Five distinguished alumni presented with prestigious Arents Award

Five distinct professionals with five very different careers were each awarded with an Arents Award on Friday.

A designer, an actor, a writer, a metal worker and a philanthropist: five distinct people with five very different careers, each connected by their alma mater and now the highest award Syracuse University can offer its alumni; the Arents Award.

“These awards celebrate alumni whose lives and accomplishments exemplify the essence of Syracuse,” Chancellor Nancy Cantor said in her introductory speech. “Each of them bear brilliant testament to this ongoing impulse to create and to care at the same time.”

Photo: Annie Flanagan
Taye Diggs, ‘93, during his acceptance speech for his 2013 Arents Award.

In 1939, George Arents, an inventor and industrialist who served on the Board of Trustees at SU, endowed a fund for an award to recognize alumni for their achievements. Since its establishment, it has been presented to more than 200 alumni. Past winners include Vice President Joe Biden, men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim and ESPN sportscaster Mike Tirico.

A ceremony for the 2013 recipients was held Friday morning in Goldestein Auditorium. This year’s honorees were Taye Diggs, George Saunders, Henry Grethel, Carole Eisner and Sid Lerner. The ceremony recognized the diverse group of alumni’s bold imaginations and contributions to their respective fields.

Taye Diggs ‘93: for excellence in performing arts

To the Syracuse community, Taye Diggs doesn’t need much of an introduction.

He made a name for himself as an actor and credits SU with providing him with the tools to succeed. Diggs received his degree in drama from the College of Visual and Performing Arts, and returns when he can to give back to the program.

“Syracuse literally gave me my starter kit on how to make it in New York City,” Diggs said in an interview after the event. “I had no idea. From a combination of alumni coming back and speaking, and the other students and the professors, I had my personal handbook of what to do upon getting to the city. I owe a lot.”

In 1996, Diggs originated the role of the landlord Benny in the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Rent — he met his future wife Idina Menzel during its production. “It was lust at first sight,” Diggs admitted in his introductory video. He has also acted in movies including “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and the ABC series “Private practice.”

George Saunders ‘88: for excellence in literature

If George Saunders were given eight pages to write a story, he’d do it in six.

Through practice and discipline, he has become a master at compressing his imagination into short stories. He was featured on The New York Times Best Seller List and often has his work featured in The New Yorker, GQ and Harper’s Magazine.

Saunders graduated Colorado School of Mines with a degree in geophysical engineering but after some work experience and “bumming around,” he came to SU for his master’s degree in order to hone in on his skills as a writer. His work includes “Tenth of December,” “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “Pastoralia.”

“Syracuse submerged me in a petri dish of incredible talent,” Saunders said in an interview after the ceremony. “To be suddenly surrounded by all these fellow writers, who were just like batsh** crazy about it, you were like, ‘oh I have to step up my game.’”

Henry Grethel ‘54: for excellence in fashion design

Fifty-nine years after his graduation, Henry Grethel still bleeds orange.

“I really do. I wear those shirts all over the place,” he said in an interview after the event. “The school is really big to me and afterwards you appreciate it even more.”

For a time, Grethel was the vice president for marketing and merchandising at C.P Hathaway Company, a former leading manufacturer of men’s shirts. From there he went on to design menswear for Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior and Lanvin. Later he launched his own collections and designed the opening ceremony uniforms for Team USA in the 1992 winter and summer Olympics.

Carole Eisner ‘58: for excellence in art

Carole Eisner went from working with fabric, ribbons and ruffles to blow torches and steel.

Graduating from SU with a degree in fine arts, Eisner started her career as a dress designer. After having children with her husband — who she met as a freshman — she decided to stay home to care for the kids. That’s when she started painting.

After several solo shows — including some at the Lubin House Gallery in Manhattan — Eisner’s friend asked her if she wanted to learn to weld.

“My response was, ‘what’s welding?” Eisner said during her acceptance speech. “The first time I lit a torch, there was big bang. Nonetheless, I was hooked.”

Now, she has nine repurposed-metal sculptures on display from 56th to 108th Broadway.

Sid Lerner ‘53: for excellence in advertising, wellness and philanthropy

To some, Sid Lerner was one of the original Mad Men.

Before founding The Monday Campaigns, which include health-related behavioral change programs like Meatless Monday, Lerner’s career included advertising campaigns for brands like Charmin, Texaco and Maxwell House. Now he is working on bringing other Healthy Monday initiatives to the public, including Man Up, a program that encourages men to be more aware of their sexual health, and Quit & Stay Quit, an initiative to help people quit smoking. Several of these campaigns are up and running at SU.

“I saw Syracuse as an incredibly opportunistic think tank,” Lerner said in his acceptance speech. “Everybody was doing real work even as we were learning. We built up what was there, made it better and now we go from there.”

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