Seigenthaler, Costa to Receive Honorary Degrees in May

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A renowned journalist and an opera singer known as the voice of Sleeping Beauty will receive honorary degrees in May.

The Board of Trustees today approved the degrees for Tennessee natives John Seigenthaler and Mary Costa. Seigenthaler will receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree and speak at the College of Law commencement at 5:00 p.m. on May 10. Costa will speak and receive an Honorary Doctor of Humane and Musical Letters at the College of Arts and Science commencement at 9:00 a.m. on May 10.

Theirs will be the fifth and sixth honorary degrees UT Knoxville has awarded.

“Throughout his career as a journalist, writer, and public servant, Mr. Seigenthaler has been a staunch advocate and defender of free speech and civil rights. His passion for human equality, for the pursuit of truth, and for protection of free speech and a free press have improved the lives of all Americans,” College of Law Dean Doug Blaze wrote in his letter nominating Seigenthaler for the honor.

A Nashville native, Seigenthaler worked at The Tennessean for forty-three years, moving up from reporter to assistant city editor to special assignment editor and ultimately to editor, publisher, and CEO. While there, he investigated corruption within the local branch of the Teamsters and looked into the criminal activities of Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa. His articles led to the impeachment trial of Chattanooga Criminal Court Judge Ralston Schoolfield.

He took a short break from journalism in the early 1960s to serve in the US Department of Justice as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He served as negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the Freedom Rides. During that crisis, while attempting to aid Freedom Riders in Montgomery, he was attacked by a mob of Klansmen and hospitalized.

In 1982, while still working at The Tennessean, Seigenthaler became founding editorial director of USA Today. He retired as chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and from USA Today in 1991.

Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center in 1991 to create national discussion, dialogue, and debate about First Amendment rights and values. The center is an operating program of the Freedom Forum and is associated with the Newseum and the Diversity Institute. The center has offices in the John Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt University and at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Seigenthaler attended Peabody College, which is now part of Vanderbilt University, and the American Press Institute at Columbia University. He served in the US Air Force after World War II.

The other honorary degree recipient is a well-known Knoxvillian and advocate for children and advancing art and culture.

School of Music Director Jeff Pappas nominated Costa for the honorary degree, saying she was worthy of the honor “because of her extensive and varied career, not just as a musician and entertainer, but for her role as a cultural ambassador, an advocate for the arts, education, young musicians, and at-risk children at the regional and national levels.”

Costa studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory in the late 1940s. An internationally acclaimed soprano, she performed in forty-four operas and worked with many of Hollywood’s legendary entertainers, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jack Benny.

But it was early in her career, while she was singing and doing commercials on the radio, that Walt Disney discovered Costa and cast her as Princess Aurora in the 1958 film Sleeping Beauty.

Costa’s big break in opera came in 1958, just after she finished Sleeping Beauty. She was chosen to replace an indisposed Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for a gala concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Costa went on to sing leading roles in opera houses worldwide, including the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, the Royal Opera House in London, the Bolshoi Theatre, and the San Francisco Opera.

Costa—once heralded by The New York Times as “one of the most beautiful women to grace the operatic stage”—was the guest soloist at the memorial service for President John F. Kennedy at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1963. She also sang at the inaugural concert of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971.

She received the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and the Disney Legends Award in 1999, and was honored with the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s Distinguished Verdi Performance of the Twentieth Century for her 1964 Met debut as Violetta in La Traviata. She was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President George W. Bush in 2003 and served until 2007.

Costa has traveled across the country giving motivational talks at schools and colleges. She has served as an ambassador for Childhelp, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping victims of child abuse and neglect.

UT Knoxville also has given honorary degrees to Howard H. Baker Jr., Dolly Parton, Al Gore, and Charles O. “Chad” Holliday.

Read more about today’s Board of Trustees meeting at the University of Tennessee System website.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)

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