Washington University to confer five honorary degrees May 20

One holds an Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research; another a record three National Book Critics Circle Awards. One built a state-of-the-art biomedical research facility; another helped build one of the nation’s finest collections of modern art.

From a 28-year member of Congress to a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the five notable people selected to receive honorary degrees during Washington University’s 144th Commencement May 20 all stand out in their respective fields.

During the ceremony, which begins at 8:30 a.m. in Brookings Quadrangle, the university will also bestow academic degrees on more than 2,300 students.

Richard A. Gephardt, former U.S. House minority and majority leader, will deliver the Commencement address and receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

The other honorary degree recipients and their degrees are:

William H. Gass, Ph.D., the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, doctor of humanities;

Emily R. Pulitzer, founder and chairman of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, doctor of humanities;

Robert G. Roeder, Ph.D., the Arnold O. and Mabel S. Beckman Professor of Biochemistry and head of the Laboratory of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Rockefeller University in New York, doctor of science; and

James E. Stowers Jr., co-chairman of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City and founder and current board member of American Century Companies Inc., a leading investment manager, doctor of science.

Gass is a world-renowned author and literary critic. He was the founder (in 1990) and first director of the university’s International Writers Center in Arts & Sciences — now known as The Center for the Humanities.

William Gass
William H. Gass

He is the author of “Omensetter’s Luck” (1966), “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories” (1968), “Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife” (1968), “Fiction and the Figures of Life” (1971), “On Being Blue” (1976), “The World Within the Word” (1978), “Habitations of the Word: Essays” (1985), “The Tunnel” (1995), “Finding a Form” (1996), “Cartesian Sonata” (1998), “Reading Rilke” (1999) and “Tests of Time” (2003).

He has won several major literary awards during his career, including the National Book Critics Circle Award an unprecedented three times: in 1985 for “Habitations of the Word”; in 1996 for “Finding a Form”; and in 2003 for “Tests of Time.”

He also won the 1997 Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2000 PEN/Nabokov Award, and the PEN/Nabokov Lifetime Achievement Award, which he has called his “most prized prize.”

Gass, who retired from teaching in 1999, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1982 and to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983. He received an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction in 1975 and Medal of Merit for Fiction in 1979.

Gephardt grew up in the same working-class neighborhood on the south side of St. Louis that he represented in Congress for 28 years. A two-time presidential candidate, Gephardt has served as both majority and minority leader for Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Richard A. Gephardt
Richard A. Gephardt

Ranked as one of the nation’s leading Democrats for much of the last two decades, he is known for his expertise on economic issues and foreign affairs, and as a tireless advocate of fairness, justice and opportunity for every American.

In Congress, Gephardt worked to promote economic and personal security by strengthening bedrock commitments to the American people, especially Medicare and Social Security.

He also led efforts to raise the minimum wage; curtail rollbacks of affirmative action; pass the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform legislation; include labor and environmental standards in U.S. trade agreements; block White House efforts to roll back arsenic standards in drinking water; win passage of environmental legislation to clean up brownfields; and secure protections for family farms.

Gephardt stepped down from public office in 2004. In February, the university announced the establishment of the Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service in his honor. Its goal is to encourage people, especially students and older citizens, to become involved in public service. The university is in the process of forming an advisory board for the institute, and Gephardt will serve as its chair.

Pulitzer is an internationally respected curator, collector and patron of the visual arts. Over the last four decades, she has helped shape the cultural landscape of St. Louis and the nation through a series of important exhibitions, programs and organizations.

Emily Pulitzer
Emily Pulitzer

She arrived in St. Louis in 1964 as curator of the Saint Louis Art Museum, where her almost decade-long tenure was marked by a succession of prescient acquisitions and exhibitions.

In 1982, she co-curated the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture” and co-organized Richard Serra’s sculpture commission “Twain” (1982) for downtown St. Louis. In 1986, she co-founded Arts in Transit, in which artists worked with architects and engineers to design a new light rail system.

Origins of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts date back to 1988, when the Fogg Art Museum exhibited selections from the renowned collection of modern art that Pulitzer had built with her husband, Joseph Pulitzer Jr., then editor and publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Shortly thereafter, the couple selected future Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando to design permanent exhibition facilities. Unfortunately Joseph Pulitzer died in 1993; however construction began on the Pulitzer Foundation in 1996 and the facility opened in 2001 to international acclaim.

Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, called it “the greatest work of architecture to go up in St. Louis” since Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in 1891.

If DNA is the library of life, and the genes contained within DNA are books, Roeder’s scientific accomplishments have played pivotal roles in unveiling the library staff — the hundreds of molecules that determine when the books are read.

Robert Roeder
Robert Roeder

These molecules are the primary mechanisms that turn genes on and off, controlling when and where information is read from DNA and put to use in the body. Selectively activating genes is essential to many important biological processes.

The senior member of this metaphorical library staff is an enzyme known as RNA polymerase. In 1969, Roeder discovered and described the structures of three versions of this molecule.

Largely through a new technique for studying gene activation that he developed, Roeder has also revealed multiple intricate networks of many different molecules that can bind to or otherwise interact with DNA, RNA polymerase, and each other to control the activities of families of genes.

The basic knowledge Roeder has gathered has enormous potential for clinical benefit in fields ranging from cancer to genetic disorders to infectious diseases.

Roeder was a member of the biochemistry faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine from 1971-1982, for a time serving as the James S. McDonnell Professor of Biochemistry. He joined the Rockefeller University faculty in 1982.

Roeder’s many honors include the 2003 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, a prize informally known to many as the “American Nobel.”

Stowers’ father and grandfather were Kansas City physicians. Stowers, who received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri, had planned to become a doctor, even completing a two-year degree in medicine. However, he was drawn to business.

James Stowers
James Stowers

After working as a mutual-fund salesman, Stowers launched his own company in 1958 with four employees, a base of 12 investors, two mutual funds and initial assets of only $107,000.

Today, with a staff of 1,800, American Century manages $96 billion in assets for more than 1.6 million shareholders.

Having achieved success in the financial world, Stowers decided he wanted to give back something more valuable than money to the millions of people who helped make him successful. He and his wife, Virginia, who are both cancer survivors, wanted to help people enjoy a healthier life, so in 1994 they created the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.

The institute aspires to be one of the most innovative biomedical research organizations in the world. Scientists at the state-of-the-art facility conduct basic research on genes and proteins that control fundamental processes in living cells to unlock the mysteries of disease and find the keys to their causes, treatment and prevention.

Since his initial donation in 1994 of $50 million in American Century stock to start the institute, the Stowers have contributed several more gifts and have taken an active role in designing and managing the center. The institute’s endowment is currently worth more than $2 billion.

Editor’s notes: Print-quality headshots of the honorary degree recipients are available upon request.

Gass is a resident of University City, Mo. (63130); Gephardt of Washington, D.C. (20024); Pulitzer of St. Louis, Mo. (63108); Roeder of New York City; and Stowers of Kansas City, Mo. (64112) and La Jolla, Calif. (92037).