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Florida State University

Spring commencement ceremonies set for weekend; Over 5,400 to graduate

More than 5,400 Florida State University students will graduate this spring and at least 4,000 of them in total will participate in FSU's two commencement ceremonies, which are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 25, and 9 a.m. Saturday, April 26, at the Tallahassee-Leon Country Civic Center. FSU President T.K. Wetherell will preside at both events.

FSU alumna and artist-in-residence Jawole Willa Jo Zollar—a celebrated choreographer and the founder and director of the famed Urban Bush Women dance troupe—will speak at Friday's commencement ceremony for graduates of the colleges of Arts and Sciences; Communication; Criminology and Criminal Justice; Social Sciences; and Visual Arts, Theatre and Dance.

Friday's ceremony also will include the announcement of FSU's 2008-2009 Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor. This year's recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the faculty on one of its own is Professor of English Stanley E. Gontarski, a prolific editor and modernist literature scholar world-renowned as an expert on 20th-century Irish writer, poet and dramatist Samuel Beckett.

The featured speaker at Saturday's ceremony will be Dr. Ernest C. Cook, Jr., a family-practice physician and healthcare company executive who in 1967 became the first black to sign a scholarship to play football at FSU—an opportunity he relinquished in the face of racist threats. Cook will address graduates from the colleges of Business; Education; Engineering; Human Sciences; Information; Motion Picture, Television and Recording Arts; Music; Nursing; and Social Work.

FSU's Saturday's commencement ceremony also will see Cook conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.

An award-winning choreographer inspired by African American art and traditions and her decidedly urban perspective as a Kansas City native, Zollar has crafted exuberant productions for the New York City-based Urban Bush Women—the troupe she founded in 1984 and continues to serve as artistic director—and for other top dance companies at theatres and festivals worldwide. The recipient of some of the dance world's most prestigious prizes (among them the 2006 New York Dance and Performance Award for Choreography, or "Bessie," and the 1994 Capezio Award), Zollar earned her master's degree in dance at FSU in 1979. Since 1996, she has served as an artist-in-residence and the Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance in FSU's top-ranked dance department, and the university has recognized her outstanding contributions and community engagement with the "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Distinguished Service Award" (1999) and "Alumni of the Year" award (1997).

Cook was a Daytona Beach teenager and star athlete who aspired to medical school when in 1967 he became the first black student to accept an FSU scholarship to play football. He formalized his commitment in a signing ceremony at the Castaway Beach Motel amid newspaper reporters and television cameras. "I'm proud to be a Seminole," he said at the time.

Then came a flood of anonymous racist letters and death threats to the 17-year-old and his terrified family. Consequently, Cook considered other schools and ultimately chose to attend the University of Minnesota, where he went on to excel both as a student and an athlete and earn his undergraduate and medical degrees.

Wetherell will present Cook with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters during Saturday's commencement ceremony.

"I hope that with these proceedings we can turn back the hands of time and make some of the pain of prejudice go away." Wetherell said. "Losing Ernest Cook as a student 40 years ago was one of the great tragedies in the history of this university. He already has earned the respect of Seminoles everywhere, but on April 26, 2008, he finally will be awarded a long-overdue FSU degree."

With a clinical background as a family-care doctor and an administrative background in managed care, Cook currently is vice president and senior medical executive for CIGNA Healthcare of Florida/U.S. Virgin Islands in St. Mary, Fla.

His career began in hometown Daytona Beach, where he founded Atlantic Family Practice and Atlantic Medical Associates in 1981 and served as a physician in the practice until 1993. He also founded the Volusia County Sickle Cell Foundation and Free Clinic in 1981, and served as its medical director until 2005. Cook was the medical director at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University from 1982 to 1996 and at Good Samaritan Nursing Center from 1982 to 1998; served as the senior medical director and in other positions for several Florida divisions of Humana; and was the chief medical officer for Cogent Healthcare, Inc., in Laguna Hills, Calif. and at Metropolitan Health Plans, Inc., in West Palm Beach before joining CIGNA in 2006.

In addition, Cook, now an Ormond Beach resident, was appointed as a clinical assistant professor in family practice at the University of South Florida; hosted a radio show on health-related issues; and among numerous civic affiliations, served on the Florida State Sickle Cell Foundation's board of directors.

On April 25 and 26, FSU's College of Nursing and Army and Air Force ROTC will host the following events before and after the university's main commencement ceremonies:

  • The College of Nursing will hold an academic convocation for its graduates on Friday, April 25, at 3:00 p.m. in Tully Gym. Professor Sally Karioth, a member of the college's faculty, will speak. A total of 100 Bachelor of Science in Nursing students will receive College of Nursing pins and "Lamps of Knowledge," 11 students will be recognized for earning Master of Science in Nursing degrees, and three will be recognized for the completion of Post-Masters Certificates.
  • FSU's U.S. Army ROTC will commission 14 cadets in a ceremony on Saturday, April 26, at 2:00 p.m. in the President's Sky Box. The guest speaker will be Col. Warren E. Phipps, Jr.
  • FSU's U.S. Air Force ROTC will commission 16 cadets in a ceremony on Saturday, April 26, at 2:30 p.m. in the Student Life Building. The guest speaker will be Maj. Gen. Hank Morrow.

On Sunday, April 27, FSU's Panama City Campus will honor its graduates at a commencement ceremony at 1:30 p.m. CDT at the Marina Civic Center in Panama City, Fla. Out of a total of 413 students who completed degrees in the summer and fall of 2007 and spring of 2008, 221 are expected to attend. Wetherell and FSU Panama City Dean George DePuy will preside, and Senator Don Gaetz will deliver the keynote address.

In May, two of FSU's 16 colleges—Law and Medicine—will hold their own commencement ceremonies:

  • The College of Law's spring commencement ceremony for its 277 graduates is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 3, at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center. Judge Neil M. Gorsuch (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit) will be the speaker.
  • The College of Medicine will hold the commencement ceremony for its 58 graduates on Saturday, May 17, at 10 a.m. in Ruby Diamond Auditorium. The speaker will be Alma Littles, M.D., the college's senior associate dean for Academic Affairs.

By Libby Fairhurst


"Losing Ernest Cook as a student 40 years ago was one of the great tragedies in the history of this university. He already has earned the respect of Seminoles everywhere, but on April 26, 2008, he finally will be awarded a long-overdue FSU degree."

T.K. Wetherell
FSU President