Actress Jenifer Lewis '79 Named Webster University Commencement Speaker

Feb. 3, 2015

Actress Jenifer Lewis ’79 Named Webster University Commencement Speaker
Jenifer Lewis - photo courtesy of Hosea Johnson

ST. LOUIS (FEB. 3, 2015) - Jenifer Lewis, the St. Louis-born actress, singer, community activist and Webster University alumna (BA Theatre Arts, ’79), is adding “commencement speaker” to her repertoire. Lewis will address an estimated 12,000 Webster graduates and guests at the University’s 96th annual commencement ceremonies May 9 at St. Louis’ historic The Muny at Forest Park outdoor amphitheater.

Born and raised in the St. Louis county suburb of Kinloch, Lewis is the youngest of seven children. After graduating from Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts, she launched a successful entertainment career spanning more than 35 years and resulting in more than 200 television appearances, 60 films and four Broadway shows. 

Lewis will receive the Doctor of Humane Letters for her career accomplishments and many international community engagement efforts, most notably as an AIDS activist and mentor to children and as a Human Rights Campaign Ally for Equality.

“Jenifer Lewis’ remarkable personal and career achievements, as well as her deep commitment to serving the community, truly embody Webster’s mission,” said Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble, president of the University. “As we celebrate our Centennial year, we are thrilled to welcome home an alumna who exemplifies a life of leadership and service for our students.”

Currently, Lewis is cast opposite Laurence Fishburne in the number two comedy in America, ABC’s  “Black-ish.”  Her latest movie, “The Wedding Ringer,” starring Kevin Hart, is currently in theaters. Other film credits include “Think Like a Man” and “Think Like A Man Too,” “The Preacher’s Wife,” the “Sister Act” films, and “Beaches.” Disney fans recognize her distinctive voice as Flo in “Cars” and “Cars 2” and as Mama Odie in “The Princess and the Frog.”  Her television work includes six seasons on “Strong Medicine,”  “Meet the Browns,” “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “A Different World.” Lewis has co-starred opposite Meryl Streep in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s presentation of “Mother Courage and her Children” in New York City and earned two NAACP Theater Awards for her one-woman show “The Diva Is Dismissed.”  Last year, the multi-faceted entertainer received an electrifying standing ovation at Carnegie Hall while singing with the New York Pops orchestra.

Honorary Degree Recipients

Four additional individuals will be recognized with honorary degrees along with Lewis during Webster’s commencement ceremonies:

Sister Barbara Ann Barbato, Ph.D, will receive the Doctor of Pedagogy for her lifelong work as an educator. Sister Barbato joined Webster’s History Department as a faculty member in 1963, earning her doctorate in Modern European History and Asian Studies from Saint Louis University in 1964. A pioneer in education for designing non-traditional learning experiences for students, Sister Barbara Ann became the Director of Webster’s Center for Individualized Studies, received the William T. Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1992 and was awarded Professor Emerita upon her 2003 retirement. The beloved Webster professor was also a respected civil rights activist in the ‘60s and ‘70s, organizing area protests and workshops.

Dwight Bitikofer (BA, ’78) will receive the Doctor of Letters for co-founding the Webster-KirkwoodTimes and for his award-winning work as a journalist. Bitikofer’s columns have won awards from the Missouri Press Association and Independent Free Papers of America, and he received the prestigious “Distinguished Service Award” from Independent Free Papers of America. He has served as president of the Webster Groves Area Chamber of Commerce and as a board member of the St. Louis Writers Guild. Bitikofer is currently majority owner of The Webster-Kirkwood Times, which focuses primarily on interesting local individuals and how regional and national events affect area residents’ lives.

Helen Hagen (BA,’44, MA ’82) will receive the Doctor of Humanities. Hagen co-founded the St. Louis PBS station, KETC-TV, where she created and produced several successful programs and films, including the show “Sunday Morning” which was picked up by 10 affiliates. Hagen also produced several films, including “The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery” starring Steve McQueen. After earning her master’s in gerontology, she worked on grant writing, management and placement with several St. Louis area social service agencies who advocate for mature adults. She worked with Leif Sverdrup and was involved with Webster University’s theatre program when she taught at the University.

Sanford J. (Sandy) Zimmerman will receive the Doctor of Laws in recognition of his work as chairperson of Webster’s first lay board. Zimmerman, recruited by Sister Jacqueline Grennan, the President of Webster College at that time, helped form the first lay board. It was an historic transition from a Catholic school to a non-secterian institution to broaden the school’s mission and services to the global community it serves today. Zimmerman, then the young of president of Famous- Barr (now Macy’s) was very active in the St. Louis community serving on many boards and in many leadership roles.

“For our 96th annual commencement during Webster’s Centennial year, it is altogether fitting to honor these five individuals who have contributed so much to their communities,” said Julian Schuster, Webster’s provost, senior vice president and chief operating officer. “They were participants in important parts of our history, their legacy is still evident today in Webster’s 100th year, and their success is a model for our students who will graduate in May.”

Webster’s home campus commencement ceremony draws Webster University graduates and families from Webster campuses around the world, including online students. It will be held at 9:30 a.m. Sat., May 9, at The Muny in Forest Park. For more information about commencement, visit

With its home campus in St. Louis, Webster University ( is the only Tier 1, private, non-profit U.S.-based university providing a network of international residential campuses and a robust online learning program. Founded in 1915, Webster University’s campus network today includes metropolitan, military and corporate locations around the world, as well as traditional campuses in Asia, Europe, North America, and Africa. The university is committed to delivering high-quality learning experiences that transform students for global citizenship and individual excellence.

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