“What is an Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus?” people sometimes ask me.
It usually takes a while to explain. From its beginning, the University of Washington has not awarded honorary degrees. But in 1938 the University and its alumni association decided to honor a distinguished alumnus who “has given outstanding contributions to the world.” Part of our commencement ceremonies, this award is the highest honor the University can bestow on one of its graduates.
The list of honorees is remarkable. It includes three Nobel Prize winners—the late George Stigler, ’31, who received a Nobel Prize in economics in 1982; George Hitchings, ’27, ’28, who became a laureate in medicine in 1988; and Martin Rodbell, ’54, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1994.
Captains of industry honored include Boeing Chairman Clair Egtvedt, ’20; United Airlines CEO Edward Carlson; and Ford CEO Donald Petersen, ’46. Two journalists are on the list: the late NBC News Anchor Chester “Chet” Huntley, ’42; and former Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Edwin Guthman, ’44. Perhaps the most famous name of all is former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, ’51, ’57.
Lately the arts have seen many of their alumni honored. Renowned photographer Imogene Cunningham, ’07, started the trend when she was chosen in 1974. Ten years later, the award went to sculptor George Tsutakawa, ’37. The pace has picked up in the ’90s. First wood artist George Nakashima, ’29, was honored in 1990. Then came glass artist Dale Chihuly, ’65, named in 1993.
This year it is photorealist Chuck Close, ’62, who is being tapped for the honor. Close was a pioneer in the movement to duplicate the look of a photograph on a painted canvas. In 1988, he suffered from a blood clot in his spinal column that confined him to a wheelchair, threatening to stifle his art. During his recovery he painted with a brush between his teeth. After months of therapy he regained enough movement in his arm to use a hand splint to paint.
His life is a compelling tale of determination in the face of disability. As the University honors him this June, we are honored to count him among our own.