Ceremony honors scholars & teachers of Saint Michael’s

September 24, 2018
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer
Susan speaks

Joan Wry receives this years Janne Rathgeb Teaching Award Friday in McCarthy from VPAA/Dean Jeffrey Trumbower an President Lorraine Sterritt; directly above, last year’s Scholarship Award winner Susan Ouellette delivers this year’s Convocation Address; below, the other major faculty award winners,Melissa VanderKaay and Alain Brizard (photos by Ethan Simmons).

At this year’s annual Academic Convocation — a September tradition established in 1986 to honor Saint Michael’s College scholars and scholarship — more than 100 faculty, staff, students and College leaders came together in the McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall on Friday, Sept. 21, to:

  • Present three major annual faculty awards: for service; for scholarship & artistic achievement; and for teaching – the latter occasioning a particular poignant moment because of a family anniversary with which it coincided.
  • Hear a playfully serious and heartfelt keynote message about “The Power of Magical Thinking” from last year’s scholarship award winner, Susan Ouellette of the history faculty.
  • Hear Trustees Chair Mary-Kate McKenna ’80 and others welcome a new president, Lorraine Sterritt in high anticipation of the next day’s Inauguration.
  • Enjoy inspiring student remarks from Monique Gardon ’21, after students representing the academic honor societies on campus processed in carrying the flags of their respective groups.
  • Formally recognize many distinguished retiring longtime faculty, while welcoming new faces and acknowledging those granted tenure or promoted to full professor.

The main event of this, as previous, Academic Convocation was the presentation of the three always highly anticipated major faculty awards, which Master of Ceremonies, VPAA and Dean Jeffrey Trumbower, said were chosen by the Faculty Council based on nominations from across the College. The winners were (listed with name of award presenter and some words from each citation):

Norbert A. Kuntz MelissaService Award winner: Melissa VanderKaay Tomasulo, psychology (presenter Doug Slaybaugh): “Professor Melissa VanderKaay Tomasulo (photo at left)joined the Psychology Department at Saint Michael’s College in 2006. Shortly after arriving at Saint Michael’s, Melissa began to lay the foundations for what would become a successful new major in the area of Neuroscience. Melissa worked tirelessly over more than half a decade, with co-founder Adam Weaver, to establish the Neuroscience major at the College in 2015. Since then, Melissa has continued to serve as Director of the Neuroscience program, while balancing her several roles as professor, mentor, advisor, researcher, and notably, as a campus leader.” Slaybaugh went on to describe the winner’s much-appreciated skill in leading faculty through a redesign of the Core Curriculum as a co-chair of the committee charged with that.

2018 Scholarship & Artistic Achievement Award winner: Alain Brizard, physics (presenter Susan Ouellette) “The great physicist Enrico Fermi once quipped that ‘it is no good to try to stop knowledge from going forward.’ Those who have watched Alain’s scholarship might modify the quote to read “it is no good to try to stop Alain Brizard from going forward. Since arriving at Saint Michaels in 2000, BrizardAlain has become one of the College’s most prolific and accomplished scholars.  Focusing primarily on theoretical models used to explore and understand plasmas and fusion, Alain has authored over 80 journal articles, along with four pedagogical articles, and over a dozen published conference proceedings.  He is also the author of three textbooks, two as sole author. Alain’s work is both nationally and internationally known.  He has made over 100 conference presentations, many of which are invited, along with multiple seminars at locations around the world.  His work also resonates with local and federal funding agencies, with award funding totaling many hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Joan emotions

Joan responds to a standing ovation.

2018 Joanne Rathgeb Teaching Award Winner: Joan Wry, English (presenter Traci Griffith, media studies, journalism and digital arts): “Joan Wry’s students describe her as a “gem” and “one of the best of the best” professors at Saint Michael’s College.  Before earning her doctorate in English at McGill University and joining the faculty as a tenure-track Professor in 2013, Joan taught for many years as an adjunct in the First-Year Seminar Program and full-time instructor in the English Department, Coordinator of the Writing Proficiency Program, and Associate Dean of the College.  Joan is a seasoned administrator, an accomplished scholar, and a generous colleague, but at the center of her career stands her devotion to students—their learning, their well-being, their spiritual as well as intellectual lives. Students appreciate that Joan is kind, understanding, supportive, patient, and caring, well-prepared, organized, and challenging.  Joan’s gifts as a teacher are similar to those of her father, John Reiss, who received this award exactly twenty years ago: deep intelligence, calm perseverance, and an absolute dedication to paying attention to every student.  Joan Wry brings a generous heart and joyful energy to everything she does, and she exemplifies the teaching-centered mission of Saint Michael’s College.” Wry was visibly emotional at the mention of her late father, and after the presentation, she was the one honoree of the ceremony to receive an extended heartfelt standing ovation.

Magical Thinking

In her Convocation Address near the ceremony’s end, last year’s scholarship award winner Susan Ouellette (photo top of story, right) began by telling of her love for the “magical thinking” she encountered by reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books thanks to one of her nieces many years ago – in fact, the speaker donned a whimsical academic robe evocative of Rowling’s world of Hogwarts and wise wizards, inspired by that niece. Ouellette’s own “magical thinking,” the speaker said, began when she imagined herself as a teacher as a young girl and grew to love books – but a suboptimal high school guidance counselor told her she was “not college material” and should be a secretary. She put off college for many years, but later in life, encouraged by family and friends who believed in her potential, dared to return to college and met a special mentor who “encouraged my magical thinking until it became a reality,” Ouellette said – and the year Harry Potter hit American bookshelves, “I arrived here on campus at Saint Michael’s with my PhD in hand and two years’ teaching experience at a small college in South Carolina. Saint Michael’s has nurtured all my magical thinking” — leading to her extensive history research and two successful books with a third in the works. “How else can a historian capture a moment 200 or more years in the past except by a magical flight of imagination?” she asked.  “Nothing in life is easy and the plain fact is that I now live the life I imagined so long ago.”

A full program

Ellis plays

Bill Ellis plays before the ceremony.

The 3:30 p.m. ceremony in the McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall opened with music from Bill Ellis of the Fine Arts/Music faculty, an accomplished guitarist who sat on stage and played pleasant songs from the folk genre that is his specialty, from about 15 minutes prior to the opening procession, and during it.

After the honor students processed in with their colorful flags and took seats in front rows before the stage, Lara Scott, director of MOVE in the Edmundite Campus Ministry office, gave an invocation that honored the memory of Cathy Hurst, retired theater professor who died recently of a brain tumor. “Give us the grace to infuse generosity, dedication, honesty, humor and love into your work with each other and with our students as Cathy did so genuinely throughout her many year at Saint Michael’s College,” Scott prayed.

McKenna took the occasion to praise faculty for the past year’s many accomplishments, mentioning just a few: ongoing important research on e-cigarettes as they affect youth, new student internships in Asia, the securing of a major National Science Foundation Grant, and particularly, the successful search that brought President Lorraine Sterritt to Saint Michael’s. “Where other colleges failed, we succeeded and were able to get the best possible president of Saint Michael’s ….” McKenna said.

student speaker

The student speaker, Monique Gardon ’21.

Monique Gardon ’21, secretary of academics for the Student Association and psychology major from Coventry, CT., reflected on the power to change lives she felt as a camp counselor for many years, leading her to think how much more true that must be for the college professors she so admires at Saint Michael’s.  She told how most of her best learning happened in ways that were not necessarily “traditional” – such as watching a film by Beyoncé in one class leading to animated extended discussions among her peers. Such out-of-the box instruction, as she has seen and experienced at Saint Michael’s, brings a tenfold reward, Gardon said.

Turning to news of faculty, the day’s Master of Ceremonies, Master of Ceremonies Trumbower had new faculty stand in the audience to be acknowledged with applause. He also announced the promotion of John Devlin of the Fine Arts faculty to full professor.

This year’s portion of the program honoring new emeritus professors as a result of their retirements in the past year was longer than usual. Here are this year’s retirees, with the name of the presenters who read each honorary citation, and some words from each:

James Conley (Classics – presenter, Ron Begley): “Four more than four decades, James has been an exemplary teacher and a generous colleague, noted for his gentle humor, his kindness, and his steadfast devotion to his students, to the classical languages and literature and to the craft of teaching.”

Aostre Johnson (Education – presenter, Valerie Bang-Jensen): “Aoestre Johnson’s contributions through her teaching, service and scholarship during her 28-year career at Saint Michael’s have made a prof-und impact on our College community and on our students, who describe her teaching as inspiring and transformative.” Johnson’s international study-travel and spirituality interests were noted in particular.

Jonathan Silverman (Education, presenter, Bang-Jensen): “For 25 years as an art educator at Saint Michael’s…Jonathan Silverman’s mission has been to help his students become more imaginative, resourceful, and critically reflective practitioners. She told of his arts education initiatives and honors and sense of fun.

Herb Kessel (Economics, presenter, Tara Natarajan): “Herb Kessel joined the Department of Economics at Saint Michael’s College in 1977 … [and] brought unique experience and knowledge from his work in the public sector to a long career of teaching, research and service….” She mentioned also his active work directing the Center for Social Science Research from 1988 to 2015, his pioneering of many programs and activity with the economics honor society and Rabbi Wall Lecture series.

Susan Kuntz (Psychology, presenter, David Boynton): “A person of remarkable personal and professional courage and strength, Susan Kuntz brought educational psychology, adult developmental psychology, feminist and multicultural psychology, qualitative research methods, and yoga to the College and psychology department long before any of these subjects or movements had become fashionable.”

Malcom Lippert (Biology, presenter Declan McCabe): “Mac built upon his several years of prior undergraduate teaching to develop creative and innovative courses at Saint Michael’s College. His molecular biology skills translated well in our classrooms and labs leading many of our students to his research lab and to careers in his field. Throughout his time with us, Mac maintained a vibrant research program.”


A student carries an honor society flag in the opening procession.

Will Marquess (English, presenter Lorrie Smith): “He was always a renaissance man, however, guided both by intellectual curiosity and personal passion to explore contemporary fiction, Italian language and literature, and creative writing.  This breadth stood him in good stead as the Director of the First-Year Seminar Program for many years … Will was above all devoted to his students, many of whom remain friends … we thank you for your generous heart, playful spirit, sharp mind, quiet elegance, and deep commitment to the lives of our students.”

Elizabeth O’Dowd (Applied Linguistics, presenter Mahmoud Arani): “For 23 years, nearly one third of the history of the Applied Linguistics Department, Professor Elizabeth O’ Dowd, as a strong pillar of the ALD, has generously contributed to the success of all ALD programs.  She has been an exceptional teacher/scholar, a superb administrator, a caring mentor, a truly supportive colleague and, more importantly, a genuine friend.”

Joanne Scott (Business Administration & Accounting, presenter, Karen Popovich): We thank Professor Scott for her 27 years of service to Saint Michael’s College. Since starting part-time in 1991 and teaching full-time since 1993, Prof. Scott has taught over 150 graduate business (former MSA) and close to 3,500 undergraduate business (BU/AC) students. Prior to joining Saint Michael’s, Joanne gained investments and financial analysis expertise as a Morgan Stanley & Co. employee in New York, New York…”

Susan Summerfield (Fine Arts/Music), presenter, Nat Lew): Susan Summerfield joined Saint Michael’s College as Dean of the College in 1991 … as dean …. She was a gracious and supportive presence. She could challenge faculty members, but also advocate fiercely for their needs. She modernized numerous procedures related to tenure and promotion, strengthened the Faculty Regulations, helped design and implement the Liberal Studies Requirement … After returning to the faculty in 1996, Susan embraced teaching with gusto, transforming the College’s music curriculum …”

Douglas Slaybaugh (History, presenter Susan Ouellette): “Douglas Slaybaugh is the best example of the consummate teacher/scholar. From the first, his attention to teaching was always a model for junior faculty to emulate. His students benefited from his attention to best practices, his constant incorporation of new and interesting materials, and his patient approach to classroom matters … his example as a scholar was an inspiration to others who witnessed the way in which his scholarship and teaching intertwined to create the best experience for his students.”

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