern H. Allen is attended by Provost Kyle Carter as she receives her honorary doctorate from Western Carolina University.

Levern H. Allen is attended by Provost Kyle Carter as she receives her honorary doctorate from Western Carolina University.

WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo delivered the charge to approximately 450 candidates for graduate and undergraduate degrees. The primary commencement address was delivered by Scott Philyaw, associate professor of history, who earlier this year was honored as one of the University of North Carolina system’s top teachers.

Allen, a native of Roanoke, Va., was working as a speech therapist in Charlotte-area schools when she enrolled in a nine-week graduate school session at Western in the summer of 1957.

“You had received your undergraduate degree from Hampton Institute in Virginia and were ready to take the next step,” Bardo said, reading from the citation for the honorary doctorate of humane letters.

“Yet what a daunting and significant step it would be,” Bardo said. “It was the formative years of the American Civil Rights Movement. Only three years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its far-reaching school desegregation decision. It was a time when all-white Southern colleges were just beginning to receive applications from African-American students. Some were admitted, usually reluctantly. Many were denied admission or won it only with a court order.

“But Western Carolina, under the leadership of the late William Ernest Bird, said ‘yes.’ And, most importantly, you, Levern Hamlin Allen, said ‘yes’ to Western.”

Allen went on to earn master’s degrees at the University of Maryland and George Washington University, and is now retired and living in Maryland after spending 25 years as a speech and language pathologist in District of Columbia public schools. She also served as a WCU trustee from 1987 to 1995.

“Known widely for your courage and grace, your ability and humility, you have been an exemplary alumnus and supporter of this university,” Bardo said.

As she accepted the honorary doctorate, Allen received a standing ovation from the crowd at Ramsey Regional Activity Center. “I always knew that the summer of 1957 was special,” she said.

“I accept this honor with the love and dignity of which it was presented,” Allen said. “I am awed, thrilled and delighted. Thank you very much.”

White, president and chief executive officer of Connecticut-based Applera Corp., has helped open the way for a revolution in medicine based on the human genome and has been a key player in the development of the new field of pharmacogenomics.

Born in Havana, Cuba, White was raised in his father’s hometown of Asheville and, after earning a bachelor’s degree at WCU, went to work for health care services company Baxter International. After a 26-year career with that company, during which he rose from sales representative to executive vice president, White left Baxter to head Applera, the company formerly known as Perkin-Elmer Corp.

Applera accelerated the race to decode the human genome, stunning the scientific community in 1998 when it announced plans to finish that project in three years. Completion of that mission was announced at a June 2000 White House ceremony.

Currently, Applera’s Applied Biosystems Group serves the life sciences industry by developing and marketing instrument-based systems, consumables, software and services, while the company’s Celera Genomics Group is engaged primarily in the discovery and development of targeted therapeutics for cancer, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.

“As a lifelong learner, you have built upon your undergraduate background in social sciences and economics and have been a pragmatic futurist in multi-billion dollar medical and scientific companies,” Bardo said, reading from the citation for the honorary doctorate of science. “You also have been an agent for change in an initiative with worldwide significance.

“From your childhood roots in revolution-torn Havana, Cuba, past your humble upbringing in Asheville, through the ranks of corporate America, and to the forefront of the world’s genomic revolution, you have shown tenacity, brilliance and imagination – the same tenacity, brilliance and imagination that we challenge every graduate who has walked or will walk across the commencement stage at Western Carolina University to aspire toward.”

After receiving the second standing ovation of the evening, White told the crowd that he was not “success-oriented” in high school, but that he “gained the confidence to go ahead and grow up” at WCU.

“I got a good education, but you can get one of those from a lot of places,” White said. “Here, I got much more. Here, I was embraced by friends and faculty in very positive ways and allowed to be transformed into a young man intent on success.”

In his address, Philyaw spoke to the graduating students about the importance of “lifelong learning and lifelong teaching,” telling them that their days of taking the advice of academic advisers are over, and now they are in charge of their own learning.

“For now, you are in charge of your curriculum,” he said. “Take a moment and enjoy the freedom inherent in that choice, but also understand the responsibility that goes with it.

“You see, in order to be a successful lifelong learner, you also need to be a successful lifelong teacher. You now get to decide what you will learn and when, where and how you will learn it,” Philyaw said.

“If this seems like a lot of work, it is. But it is worth it. The people who get ahead are the ones who know how to teach themselves and how to learn from new situations.”

Last spring, Philyaw was recognized as one of the UNC system’s premier teachers when he was named one of 16 recipients of the UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

In his congratulatory remarks to the graduating students, Bardo singled out one group of students in particular – about 100 residents of Jamaica who spent this summer in Cullowhee to complete academic requirements to earn education degrees.

To all the graduating students, Bardo said, “You have accomplished a great deal, and for that you deserve our admiration. We hope you will remain part of our university family.”