On December 1, the Yale community will honor the recipients of the 2021 Yale Medal in a virtual ceremony featuring family, friends, and classmates, all assembled to celebrate five Yalies who have made remarkable and enduring contributions to the university and their fellow alumni.
The 2021 recipients of the Yale Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the YAA in recognition of outstanding individual service to the university, are: Ralph C. Dawson ’71, Thomas S. Leatherbury ’76, ’79 JD, Neil A. Mazzella ’78 MFA, Kevin P. Nelson ’92 MPH, and Lise Strickler ’82.
Prior to being honored, the medalists spoke with us about what it was like to find out they had been chosen for this year’s award, the lessons they’ve learned as volunteers, their advice for those who might follow in their footsteps, and more. Their responses are captured below, edited for clarity and space.
What was your reaction to hearing that you’d been awarded this year’s Yale Medal?
Kevin Nelson: I chaired the Yale Medal committee when I was a member of the YAA Board of Governors, so I read countless nomination submissions and I’m personally familiar with the very challenging task of selecting a limited number of awardees when there are so many deserving candidates. With that in mind, I was completely taken aback when I learned that I had been awarded the Yale Medal. I mean, my jaw literally dropped! I have attended several Yale Medal award ceremonies and have always admired the work that my fellow alumni accomplished in the name of Yale. I never considered that I might be included in that group.
Lise Strickler: When I first received the phone call from the head of the Yale Medal nominating committee, I was completely bowled over. It is such a humbling honor to join the ranks of past Yale Medal recipients. My delight in receiving the medal was doubled when I learned the names and accomplishments of my fellow 2021 Yale Medal awardees. Ralph, Neil, Tom, and Kevin exemplify the ability of alumni leaders to carve out a path for positive change at the university. To be included in this class of trailblazers is an honor beyond words.
Ralph Dawson: I was very surprised and very grateful. Some of things that I did [as an undergraduate] were not universally well-received at the time, but I think that this medal is to some extent a recognition that my actions then and over time have made a positive contribution to Yale.
Neil Mazzella: I do want to say that I am very grateful to the alumni association for honoring me and giving me this award. But I would like to say that I’m accepting this award on behalf of all the alumni of the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, all the alumni that came before me, all the friends and colleagues that welcomed me into the Yale community, the theater community, all the people I went to school with, my friends who are still my lifelong friends, and all those students that came after that were part of my life either by asking some advice or sitting in one of my classes or coming to work at one of my companies. I’m accepting that award on their behalf. Since this is the first time anyone at the Drama School [has received the Yale Medal], we should all share in it. So, to the Yale community, from the Drama School, thank you.
Tell us about your service. How did you get started? And why do you continue?
Tom Leatherbury: My first volunteering for Yale took place during my senior year: I was a Quarter Century Fund agent. This was during the campaign for Yale for those of us old enough to remember it. And my Whiff group got involved, too. The Development Office sent us to a local network affiliate for a morning show gig where we sang the catchy diddy, “Don’t Send Eli Anything but Dough,” to the tune of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” It makes me laugh just to think about how cheesy, but sincere, of course, it was.
I became a college class agent and a Law School class agent in the 80s, volunteered on reunion committees. And then in 2002, our class needed a new chair of agents, and my involvement deepened from there. I’m still finding new ways to serve Yale because Yale gave me and my family so much. And because Yale is such a terrific steward of its resources, truly changing lives all over the world every day.
Neil Mazzella: When I applied to Yale in the early 70s, the drama school, and in the 60s, 70s and continued into the 80s, there was a reference to us as the “Yale mafia.” And we were everywhere, regional theater, Broadway, everywhere. And I said, “If I want to go in a certain direction in this industry, I better go to Yale.” And I was fortunate: I actually was put on a waiting list, but then I got accepted and I put in three years and graduated. And I never, ever took that for granted because being part of that Yale community, the Yale Drama School community, has been critical to everything that I've done over the past 50 years. And that needs to continue. And I’ve done what I could to help continue that.
Lise Strickler: The notion of stewardship has always been important to me. My Yale education reinforced this concept, as we were surrounded by examples of Yale leadership around the globe and at the university from day one of college. We are only on this earth for the blink of an eye, but in that short time I believe it is our obligation to give back to the institutions and communities that shaped and formed us.
At a time of so much uncertainty, how important is it to continue that work, to continue to give back?
Ralph Dawson: Continued involvement is essential. It’s a way of fueling the growth of a cadre of people dedicated to building an improved society. We have to continue to contribute to the enrichment of student life at Yale, for all students. And we want to remain regularly in touch with the current student body to facilitate a vibrant kind of alumni community.
Kevin Nelson: Any moment in time comes with uncertainty, which is why it is as important to continue the work now and give back as it was when Black students began raising their voices for change at Yale decades ago. That said, the heightened attention to racism and social injustice brought on by the horrific death of George Floyd has created fertile ground and an eagerness by many more than in the past to make a change. At YSPH (Yale School of Public Health), it is showing up as an increased drive to support initiatives, programs, and permanent structures that will promote the representation and success of Black and brown students and alumni. The “drivers” are showing up as allies, antiracists, and longstanding supporters of all races and backgrounds. It is well known that the success of any one group contributes to the success of the larger group. In this case, we’re talking about the entire YSPH and Yale community – students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
Neil Mazzella: When you’re a theater person, you’re in showbiz, or you’re a part of the show folk community, you are always giving back. We’ve always taken care of our own. And in my case, continuing to work with the Yale Drama School and the alumni and the students has been my way of staying in touch and giving back.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of giving back to Yale?
Lise Strickler: My service in the alumni association, especially through my involvement in reunion giving, was a wonderful experience in reconnecting with classmates and people I have been in touch with for a long time. Working on the Development Council provided an opportunity to get to know colleagues and the Yale administration, which provided further channels to work with Yale in its thinking about how to be a leader on climate and the environment, which is where my true passion is.
Each point of connection with Yale led to further opportunities to be involved in meaningful ways. A couple of highlights were supporting the development of curricula for the Yale Environmental Studies program, and seeing that program grow, and being involved in the early stages of the Yale Climate Communications program, which has advanced the conversation around researching climate. Getting to know the network of climate leaders at Yale and the graduates who are now working out in the field has been a wonderful experience.
Tom Leatherbury: I can't pick just one really, because there have been so many rewarding aspects: rekindling friendships with classmates – we had a Class of ’76 wine tasting to celebrate our successful reunion gift committee work [recently] and it was just a total blast; working with such talented administrators, faculty, and staff, all of whom are like-minded in their drive to make Yale the best; mentoring current students, whether the senior class gift volunteers, clinical students at the Law School, or [Yale] College or Law School students with whom I’ve connected in various ways. It’s all about the relationships and the friendships. Like we sing in “Bright College Years”: “But time and change shall not avail to break the friendships formed at Yale.” It’s true. It’s all about the friendships and working for the common good of an institution that’s done so much for us.
What advice would you give to current students and younger alumni looking to follow in your footsteps?
Kevin Nelson: Start with a vision of what you want to accomplish. Build relationships, because it takes more than one to make a change. Plan and execute each step toward your vision and prepare the next person to take the baton and lead the way. Along this journey you will be met with skepticism, opposition, and roadblocks. But you will also engender support, learn more than you thought possible, and most important, make a positive and lasting impact.
Tom Leatherbury: The advice I’d give is to get involved and to show up. There are so many ways to support Yale from internationally to locally. There’s something for everyone. And I would encourage [everyone], especially the more recent graduates, to get involved in fundraising. It reconnects you with your friends, with your classmates, and to Yale. And in many ways, it’s the easiest fundraising you can do. And have fun. You will, and that will come naturally. Enjoy it.
Ralph Dawson: Embrace the educational and extracurricular opportunities that Yale provides its students. Interact broadly with other students. Take advantage of the residential college system to get to know the students in your college. They are not only smart, but diverse in experience, thought, and interests, and that interaction will contribute greatly to your growth.
In addition to getting that great education, look at what is going on around you and seek to make a difference, recognizing that you alone cannot cure the ills of this world. As President Obama likes to say, “It’s a relay race, and you must run your leg.” Do what you can to make a difference, using the particular skill sets and interests that you possess. It may be similar or different from mine, or someone else’s, but the arc of history is what we seek to bend so that we move with certitude toward a more perfect union.