Durham County

Duke to honor 3 pillars of Durham life. Who are they and what have they done?

Former Durham Mayor Bill Bell, pictured here at last year's Durham Holiday Parade, is among six people Duke is awarding honorary degrees to at its upcoming spring commencement.
Former Durham Mayor Bill Bell, pictured here at last year's Durham Holiday Parade, is among six people Duke is awarding honorary degrees to at its upcoming spring commencement. bthomas@heraldsun.com

Three pillars of Durham community life are among the six people who will receive honorary degrees from Duke University later this spring.

Former mayor Bill Bell, prominent architect Phil Freelon and attorney, community leader and philanthropist Russell M. Robinson II will be honored at Duke's commencement on May 13, the school announced Friday.

Commencement will feature an address by Apple CEO Tim Cook. It begins at 9 a.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium and is open to the public. Cook is a graduate of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and a member of the university’s board of trustees

The other recipients are Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, General Motors chairman and CEO Mary Barra and Dr. William Kaelin, professor of medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School.

“Duke is proud to recognize the contributions that this distinguished group has made to society,” Duke President Vince Price said Friday. “They each have been bold leaders in their respective fields, and their work has enriched and improved our lives. I am delighted to have the honor of awarding their degrees, and I am certain that the graduating Class of 2018 will be inspired by their example.

Bell served eight terms as mayor of Durham from 2001-2017. He's the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history but chose not to seek another term.

Bell led the revitalization of Northeast Central Durham and much of the Southside community and started a data-driven initiative to reduce poverty in the city. He also built partnerships with Duke and others to create DPAC and the American Tobacco Campus.

Freelon was the lead architect for the $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016. He also designed the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte.

Freelon has served as an adjunct faculty member at N.C. State University's College of Design and has lectured at Harvard, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley. His honors include the AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture in 2009 and President Obama appointing him to the National Commission of Fine Arts.

Robinson and his partners founded Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, one of the largest law firms in North Carolina. The firm focuses primarily on corporate and commercial law, securities and nonprofit organizations. He authored “Robinson on North Carolina Corporation Law.”

Robinson served for 30 years as a trustee and 11 years as chair of The Duke Endowment, and on the boards of Duke Law School, UNC Charlotte and Johnson C. Smith University. He transferred from Princeton to Duke, where he received a bachelor’s degree, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1954. He received his law degree from Duke in 1956, where he was editor-in-chief of the Duke Law Journal.

Adichie is the author of three novels – “Purple Hibiscus” (2003), “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006) and “Americanah” (2013).

“Americanah” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was named one of The New York Times’s Ten Best Books of the Year. It was selected as the first-year summer reading assignment for Duke’s Class of 2018.

Barra was elected chair of the General Motors Board of Directors in January 2016, two years after she was named CEO. Fortune magazine placed her at the top of their Most Powerful Women list in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Barra’s son Nick and her daughter Rachel are both Duke undergraduates.

Kaelin, a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator since 1998, earned both a medical degree and undergraduate degree (summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) in chemistry and mathematics from Duke. He also received the Duke School of Medicine Distinguished Alumni Award in 2007.

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