Three Commencement Guests

One of the pleasures of working at Amherst is staffing the commencement weekend talks by honorary degree recipients. During my 12 years here, I’ve heard from—and placed water at the podium for—a future White House senior staffer (Valerie Jarrett), my congressman growing up (Tom Davis ’71 of Virginia) and, this year, MacArthur Fellow and former Amherst magazine cover subject Kellie Jones ’81. Each year brings a mix of the already famous and the quietly influential, which inspired me to find out who’d been honored in years past. I found three names especially appealing. 

Your Challenge:

Here are excerpts from three Amherst honorary degree citations issued between 1977 and 1991. Whom are they for? (Hint: None is an alum.) Send your answers to: or Amherst magazine, Box 5000, Amherst MA 01002. Anyone who correctly identifies all three will be entered to win an Amherst T-shirt.

Extra Credit: Write a 100-word reminiscence about a speech you heard during your own commencement weekend. We’ll print our favorite response in the next issue.

  1. Legal Legend—For patiently pursuing a litigation strategy against gender discrimination “that would topple equal rights barriers,” this federal judge—now a U.S. Supreme Court justice—earns a comparison to Charles Hamilton Houston, class of 1915, legal architect of Brown v. Board of Education. “We are proud to honor you today for your lifelong insistence that inequality for some unbalances a society and makes it precarious for all,” the citation reads, “and for enduring the tedium and wear, case by case, to put the imbalance right.”
  2. Soulful Singer—“You are the high priestess of soul in black music,” the citation says of this singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist, who released her first album in 1958. “You have given voice to, and in your turn have shaped, the consciousness of black Americans. From the rural sounds of your native North Carolina, through immersion in the rich tradition of Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington, out of professional study at Juilliard, you have fashioned a dazzling idiom which is at once collective and personal.”
  3. Media Maven—This first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper earns praise for upholding the highest standards of journalism, and for being a “champion of the arts” and an “influential adviser on foreign relations and politics.” In a likely reference to her family paper’s biggest story, it says, “You and those who work with you insist not only that public servants must be accountable for their actions but also that the press itself is a public servant: that it should always be accurate and thorough, instructive and fair.”

Last Quarter's Winner

Physics contest
The mystery object, known as a governor, was invented in the 18th century to control the speed of a stationary steam engine. This example came to Amherst from physicist Thomas Greenslade ’59, who writes this about it:

“When the rotation rate is too large, the heavy steel balls travel outward and press on the lever controlling the admittance of high-pressure steam into the engine, reducing the rate at which steam is admitted to the cylinder. At speeds that are too low, the balls move inward, this time actuating the lever to admit more steam to the engine.

“In introductory physics classes this device was used to discuss the conservation of angular momentum that the spinning system possesses. When you squeeze the levers, the balls move inward, and the system starts to rotate more rapidly.”

As physics major Roger Turton ’71 notes in his correct entry: “The effect is similar to a figure skater performing a spin. As the skater draws arms inward closer to the body, analogous to the two balls, the rate of rotation of the spin increases to maintain a constant angular momentum.”

Our randomly selected winner is Bob Mason ’53, who writes, “The force that increases the spinning rate is known as the Coriolis effect, a tangential reactionary force resulting from the reduction of the turning radius of a mass, an important factor in weather movement.” He wins an Amherst T-shirt.