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Convocation Awards

Davidson Honors "Blues Doctor" and Others at Spring Convocation

William R. Ferris, Jr.

Outstanding members of the Davidson College community were honored last Wednesday afternoon at Spring Convocation. Academic and leadership awards were presented to more than 50 students, and Davidson alumnus Bill Ferris '64, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, received an honorary doctor of letters degree. The college also thanked donors of more than $8.8-million worth of new scholarships, which will generate about $500,000 of tuition assistance for students each year.

Ferris, an author, folklorist, filmmaker, music historian, and academic administrator, delivered the convocation's keynote address on "Finding Treasure." The title referred to the treasure of culture found everywhere, and he urged students to seek it out and learn from it. He talked about how he had done that during his student years at Davidson, and reminisced about drinking beer with writer Eudora Welty at Hatties, listening to Piedmont blues played by his dorm custodian, Cleve Carr, and organizing fellow students to conduct civil rights protests in Charlotte. "It became my passion, and I discovered that my passion could become my career," he said.

Ferris was nominated to lead the NEH by President Clinton, and confirmed by the Senate for a four year term which began in November 1997. The NEH is the largest funding source for humanities programs in the country. Created as an independent federal agency by Congress in 1965, the NEH this year has a $115-million budget.

Prior to becoming NEH chair, Ferris served for 18 years as professor of anthropology at the University of Mississippi and founding director of its Center for the Study of Southern Culture. He spearheaded creation of the best-selling 1989 Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His films include Mississippi Blues (1983), which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. He has also produced sound recordings, and for nearly a decade hosted a weekly blues music program on Mississippi public radio entitled "Highway 61."

The citation for his honorary degree described Ferris as "High Priest of the Homegrown" who has "delivered the South from being the last acceptable prejudice and from the Southern Living disease of big easy stereotypes and facile divisions."

It continued, "...he has taught us to see the union of the South as being like Huckleberry Finn and Jim...where two great cultural streams from Africa and Europe converge, by seeing the humanities as concrete and real to all Americans."

Ferris met with students earlier in the day at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and urged them to follow their hearts in seeking a career. "Education gives you the wings to articulate what's you, opens the gateway to self-discovery," he said.

He also described some of the initiatives underway at the NEH. They include creation of an on-line encyclopedia for each state, funding for student research, and a quest for significantly more funding in hopes of helping educate public school teachers.

ODK and other Honors

Other notable Convocation awards included presentation of the Omicron Delta Kappa outstanding teacher award to Professor of English Elizabeth Mills. She was praised for her ability "to integrate the reader's personal experience, the author's background, a poem's tone, contemporary criticism, and a lot of spunk" in her classroom presentations. Mills, a specialist in women writers and the great books, has taught at Davidson since 1985. She has most recently has served as coordinator of the gender studies program and chair of the public lectures committee.

ODK also presented staff and community awards, which went to Georgia Ringle of the college's counseling center and Rev. Andy Baxter of Davidson United Methodist Church. Ringle was noted for having a deep impact on the lives of many students and "crossing boundaries at Davidson" through her involvement with activities such as the annual Health Fair, AIDS Awareness Day, the National Smoke-Out, Women's Month, and programs dealing with depression and eating disorders. One of the students who nominated her for the award wrote, "She's a student advocate and someone who is willing to take a risk and support it, even if it doesn't fit into Davidson's conservative appearance."

Andy Baxter, associate pastor at Davidson United Methodist Church, was noted for organizing and leading student mission trips to El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Haiti for several years. Locally, he has worked to promote affordable housing, organized vigils opposing the death penalty, and educated people regarding the destructive aspects of military spending. One nominator wrote, "He has challenged me and others to redefine our faith, to serve our communities, and to be leaders. He has challenged us, guided us, made us laugh, and given us the gift of his friendship."

John W. Kuykendall, professor of religion who served as college president from 1984-1997, received the annual Presbyterian Church (USA) Higher Education Award from Duncan Ferguson, president of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities. The church makes the award annually to someone for significant lifetime contributions to the church's mission in higher education. Kuykendall was praised for 40 years of dedication to students, commitment to faculty excellence, and service on the boards of several Presbyterian institutions.

For a full listing of Awards and Community members honored, Click Here.

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