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The Grawemeyer Awards: Honoring the power of ideas for 25 years

When the University of Louisville named two New York sociology professors as co-winners of its 2009 Grawemeyer Award in Education, Cathe Dykstra knew she had to meet them.

Just two months earlier, Dykstra had opened Louisville Scholar House Gladys and Lewis “Sonny” Bass Campus in Old Louisville, a residential complex offering low-cost child care and college tuition for 56 unemployed single parents and their children. Demand for the program was overwhelming, and the complex filled up in a matter of days. Today, more than 300 families remain on a waiting list for the program.

“Our goal is to give single parents the support they need to complete a four-year college education, which benefits them, their children and the community,” she says.

So it’s hardly surprising Dykstra took note when City University of New York scholars Paul Attewell and David Lavin were selected to receive the $200,000 Grawemeyer education prize this year. The sociologists were the first to show through research that going to college really does benefit the disadvantaged, an issue experts have debated for years.

Attewell and Lavin tracked thousands of women who entered college in the early 1970s through open enrollment and interviewed them 30 years later to see if their lives had improved. Not only did they find that most of the women had earned a degree and boosted their income, but they also learned the women’s children had performed better in school.

Jim Ramsey, President of UofL, on the Grawemeyer Awards and its founder, H. Charles Grawemeyer

“We knew we were going in the right direction with Louisville Scholar House, but it’s wonderful to know there’s research that confirms what we’re doing,” Dykstra says.

Attewell and Lavin will visit Louisville Scholar House as Dykstra’s guests when they come to Louisville in early March to claim their award and talk about their study, says Bill Bush, a UofL education professor who directs the Grawemeyer Award in Education.

“It’s great to see a connection like this,” Bush says. “The Grawemeyer Awards were created to recognize concepts with great potential. It’s good to see how they can tie in with our daily lives.”

This year marks the 25th year of the Grawemeyer Awards program, established at UofL in 1984 to reward ideas and creative works aimed at making the world a better place.

The first award, music composition, was presented in 1985. Between 1988 and 1990, three more awards—ideas improving world order, education and religion—were added to the program, with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary made co-presenter of the religion prize. A fifth award in psychology was established in 2000.

In 2000 the amount of each award was increased from $150,000 to $200,000. Since the start of the program, more than $14 million has gone to 107 winners.

Benefactor Charles Grawemeyer, a 1934 UofL engineering graduate who died in 1993, gave the university $9 million to create an endowment to fund the awards program that bears his name.

A direct, humble man with a self-effacing manner, Grawemeyer grew up during the Great Depression and was known by his family and friends for his careful frugality. Joining Reliance Varnish Co. of Louisville as a co-op student in college, he worked his way up to chief executive officer of the company. Later, he became a highly successful investor.

“Some find it paradoxical that he had a degree in chemical engineering and yet designated the awards to be given in music, religion, education, political science and psychology—all disciplines in the humanities and social sciences,” says Allan Dittmer, a UofL professor emeritus who directs the awards program.

Grawemeyer was adamant that the awards honor ideas rather than lifelong personal achievement. He also directed that the selection process for each award, though dominated by professionals, involve a committee of lay people to help make the final decision.

Finally, he insisted that each winner be required to come to Louisville the following spring to give a free public talk about his or her winning idea.

“He believed that good ideas can change the world, and he wanted everyone to understand those ideas, not just academics,” Dittmer says.

The directors of the five awards say it will take time—perhaps even generations—to determine whether the program has fulfilled Grawemeyer’s vision. But it already has attained considerable stature, even though it is still a relative newcomer among top-tier honors for scientific and artistic achievement such as the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.

“The Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition has become the most coveted prize in music,” says Marc Satterwhite, a UofL music professor who directs the award. “There is simply nothing like it anywhere else.

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“When an artist paints a picture, it’s a tangible thing. Other people can see it and if it’s good, the artist gets recognition. But when a composer writes a piece of music, it has to be performed to be appreciated. The Grawemeyer Award is bringing important musical works to life that otherwise might go unnoticed.”

Rodger Payne, a UofL political science professor who directs the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, agrees.

“Word has gotten around about the world order award, especially in the last several years,” says Payne, who has directed the award since 1994. “At first, it was a bit tough to recruit judges. Now, we’ve got people volunteering for the job.”

The notoriety of Grawemeyer-winning works has grown in other ways too. For the first time, a Grawemeyer Award-winning book is about to hit the big screen as a Hollywood movie.

Blood Done Sign My Name, a film based on a book by Timothy Tyson that won the Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 2007, is scheduled for release this year. The movie, directed by Jeb Stuart and starring Nate Parker of The Great Debaters, chronicles the murder of a young black man in a small North Carolina town where Tyson’s father was pastor.

Susan Garrett, a professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary who directs the religion award, says she’s excited about the movie but thinks the award has also paid big dividends locally.

“It’s been an incredible boon for us. Every year, people who have never been on our campus come to hear the winner speak. We’ve had very different winners and there’s always something new and interesting to learn.”

Having the Grawemeyer awards at UofL benefits the entire university community, says Woody Petry, a UofL professor of psychology and brain sciences who directs the psychology award. He especially likes how the program benefits students.

“Our students can connect one-on-one with some of the top scholars in the field,” he says. “It’s not something all students get to do.”

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