2017 Commencement Speaker & Honorary Degree Recipients

Commencement Speaker and
Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters

Leonard Pitts Jr. 

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

In a career spanning more than 35 years, Leonard Pitts Jr. has been a columnist, a college professor, a radio producer and a lecturer. He is a writer of one of the most popular newspaper columns in the country and of a series of critically-acclaimed books, including his latest, Freeman. 

His lifelong devotion to the art and craft of words has yielded many awards for literary excellence, chief among them the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

In 2001, he received the American Society of Newspaper Editors prestigious ASNE Award for Commentary Writing and was named Feature of the Year - Columnist by Editor and Publisher magazine. In 2002, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists awarded Pitts its inaugural Columnist of the Year award. In 2002 and in 2009, GLAAD Media awarded Pitts the Outstanding Newspaper Columnist award. In 2008, he received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Old Dominion University.

In the fall of 2011, he was a visiting professor at Princeton University, teaching a course in writing about race. In 2013, he taught at George Washington University.

Twice each week, millions of newspaper readers around the country connect with him and his voice. Nowhere was this demonstrated more fully than in the response to his initial column on the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, "We'll Go Forward From This Moment," an angry and defiant open letter to the terrorists.

Leonard Pitts was born and raised in Southern California. He was awarded a degree in English from the University of Southern California at the age of 19, having entered college at 15 on a special honors program.  Since 1995, he has lived in Bowie, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC with his wife and family.

Honorary Doctor of Laws

Delores "Dee" Pigsley

Delores Pigsley

Delores Pigsley is the Chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz. She was born in Toledo, Oregon, the youngest of eight children and lived and grew up at the Chemawa Indian School, where her parents were employed. She is a graduate of North Salem High School.

Pigsley was elected as a Siletz Tribal Council Representative in September of 1975. In 1954 the U.S. Congress passed the termination statute selling off all Siletz tribal lands, abrogating all treaties, cutting off all federal benefits, meaning the Siletz were no longer recognized as a sovereign Indian nation. In the early 1970s the tribe reorganized and launched their effort to restore federal recognition. The Native American Rights Fund stepped forward and provided legal services. The Tribal Council and a core group of tribal members worked tirelessly to publicly make their case. Delores was a leading figure in this extremely contentious battle, and when the restoration was achieved through federal statutes of 1977 and 1980, the Siletz became only the second tribe nationwide to achieve repatriation.

Pigsley has been tribal chair since 1986. As chair, Pigsley has worked with city, country, state, and federal officials to represent the tribe’s position on many issues. She has negotiated agreements, testified before congressional hearings, and continuously advocated for adequate funding for Indian programs. Her efforts to build tribal sovereignty have resulted in improved law enforcement, housing, education, cultural resources, health care, and environmental and natural resources management. Environmental protection has been a priority under her leadership, and the tribe has been recognized for their timber management practices.

In the face of local and state opposition, she led her tribe in the establishment of the Chinook Winds Casino and Convention Center in the mid-1990s. Today, the casino not only provides tribal and local community members with jobs, but revenue from the casino provides funds for governmental programs, as well as for contributions to nonprofit organizations statewide.

Honorary Doctor of Public Service

Gerry Frank

Gerry Frank

Gerry Frank is a fourth-generation Oregonian with deep roots in Oregon’s civic, political and mercantile history. He was educated in Portland public schools, Stanford University, and has a B.A. and M.A. with honors from Cambridge University in England.

As Chief of Staff to former US Senator Mark O. Hatfield for 20 years and as a board member and trustee to dozens of Oregon community institutions, Gerry has lived global politics firsthand and contributed his energy and expertise to Oregon’s progress and evolution. He has often been referred to as “Oregon’s third Senator.”

Gerry is a life-member of the Willamette University Board of Trustees and has served on a number of other boards as well, including the American Automobile Association (AAA) of Oregon and Idaho; St. Vincent Medical Foundation; Portland Rose Festival Association; past chair of the Oregon Independent Colleges Foundation; and served as chair of the Oregon Tourism Commission. He is a former board member of US Bancorp and Standard Insurance Company, as well as the executive committee of the US Committee for UNICEF. The list of his community involvements and recognitions is lengthy, including chairing the Kroc Center task force for the Salem area.

Frank is well known for his Friday Surprise/Frankly Speaking column in The Oregonian and as a former commentator for KPTV-12’s Good Day, Oregon, Northwest Reports and AM Northwest for KATU. His best-selling guidebook to New York City, Where to Find It, Buy It, Eat It in New York, is now in its 20th edition.

Gerry has remained active in the business and civic community since moving to Salem in 1955. He was named Salem’s Jr. First Citizen in 1957 and its First Citizen in 1964. He has received numerous awards, including the Glenn L. Jackson Leadership Award from Willamette University in 1984, the Aubrey Watzek Award in 1986, the Gold Medallion Award for 50 years of Individual Community Service in 1999, and in 2000 he was named the first-ever ‘Oregon Premier Citizen’ by gubernatorial proclamation.

He continues to travel and discover new Oregon gems. His adventures and opportunities can be found in his popular guidebook, Gerry Frank’s Oregon.

Willamette University


900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.

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