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Video: William Kennedy's remarks at the University at Albany Medallion Ceremony

"Now I am so pleased to present the University at Albany’s highest honor, the Medallion of the University, to a scholar, writer, and leader who has been making a positive impact on our university and our community for decades."

-- UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez

The University at Albany awarded Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Writers Institute founder William Kennedy the Medallion of the University, UAlbany’s highest honor for distinguished service, at a ceremony held Thursday on campus.

Watch the presentation ceremony

UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez presented Kennedy the Medallion on Thursday during the annual Spring University Address held in the Campus Center West Auditorium. The audience rose for a standing ovation when Kennedy was called to the stage to receive the Medallion.

Kennedy — an Albany native who founded the New York State Writers Institute at UAlbany in 1983 and whose work chronicled the hard lives of the city’s poor, often at the hands of its political machine — was selected for his leadership in making Albany a destination for decades of literary and creative giants.

“There is no one who better captures the indomitable spirit of Albany than William Kennedy. His legacy as a writer and storyteller, as an educator, and as the founding director of the New York State Writers Institute is timeless. He is a part of the very fabric of the University at Albany and emblematic of everything that makes us great. I am so proud to present William Kennedy with our highest honor, the Medallion of the University at Albany,” Rodríguez said at the event.

Putting Albany on the Literary Map

Kennedy with Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison at UAlbany. (UAlbany archive photo)

The Medallion expresses UAlbany’s admiration for extraordinary public service and leadership. Recipients must have demonstrated a profound commitment to the interconnectedness of academic excellence, cultural richness and economic vibrance and the central role that public higher education plays in uplifting lives and communities.

In his remarks, Kennedy said, "I can’t quite believe I’m receiving this Medallion, the University’s highest honor — amazing, just amazing — an honor that in the past has gone to such great people, including two of my favorite political leaders: Sen. Pat Moynihan and Gov. Mario Cuomo. It’s been an unusual 54 years here at the University. It’s also unusual that I’ve lived to 96. I seem to have a knack for tolerance."

Born in 1928 and raised in Albany’s North End, Kennedy graduated from Siena College and began a career in journalism. He joined the Post-Star in Glens Falls as a sports reporter and, after being drafted in 1950, worked for an Army newspaper in Europe. After his discharge, he joined the Albany Times Union as a reporter and in 1956 accepted a job with a newspaper in Puerto Rico, where he met and married Dana Sosa, a member of the Joffrey Ballet and a Broadway actress and dancer. They enjoyed a beautiful life together, married 66 years and raising three children, before she passed last year.

In Kennedy's Books, His Hometown Stars

Best known for the Albany Trio of books about his hometown — Ironweed, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Legs — Kennedy won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1983, a year before winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Ironweed. Kennedy donated a portion of his MacArthur award to UAlbany and founded the New York State Writers Institute. He continues to serve as its executive director.  

A movie adaptation of Ironweed starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, much of which was filmed in Albany, was released in 1987 and earned both actors Academy Award nominations.

Photo at left: Kennedy at the 1987 premiere of Ironwood at Albany's Palace Theatre. (UAlbany Archives)

In the decades since Gov. Mario M. Cuomo signed the legislation formalizing the NYS Writers Institute's cultural charge in 1984, the Institute has been a beacon for some of world’s most culturally significant and commercially successful poets and authors, attracting literary and creative icons including Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, Audre Lorde, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Sonia Sotomayor, and Colson Whitehead.

More than 2,000 writers, poets, playwrights, and filmmakers, including 14 Nobel Prize winners, have come to Albany because of the Writers Institute’s programming.

Kennedy also is the recipient of the Regents Medal of Excellence from the State University of New York and a New York State Governor’s Arts Award. His 2002 novel Roscoe was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. His non-fiction book O Albany! is still considered a must-read for those interested in the personalities and politics that shaped the city.

In 1993, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 2002 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also taught journalism and creative writing at UAlbany, becoming a full professor in the English Department in 1983 and later an honorary inductee of SUNY's Distinguished Academy.

Before Kennedy, the most recent recipient of the Medallion was state Sen. Neil D. Breslin in April 2023. 

First awarded in 1978 to J. Vanderbilt Staub, chair of the University Council, the Medallion has since been bestowed more than two dozen times to leaders in business, education and government.

Past recipients include former New York State Comptroller and SUNY Board of Trustees Chair H. Carl McCall, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, state Sen. Hugh T. Farley ’58, journalist Steve Kroft, former U.N. Under Secretary General Catherine Bertini ’71.


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