Bold-faced names draw crowds and inspire generous donations for a deserving institution. By Meg Quinn-DeBoer
Geena Davis, Michael J. Fox, and Walter Cronkite have all been on campus at Middlesex Community College in Lowell—just not as students. They were featured speakers in recent years at the school’s annual Celebrity Forum, which raises funds for student scholarships.
Patrick Cook, executive director of public affairs at the college, explains the genesis of the program. “The school President, Carole Cowan, had the idea for a speaker series back in 1997, but it didn’t really materialize until 1999,” he says. In the early days of her tenure, Cowan held other fundraising events, including golf tournaments, but they didn’t draw a large enough audience to raise the kind of funds that were needed.
In 1997, Cowan reached out to Lowell resident Niki Tsongas, who had served as dean of external affairs at the college, and hired her to look at fundraising in a different way. With Tsongas’s help, the Celebrity Forum series was born. “It has become our premier fundraiser. We do about 15 to 20 fundraisers throughout the year including trail rides, trivia nights, bikes rides, and other events, but the Celebrity Forum is still the spotlight fundraiser,” says Cook. “It’s a staple in springtime for Middlesex Community College to host it, and it has become quite a social event.”
Walter Cronkite was the celebrity speaker at the first Celebrity Forum, which was a great success. The impressive list of guests to have taken to the stage at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium over the last 15 years includes Colin Powell, George and Barbara Bush, Tim Russert, and Rudy Giuliani. Last year’s speaker was Michael J. Fox, and the most recent speakers this past June were the inspirational mother-daughter team of Laura Bush and Jenna Bush Hager.
When choosing a speaker, it all has to do with who the newsmaker is at the time of planning. Cook emphasizes that the selection committee does not bring in speakers solely because of their fame, but because people are interested in the speakers’ messages and their points of view. “We’ve had political figures, newsmakers, news reporters, and stars,” he says. “We try to cast a wide net for both speakers and the audience. Sometimes a guest thinks [he or she] is just speaking to students, but that’s not the case. They speak to the whole community. We have students, parents, and all age groups here [because] this cause has resonated with all different groups of people.”
Dennis Malvers at the Lowell Campus
Dennis Malvers, dean of college advancement at Middlesex Community College, is involved with every aspect of the Celebrity Forum and has seen firsthand the positive impact of the evening on the surrounding community. “It provides opportunities for our students and members of [the] greater community to witness and hear from people who are recognized worldwide for their work,” Malvers says. “Each of our speakers has a message that potentially may influence the audience [to live] more positive and productive lives. The forum makes it possible for community members to access famous people whom they may otherwise never have a chance to experience.”
Rather than simply present a speaker at a podium, the planning committee tries to offer a unique experience to the audience. For Michael J. Fox’s appearance last year, the school arranged a photo opportunity for guests to appear alongside the DeLorean, the famous time-machine vehicle from his movie, Back to the Future, which was parked in front of the venue’s entrance.
For this year’s Celebrity Forum, the unique twist was the interview format, which was appreciated not only by the audience, but also by the speakers. Malvers recalls former First Lady Laura Bush’s pleased reaction. “As I escorted her off stage at the end of her program, Mrs. Bush told me how much she enjoyed appearing with Jenna in the format we established—that is, Jenna interviewing her during an hour-long mother/daughter conversation,” he says.
Much of the success of the event is due to the generous support of sponsors. The college has relied on The TJX Companies, headquartered in Framingham, as a presenting sponsor since the Celebrity Forum began. In addition, many smaller companies co-sponsor the event, while other donations come from banks, private corporations, and individuals.
Depending on the price paid for tickets at different tiers of sponsorship, attendees may enjoy an elegant pre-dinner reception with hors d’oeuvres, a dinner table near the stage, and the chance to pose for a photo with the featured guest.
Proceeds from the event go toward the Middlesex Community College Foundation and help provide scholarships that start at $1,000 and range upwards, depending on students’ individual needs. “This year, we gave out 14 scholarships,” says Cook. “We carve the [donations] into as many chunks as we can and support as many students as possible, but even $5,000 goes a long way here.”
The scholarships are given out throughout the course of the year, and the recipients may use the money to return to Middlesex Community College in the fall or they may choose to attend a four-year college. “We just encourage them to continue their education,” says Cook. “It doesn’t have to be here. If they get a two-year degree from us, we want them to continue on and get [a] four-year degree at Merrimack College or UMass Lowell right up the river.”
Cowan believes in putting the scholarship winners in the spotlight and insists on bringing them up on stage to be introduced at the beginning of each Celebrity Forum evening. “I’ve always believed it’s of paramount importance to make sure the people who come to our event get to see the end product,” she says. “[One] of the highlights of any of our Celebrity Forums [is] when the students walk across that stage to receive their scholarship awards. We’re super proud of their achievements, but this really brings it all home…”
Cook adds that some speakers request to meet the scholarship recipients. “Laura Bush said she wanted to make the connection to the folks [who] are benefiting from the evening. And it’s good to see…what these fundraisers yield.”
Some relationships with speakers go beyond the Celebrity Forum, as is the case with Andover native Jay Leno. In 2005, Jay’s wife Mavis delivered the commencement speech at the college, and she spoke about the plight of women in Afghanistan, gender bias, and women’s rights in general. Then, in 2008, when Jay was asked to speak at the Celebrity Forum, he had a brief conversation with Cowan backstage and was moved to make a personal donation to the cause. “He announced that night that the Lenos would be initiating a separate scholarship program with the college for women. Since that event, the Lenos have given over $160,000 to 96 female students.”
Aside from their generous spirit, Cook says all of the guest speakers have one thing in common. “They are all surprisingly down to earth and more approachable than you think. They make you feel like your event is the most important one they do.” middlesex.mass.edu ?n