Iconic civil rights lawyer and university alumnus Fred Gray began his Commencement address by congratulating the Class of 2017.

But he didn’t give graduates long to celebrate.

“The hard work begins today,” Gray told more than 5,000 guests gathered in Case Western Reserve’s Veale Convocation, Recreation and Athletic Center.

Just as he left degree ceremonies 63 years ago committed to use his own legal education to defeat segregation, Gray urged Sunday’s graduates to find their own ways to better the lives of others.

“Use your degree to make a difference,” he said. “Do the right thing… Your goal should be to improve the conditions in your life, your community and the world.”

Gray, 86, went on to represent Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment during a storied career that continues to this day. Yet his life was just one of several inspiring examples highlighted during the morning’s convocation exercises.

President Barbara R. Snyder presented the 2017 Frank and Dorothy Humel Hovorka Prize to Emeritus Professor of Medicine Jackson Wright, who is renowned for his research on hypertension, particularly involving African-Americans. His work has led to new treatment approaches for high blood pressure, the most recent of which has the potential to advance the health of more than 17 million Americans.

“You are widely respected for your steadfast commitment to overcoming the challenge of including patients from underrepresented groups in clinical research,” President Snyder said. “You also are respected for your unwavering dedication to the recruitment, training and development of physician scientists, as well as increased recognition of the need to include more underrepresented groups in clinical trials.”

Photo of 2017 graduates smiling

Photo by Tony Gray.

The university also awarded honorary degrees to two individuals known as pioneers in their respective fields, Patricia Flatley Brennan and Victor Dzau. Brennan, director of the National Library of Medicine, has combined advanced degrees in nursing and industrial engineering into a career that put her on the cutting edge of health informatics—developing two electronic programs to enhance treatment and support of home-care patients, as well as an initiative to catalyze innovation in personal health records.

Now president of the National Academy of Medicine, Dzau previously led the medical school and health system of Duke University. He is known as an innovator in advancing translational medicine and advocating for global health initiatives. He also has performed groundbreaking research focused on cardiovascular medicine and genetics that helped inform the development of life-saving medications.

View of the audience and stage at 2017 commencement in Veale Center

Photo by Tony Gray.

In addition, President Snyder bestowed the 2017 President’s Award for Visionary Achievement to the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation, represented Sunday by its board Chair Susan Ratner and President Mitchell Balk. The foundation supports a range of intervention and policy initiatives related to advancing health in the community, and also has awarded critical grants to Case Western Reserve, including a $10 million award five years ago for what has become the Health Education Campus. The foundation also has provided grants to help the medical school attract and retain exceptional young scholars, and, more recently, has contributed $1.4 million to the medical school to support a citywide brain-health initiative.

The foundation, President Snyder said, “has enriched our community through its visionary, meaningful and generous support of health education, research, and care.”