Naomi Judd, a Kentucky-born singer, author, motivational speaker, and actress addressed 271 candidates for graduation during Berea College’s 143rd Commencement ceremonies, Sunday afternoon, May 3, 2015. Judd’s remarks were titled: “Early Hardship Makes for Strong Character as an Adult.” Judd, who has close ties to Berea, was presented with an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from the College by Berea’s President Lyle D. Roelofs during the program, which was held in the Seabury Arena.
Naomi Judd, a single mom and registered nurse from small-town Kentucky, first captured the hearts of the world performing with her daughter Wynonna as The Judds. The popular country music duo earned many accolades, including twenty Top 10 hits, 20 million records sold, seven consecutive CMA Vocal Group of the Year trophies, and six Grammys, including Country Song of the Year for “Love Can Build a Bridge.”
The career of this mother-daughter duo was cut short when Judd was stricken with Hepatitis C, a potentially-fatal, chronic liver disease that she contracted while working as a nurse. The devastating diagnosis and prediction of just three years to live caused The Judds to bid their fans farewell. But Judd fought back, physically and mentally. Today, she is more than a survivor; she is Hepatitis C-free—a medically documented miracle—leading Judd to her current mission: to empower people through holistic health and wellness advocacy incorporating the mind, body, and spirit.
“My message is to help people understand that our thoughts can help us or hurt us,” Judd says. “Whatever we believe becomes our biology.” Judd’s story is a quintessentially American lesson in perseverance and the life-altering power of positive thinking.
Prior to Judd’s remarks, annual awards were presented to outstanding graduates and faculty at the Commencement ceremony. The Hilda Welch Wood Award for outstanding achievement by a female senior student went to Pyae Phyo, a chemistry major who graduated magna cum laude. The T. J. Wood Award for outstanding achievement by a male senior student went Hatinawedu Mupiwa, a computer & information science, mathematics major who also graduated magna cum laude.
Berea’s highest faculty honor — the Seabury Award for Excellence in Teaching — was presented to Jill Bouma, associate professor of sociology, and a Berea faculty member since 1999. Winner of the Paul C. Hager Award for Excellence in Advising was Mary Robert Garrett, assistant professor of chemistry. Ellen Burke, Therapist, and instructor in child and family studies received the Elizabeth Perry Miles Award for Community Service.
Other events recognizing the graduating seniors were held throughout the day. A pinning ceremony for nine graduates of Berea’s baccalaureate nursing program took place at 8:30 a.m. in Phelps Stokes Chapel.
Later in the morning, Reverend Gail E. Bowman spoke to the graduating seniors and their families at the Baccalaureate service, also held in Phelps Stokes Chapel. The message, entitled “Sound Track,” used audio visual components to underscore the text from Psalm 89:15: “Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound; they shall walk, O God, in the light of Your countenance.”
Rev. Bowman received a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Political Science, with Honors in History, from the University of Iowa. She earned a Juris Doctorate degree from Harvard Law School then began her legal career in Washington, D.C., serving first as legal counsel staff of the Senate Judicial Committee, Subcommittee on Administrative Practice and Procedure and later on the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice where she worked with John Conyers (D-MI), on legislation initiating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, for which she received an award from the Congressional Black Caucus.
A growing sense that she had not yet found her life’s work led Bowman to attending Howard University School of Divinity at night and on weekends. She graduated first in her class, experienced in youth ministry and church history research. Rev. Bowman served as Director of Admissions and Student Relations for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary before becoming College Minister at Spelman College, in Atlanta. In 1998, Bowman became the University Chaplain at Dillard, in New Orleans, conducting her work through the Lawless Chapel Ministry and VisionQuest, the Program for Vocation at Dillard University. She served as the University’s chaplain through the tumultuous period following Hurricane Katrina; Dillard’s campus was unusable for a full year. Bowman also maintained a presence in the world of law by serving on the Board of Ethics for the State of Louisiana.
Bowman became Director of the Willis D. Weatherford, Jr. Campus Christian Center at Berea in 2012, helping to shape the College’s institutional culture and spiritual identity. Rev. Bowman has several published articles, papers and sermons, including a book on offering public prayer, “Praying the Sacred in Secular Settings,” published by Chalice Press in 2000. Most recently, she was one of the contributing authors on “College & University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century: A Multifaith Look at the Practice of Ministry on Campuses across America,” (ed.) Lucy A. Forster-Smith (2013). Bowman has preached the Baccalaureate messages at numerous schools including Lincoln University (PA), Augustana College (IL), Bucknell University (PA) Stanford University (CA) and Ursinus College (PA), from which she also received an honorary degree.
A luncheon for graduation candidates and their families was served in the Alumni Building at noon. Following the afternoon commencement service, a reception for graduates, families and guests was held in the campus Quadrangle.
Berea, the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, focuses on learning, labor, and service. Berea charges no tuition, admitting only academically promising students with limited financial resources, primarily from Appalachia. All students must work 10 hours or more weekly, earning money for books, room, and board, as part of their educational experience. The College’s motto “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth (Acts 17:26),” speaks to its inclusive Christian character, and the quality of its programs ensures that graduates from Berea go on to distinguish themselves and the College in many fields.
Naomi Judd receives her stole and honorary doctor of science degree. Also in this picture: Silas House, far left, seated, Dean Chad Berry, Dr. Linda Strong-Leek, Associate Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and President Lyle Roelofs at podium.