Providence College Announces Commencement Speaker and Honorary Degree Recipients
Academy Award nominee Viola Davis, the actress with Rhode Island roots who has won critical acclaim for her portrayals on the screen and stage, will present the Commencement Address at Providence College’s Ninety-Fourth Commencement Exercises on Sunday, May 20.
The ceremony will take place at 11:00 a.m. at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence.
Davis, who will receive an honorary doctorate in fine arts, will be among five distinguished individuals to be bestowed honorary degrees. The other four are PC alumni with distinct lifetime achievements.
Davis played Aibileen Clark in the 2011 film The Help, set in 1960s Jackson, Miss. The film chronicles the relationship among three different and extraordinary women who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project that breaks societal rules and puts them all at risk. Davis won a Screen Actors Guild Award for “Best Actress” for her role in the film, in addition to Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination in the same category.
Davis also was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her 11-minute-long performance as Mrs. Miller in the 2008 film Doubt, which also starred Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The actress started her career on the stage, as a member of the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence from 1988 to 1995. Davis moved to New York and won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play as well as a Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of Tonya in King Hedley II in 2001.
She won a second Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her 2010 role in Fences alongside Denzel Washington — the second African-American woman to win that honor.
Roles familiar to the College
Davis co-starred with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures film that opened in January. The film is an adaptation of the book by Jonathan Safran Foer about a boy who finds a key that belongs to his father, who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001.
At Providence College, Extremely Loud was the centerpiece of the first-ever Freshman Common Reading Program in 2011.
This year, Davis is starring with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter in Won’t Back Down, a film highlighting the work of two women who want to make a difference at a local school.
Davis also has had notable roles in films such as Eat, Pray, Love; Solaris; Antwone Fisher; Traffic; and Out of Sight.
The actress has graced the small screen as well. She played an eccentric artist on the Showtime drama United States of Tara, a lawyer on Century City, and a nurse on City of Angels with Blair Underwood and Hill Harper, as well as recurring roles on Law & Order: SVU and Jesse Stone, a CBS miniseries starring Tom Selleck.
Rhode Island roots
Davis was born on her grandmother’s farm in St. Matthews, S.C., the second youngest of six children. Her mother, Mae Alice, was a maid, factory worker, and homemaker and her father, Dan Davis, was a horse trainer. The family moved to Central Falls, R.I., when she was 2 months old.
She is a graduate of Central Falls High School, where she first became involved in the arts and which she credits with her love of stage acting. As a teenager, Davis won a scholarship to the Young People’s School for the Performing Arts in West Warwick, R.I., after director Bernard Masterson recognized her talents.
Davis earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre in 1988 from Rhode Island College, which awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degree in 2002. The actress also graduated from The Julliard School.
The actress has helped keep Rhode Island in the headlines. During her acceptance speech for Best Actress at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January, The Providence Journal reported that she offered a message for children growing up in her hometown.
“I have a special, special note to the kids of Central Falls, Rhode Island … to dream big and dream fierce,” Davis said.
In November, she was one of several celebrities, including Alec Baldwin, to donate funds to keep the library in Central Falls open. The city filed for bankruptcy last year.
Davis lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
Alumni contributions to be recognized
Four other people — all alumni — will receive honorary degrees at Commencement as well:
• Dr. Charles J. Goetz ’61 is the Joseph M. Hartfield Chair Emeritus at the University of Virginia School of Law, where he was a member of the faculty for 31 years. The professor graduated summa cum laude in economics in 1961 as a member of PC’s Liberal Arts Honors Program and earned his doctorate in economics at the University of Virginia. His scholarly and practice expertise includes contracts, antitrust, law and economics, and methods of proof. Goetz also taught commercial litigation and state and local government law. He authored a casebook, Law and Economics, and co-authored a textbook on antitrust law.
Goetz will receive an honorary doctorate in laws.
• Catherine “Cammi” Granato ’93, the first woman inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, starred on the U.S. National Team for 15 years and led the team to a gold medal in the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, the first to include women’s hockey. Granato got her start playing on boys’ teams until she was 15, earning a scholarship in 1989 to play for PC. She finished her career after two ECAC Championships and scoring 256 points, a school record that continues today. Granato also won a silver medal in the 2002 Olympics with the U.S. team and retired as the all-time leading scorer in women’s international hockey, with 54 goals and 42 assists in 54 games. She was one of three women to be the first inducted in the International Hockey Hall of Fame and one of two to be the first inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. She founded the Golden Dreams for Children Foundation, which supports special needs children, and also operates an annual hockey summer camp for girls in Chicago.
Granato, who majored in social science at PC, will receive an honorary doctorate in humanities.
• Dr. Paul A. Kearney, Jr. ’75 is professor of surgery at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. He served as chief of trauma/critical care/emergency surgery from 1992 to 2011 and medical director of the trauma and surgical intensive care units from 1988 to 2011. The surgeon has been awarded numerous teaching and clinical excellence awards from the University of Kentucky and has frequently been named to the Consumer Research Council of America’s “Guide to America’s Top Surgeons” since 2001. His research interests include trauma, acute respiratory failure, sepsis, surgical infection, and surgical nutrition.
Kearney, who majored in biology at PC, will receive an honorary doctorate in science.
• Deacon Patrick Moynihan ’99G is the president of The Haitian Project and its tuition-free Catholic boarding school in Haiti, Louverture Cleary School. A former futures and options trader, Moynihan joined the school in 1996 and spent 10 years as president, increasing the enrollment from 65 to 350. Under his leadership, the project grew into a national nonprofit as well, with volunteers and support from seven dioceses. Moynihan, a deacon for the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., returned to the president’s post in March 2009. He and his wife Christina, along with their four children, returned to Haiti in the summer of 2009 and since the earthquake, have decided to stay "ad infinitum."
Moynihan, who earned a master’s degree in religious studies at PC, will receive an honorary doctorate in humanitarian service.