Princeton awards six honorary degrees

Princeton University awarded honorary degrees during Commencement exercises Sunday, May 16, to six individuals — all residents of New Jersey — for their contributions to music, history, education, literature, public service, public health, social justice and ending homelessness.

Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber awarded degrees to Jon Bon Jovi, musician and philanthropist; Linda Caldwell Epps, educator and CEO of 1804 Consultants; John Fleming, Princeton’s Louis W. Fairchild ’24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus; Rush Holt, physicist and eight-term member of Congress; Dr. Risa Juanita Lavizzo-Mourey, public health advocate and longtime president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and Constance Mercer Myers, founder and leader of HomeFront.

In a video narrated by news anchor and trustee Melanie C. Lawson, Class of 1976, hear about the accomplishments of the six individuals — all residents of New Jersey — awarded honorary degrees during Princeton University’s 274th Commencement.

Jon Bon Jovi, Doctor of Music

Jon Bon Jovi

Jon Bon Jovi

Singer-songwriter, record producer, actor and philanthropist, New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi is best known as the founder and frontman of the Grammy Award-winning band Bon Jovi. Formed in 1983, the band scored multiple gold and platinum albums on the strength of songs like “Livin’ on a Prayer,” about a down-on-his-luck dockworker and his diner waitress girlfriend. Bon Jovi didn’t forget those struggling like Tommy and Gina. In 2006, he established the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation with a mission to “break the cycle of hunger, poverty and homelessness.” JBJ Soul Kitchen community restaurants, created by the foundation, are designed to ensure that everyone has access to a hot, nutritious meal. From locations in Red Bank, Toms River and the Rutgers-Newark campus, JBJ Soul Kitchen has served more than 135,000 meals. Bon Jovi’s extensive philanthropic involvement also includes serving on President Obama’s White House Council for Community Solutions, assisting in recovery efforts after Superstorm Sandy and building affordable housing in 11 states. During the coronavirus pandemic, the JBJ Soul Kitchen Food Bank provided carryout meals to first responders, hospital workers, soup kitchens and other nonprofits.

Born and raised in New Jersey, he is best known as the frontman of a Grammy Award-winning rock band; he is also a thoughtful philanthropist, establishing the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation in 2006 with a mission to “break the cycle of hunger, poverty, and homelessness.” Over the past 15 years, his foundation has helped to do just that, supporting affordable housing for thousands of people across 11 states, and serving tens of thousands of meals to New Jerseyans in need. Through his commitment to rebuilding pride in one’s self and one’s community — one soul at a time — and his joyful contributions to the world of rock ‘n’ roll, he has taught us, “We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got… We’ve got each other and that’s a lot.”

Linda Caldwell Epps, Doctor of Humanities

Linda J. Caldwell-Epps

Linda J. Caldwell-Epps

Linda Caldwell Epps has devoted her professional life to the advancement of cultural and educational institutions in New Jersey and beyond. A native of Elizabeth and resident of Newark, for more than 45 years she has served as an administrator, educator and consultant to organizations including the New Jersey Historical Society, where she was president and CEO, and New Jersey Network Television and Radio, where she was vice president for institutional relations. She spent 27 years working at Bloomfield College, where her roles included vice president for student affairs, dean of students and vice president for college relations. She was a consultant to several institutions, including the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, on diversity and equity in higher education. President and CEO of 1804 Consultants and a founding member of the Sankofa Collaborative, Epps serves as co-chair of the Revolution NJ Advisory Council, as the United States prepares to celebrate the 250th anniversary of its founding. She has also served as a consultant to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and, in New Jersey, to the William Trent House; the Newark Public Library; the Scotch Plains Public Library; the Timbuctoo historical site; Old First Church of Elizabeth; and the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education. Among her many honors, she was the 2019 recipient of the Beulah Oliphant award, presented annually to women in recognition of outstanding contributions to New Jersey history, in historic preservation, education or scholarship. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, her master’s from Seton Hall University and her doctorate from Drew University.

This native of Elizabeth, New Jersey, and granddaughter of the Great Migration came of age in the turbulent 1960s. In college and graduate school, she developed a passion for the history of America, and especially for the untold histories of our nation. She brought this passion to a career serving the people of New Jersey, first as a leader in higher education and public media, and later as president of the New Jersey Historical Society. Today, as CEO of 1804 Consultants, she brings more than four decades of experience to bear as she helps New Jersey educational and cultural organizations explore their pasts, understand the present and advance their missions for the future.

John V. Fleming, Doctor of Humane Letters

John Fleming

John Fleming

A farm boy from Arkansas, John Fleming graduated from the University of the South (Sewanee) and attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He completed his doctorate at Princeton in a mere two years and spent three years as an instructor in English at the University of Wisconsin. In 1965 he returned to his “perfect place,” Princeton, beginning an extraordinary tenure on the faculty and as a widely admired member of the University community. Now the Louis W. Fairchild ’24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, Fleming served as chair of the Department of English and a founding member of the Department of Comparative Literature. He was twice head of First College, then known as Wilson College; he received a Howard T. Behrman Award for distinguished achievement in the humanities and the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, and he was chief marshal at Commencement ceremonies for nearly 20 years. His weekly “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche” column in the Daily Princetonian lives on as a weekly blog. He served on the executive committee of the Alumni Council and the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni, and in 2004 received the Alumni Council Award for Service to Princeton. Fleming has published extensively in the fields of medieval English and European literature, medieval art history, and the history of Christian thought and spirituality, and he is a past president of the Medieval Academy of America. His passion for books goes beyond reading and writing them; he also has made and repaired them on his own antique printing press in his home.

One of Princeton’s legendary lecturers and the recipient of the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award, among many other honors, he is an expert in the literature of the Middle Ages whose illustrious and extraordinary career spanned more than four decades. Raised on a farm in Mountain Home, Arkansas, he was a Rhodes Scholar and later became the Louis W. Fairchild Professor of English Literature. An extraordinary University citizen whom colleagues were known to call “the funniest man alive,” he chaired the English department for years, served twice as the head of First College (then Wilson College), and for nearly two decades was Chief Marshal at Princeton’s Commencement ceremonies. A widely learned and compassionate scholar, he offered the gifts of his research and teaching, his humility and humor, and his humane and charitable view of worlds past and present to generations of admiring students.

Rush Holt, Doctor of Laws

Rush Holt

Rush Holt

Scientist and scholar, professor and public servant, Rush Holt has modeled a career of dedication and distinction. He was born in Weston, West Virginia, the son of a U.S. senator father and a scientist mother who was the first female Secretary of State in West Virginia. He received his bachelor’s degree from Carleton College and his Ph.D. from New York University. A physicist, he was on the Swarthmore College faculty for eight years and headed the Nuclear and Scientific Division of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Strategic Forces from 1987 to 1989. He then served as assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory until 1989, winning election to Congress a year later from New Jersey’s 12th District. He served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was an unwaveringly strong advocate for science, research and higher education. After leaving Congress, he became chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the Science group of journals. He retired in 2019.

As the son of a senator and a scientist who served as the first female Secretary of State of West Virginia, he followed his parents’ footsteps to become a teacher, scientist and eight-term representative for New Jersey’s 12th district. Recognizing his Ph.D. in physics, his supporters proudly proclaimed, “My Congressman is a rocket scientist.” Beyond his service in Congress, he taught at Swarthmore College, held a senior post at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and was chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. Never one to shy away from a challenge, he was also a five-time winner on the quiz show “Jeopardy!” An investigator of the mysteries of the universe and a faithful steward of our democracy, he dedicated his life to advocating for science and the people of New Jersey.

Risa Juanita Lavizzo-Mourey, Doctor of Science

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

A distinguished advocate for public health, Dr. Lavizzo-Mourey is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Population Health and Health Equity Professor, Emerita, at the University of Pennsylvania. From 2003 to 2017, she was the president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest U.S. philanthropy organization dedicated to health. During her tenure at RWJF, Lavizzo-Mourey spearheaded bold initiatives such as creating healthier, more equitable communities. A specialist in geriatrics, she came to the foundation from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was the Sylvan Eisman Professor of Medicine and Health Care Systems; director of the Institute on Aging; and chief of geriatric medicine at the School of Medicine. She worked as deputy administrator for the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research under President George H.W. Bush and served as Quality of Care chair for President Bill Clinton’s panels on health care. President Barack Obama appointed her to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and she was named a White House Champion of Change. She has an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and an M.B.A. from Wharton School of Business.

The child of two physicians, she always planned to pursue a career in medicine. A childhood meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. — who in 1966 said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman” — inspired her to broaden her focus beyond healing individual patients to benefitting society through medicine. Honored by the Obama administration as a White House Champion of Change, in her wide-ranging career she was the chief of geriatric medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and a member of the White House Health Care Reform Task Force. For almost 15 years, she served at the helm of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated to improving public health — where she used her voice, her expertise and her passion to make a powerful, measurable difference in the lives and health of millions.

Constance Mercer Myers, Doctor of Humane Letters

Connie Mercer

Constance Mercer Myers

Encountering a mother and three children huddled in a squalid motel room along U.S. Route 1 in 1991, Connie Mercer Myers was moved by the helplessness and despair of the homeless. She took action, founding HomeFront to “break the cycle of poverty.” What started with a group of volunteers delivering food and water to families living in motels has grown into one of the leading nonprofit social services agencies in central New Jersey. Today, HomeFront offers housing assistance, education, life skills, employment training, childcare and more for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so. The Family Campus in Ewing provides temporary shelter, transitional and permanent housing to more than 450 people a night, two-thirds of them children. Myers’ compassionate dedication to providing food and shelter to those in need has transformed the lives of thousands of adults and children. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and her master’s from York University.

For three decades, she has made it her mission to provide shelter, support, and above all, hope to central New Jersey’s homeless. As the founder and chief executive officer of HomeFront, she has mobilized a small army of staff, volunteers and donors with the goal of empowering families to “break the cycle of poverty” by overcoming the interlocking obstacles to self-sufficiency — from prohibitive housing costs, to inadequate childcare, to underdeveloped life skills. HomeFront’s welcoming Family Campus in Ewing, which exemplifies this multidimensional vision, is a testament to what passionate leadership and selfless determination can achieve.

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