WRA Today Chapel Program Bestows Updates and Awards

William F. Roemer ’51 and John C. Nicolls ’68 Receive The James Ellsworth Award

It was a special day in the Chapel on Saturday, with the WRA Today Chapel Program providing updates, abundant reasons for optimism and important awards to cherished alumni as part of Reunion Weekend.

Mark LaFontaine, Assistant Head of School for Advancement, opened the ceremony thanking all in attendance for their “shared commitment to community and dedication to excellence, integrity and compassion.”

Head of School Suzanne Walker Buck P ’24, provided a State of the School report, sharing news from the 2022-23 school year; student projects and successes; an overview of the WRA Strategic Plan; and upcoming initiatives including the WRA Bicentennial in 2026. Her opening remarks — about pranks, or “putzes,” pulled by a particularly sneaky sophomore over the past year (think hanging his own portrait in the dining hall) — were of particular delight to one of the classes in attendance this year, the Class of 1968. This strong and loyal unit has been revered for decades as the ultimate pranksters who, sight unseen by faculty and administration, managed to move two Volkswagens into Seymour Hall.

Tim Warner ’69, WRA Trustee and Chairman of the WRA Bicentennial, described the Bicentennial's early efforts and opportunities. Notably, only 27 boarding schools have reached the 200-year mark. Warner said, “We can look into our future with optimism and excitement.”

Recent graduate Landon Allis ’23 shared his memorable Senior Speech, the longstanding tradition of reflection at the Chapel Podium that ends in a “This I Believe” statement. Allis will attend Skidmore College in the fall. Rising senior Alex Newman ’24, had the audience on their feet with her stellar rendition of “Feeling Good.”

Kristin Samuel Kuhn ’98, President of the Alumni Association Board, awarded the 2023 Alumni Association Award to Brooke Anderson ‘57, Harrison “Hub” Bubb ‘57 and Dr. Loren Raymond ‘58, co-chairs of the WRA War Memorial Committee. The Memorial honors members of the school who gave their lives in service to the country, bearing the names of those who died in the Civil War, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Also included on the memorial are two civilians who were killed in other military conflicts. The winners of the Award worked tirelessly on its creation, alongside WRA leadership and Christoper Bach, a Hudson architect.

Kuhn then presented the Sonia Minikel Vallabh ’02 Young Alumni Award to Vallabh herself. Upon learning she had inherited a mutation that causes prion disease, a rapidly fatal and currently untreatable neurodegenerative disease that also affected her mother, Vallabh and her husband, Eric Minikel, opened and now run their own prion research laboratory at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Today, Sonia continues testing drugs that might prevent, delay and treat this illness.

The Morley Science Medal, named for esteemed scientist and faculty member Edward W. Morley, was awarded by Science Department faculty member Wanda Boesch-Cordon to Dr. Wendy Green Halpern ’84, who Boesch-Cordon credited for making a “real difference in the world” in her position at Genentech and leadership on the Society of Toxicologic Pathology. 

Dr. Ralf Borrmann awarded the Waring Prize, named for faculty master J. Frederick Waring, to Dr. Menna Demessie ‘98, a luminary in political science, and who formerly served in the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Dr. Demessie now serves as Universal Music Group’s Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the company’s global Task Force for Meaningful Change. Dr. Borrmann shared what many in the Reserve community have come to know about Dr. Demessie as they have followed her path beyond Brick Row: she is a game changer, a force.

The punctuating moment of the program was when Co-President of the WRA Board of Trustees Nathaniel Leonard ’82, introduced The James W. Ellsworth Award, the most prestigious award bestowed by the school to an alumnus. Before today, The Ellsworth Award only has been given four times, to T. Dixon Long ’51, retired science faculty Marie Fiedler, The Honorable John D. Ong and Dr. Robert T. Michael ’60.

Leonard bestowed the Ellsworth Award to William F. Roemer ’51. From Warren, OH, Bill at Reserve was characterized as, “145 pounds of dynamite.” His sparkling intellect and powers to unite and convene his peers distinguished him on campus, and his distinctions continued after graduation, when he attended Princeton and forged a career in banking, culminating as Chairman of National City Bank in Pittsburgh. Leonard lauded Roemer’s “generosity of spirit, his easy smile, good humor and commitment to family, community and Western Reserve Academy,” saying Roemer “represents the very essence of WRA and The James Ellsworth Award.”

Roemer said receiving the award was both “an extreme honor” and deja vu, as eight years ago, he was alongside his best friend Long, when he received The inaugural Ellsworth Award. Roemer characterized he and Long as just “two boys from Warren, Ohio” who had the privilege of attending Reserve. Roemer’s three children attended Reserve, and they joined the Chapel audience in a rousing standing ovation for their father.

Co-President of the Board of Trustees Martin Franks ’68 bestowed a second Ellsworth Award to John C. Nicolls ’68. Nicolls grew up in Hudson, came to WRA and immersed himself in the life of the school where, on the lawn’s wide sweep, he developed a love of art and architecture under the watchful eye of faculty master Bill Moos. After Reserve, Nicolls attended Cornell, then joined Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, rising to become their Vice President of Architecture and Design. Franks said, “John has preserved Reserve’s own architectural history in a way that would make James Ellsworth proud.”

Receiving the award Nicolls said, “I had the pleasure to attend two private schools in my lifetime and the experiences could not have been more different. The great advantage of Reserve is its stability; faculty and students can interact at all hours. My teachers were incredibly committed and at the top of their game, with a tremendous dedication to their students. They were committed to equality, diversity and expanding all students’ way of thinking. I’m very confident that this continues to this day.”

Filled with joy and community, the Chapel today continued its tradition of bringing the WRA family together to present and honor their authentic best.