Carver medal goes to humanitarian


by Angela Niesz

A new standard has been set for future George Washington Carver Medal recipients.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, originally from Jacksonville, Fla., received the Carver Medal during a ceremony held in Smith Chapel last Tuesday evening.

Simpson College President John Byrd spoke during the medal ceremony on behalf of Cole.

“Dr. Cole earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology at Oberlin College and earned her master’s and doctorate degrees at Northwestern University,” Byrd said. “Currently, she serves as the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.”

Cole was proud and felt privileged to accept the Carver medal.

“I’ve been fortunate to receive, over my professional life, many awards, but there is something about this Carver Medal that has gone straight to that place in my heart where pride is made, where privilege dwells, (and) where joy is,” Cole said. “And so I am proud, I feel privileged, (and) I am joyous to have something that bears, not simply the name, but bears the legacy of such an extraordinary man,” Cole said.

The medal is in honor of George Washington Carver, and the recipient of the medal must emulate Carver in some way.

Byrd thinks that Cole does emulate George Washington Carver.

“Like George Washington Carver, (Cole) is someone who has truly made a difference in the lives of others,” Byrd said.

Walter Lain, assistant dean for multicultural and international affairs, knows more about what Carver stood for and the legacy he holds.

“The speaker is usually someone who has demonstrated an ability to meet the ideals set forth by George Washington Carver, someone who has made contributions toward education, art, religion, etc. in some significant way,” Lain said.

Lain says that Cole is the representation of a humanitarian.

“(Dr. Cole) is also an educator, obviously right now she’s the director of the Smithsonian,” Lain said. “She also is a humanitarian and has traveled extensively to Africa and other places, and so I would say that she would be the definition of a humanitarian.”

Cole believes all of her travels make her fortunate and are vital to her Ph.D.

“I’ve been so fortunate to live in many places I’ve lived in, for example, Liberia, the west coast of Africa where I did two years of research for my Ph.D.,” Cole said.

Those ideals are looked for in a potential recipient of the medal, but there are more processes involved.

“In this particular case, as in recent times, we met as a committee (with) Jim Thorius and with input from Board of Trustee members along with and other staff people,” Lain said. “So the names come up, and, in this particular case, the name came up, Johnnetta Cole.”

Cole has known she was going to be receiving the medal for quite some time and found out in a rather unusual way.

“I found out by a visit by Walter Lain, who literally came to the Smithsonian and gave me this great news,” Cole said.

Lain said she accepted to receive the medal last summer.

“We knew that she was going to accept the award in the beginning of the summer last year,” Lain said.

Cole is proud to have her name among the previous recipients.

“To be among all of the former recipients is to be in very special company,” Cole said.