U.S. Rep. McGovern to speak at 41st Commencement

Cherylann and Len Gengel, H. Brownell Wheeler, MD, to receive honorary degrees

By Mark L. Shelton

UMass Medical School Communications

March 31, 2014

(From left) Cherylann and Len Gengel, former Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. Raymond Joseph, and U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern are shown in this 2013 picture in Haiti. McGovern will receive a Chancellor's Medal and deliver the address at the UMMS Commencement exercises on June 1, while the Gengels, founders of the Be Like Brit Foundation, will receive honorary degrees along with founding UMMS chair in surgery H. Brownell Wheeler, MD.

U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern will receive a Chancellor’s Medal and deliver the address at the 41st Commencement Exercises on Sunday, June 1. Rep. McGovern will take part in recognizing Cherylann and Len Gengel, founders of the Be Like Brit Foundation and the Be Like Brit Orphanage in Grand Goâve, Haiti; and H. Brownell Wheeler, MD, the Harry M. Haidak Distinguished Professor emeritus and founding chair of the department of surgery at UMass Medical School, as honorary degree recipients.

“Since his election in 1996, Congressman McGovern has been widely recognized as a tenacious advocate for his district, a relentless crusader for change, a steadfast champion for biomedical research and an unrivaled supporter for social justice and human rights,” said Chancellor Michael F. Collins.

Currently serving his ninth term in Congress, McGovern sits on the House Rules and Agriculture Committees and co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the House Hunger Caucus.

In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake that took the life of Britney Gengel, McGovern traveled to Haiti, first with family members of several of those who, like Britney, were working or volunteering in Haiti when the earthquake struck; and then three years later with Britney’s parents for the dedication of the Be Like Brit Orphanage. The congressman was privileged to write the foreword to the Gengels’ book Heartache and Hope in Haiti, which chronicles their remarkable journey as they sought to find meaning in the loss of their daughter.

“Cherylann and Len Gengel are deeply inspirational and tremendously pragmatic; when Britney was killed in Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, the Gengels responded in an extraordinary way, choosing to fulfill their daughter’s dream of helping Haitian orphans,” said Chancellor Collins.

Britney had been in Haiti for just two days, visiting feeding centers, elder homes and orphanages, when she was buried with other victims in the rubble of her hotel, but she had already decided to devote her life to helping orphans there.

Compelled to honor their remarkable daughter’s wishes, the Gengels founded Be Like Brit, a nonprofit whose mission is to serve the children of Haiti by establishing a safe, nurturing, earthquake-proof and sustainable orphanage in an environment where they can grow, learn and thrive. That orphanage has been built and the children are receiving a host of invaluable services, including education, health care, nutrition and emotional support.  

Dr. Wheeler’s career at UMass Medical School spanned forty years; in 1971, he was selected by Lamar Soutter to become the founding chair of the department of surgery and served as chair until 1996, after which he emerged as an ardent advocate for improving patient care, particularly end of life care. As chief of the medical staff for the University of Massachusetts Hospital from 1974 to 1976, he oversaw the extraordinarily complex period during which the new hospital was staffed, equipped and opened for patient care.

“The resolve, resourcefulness and commitment of that first handful of leaders at our school—who came to Worcester to create what has become an internationally-known academic medical center—is exemplified by no one more so than Dr. Wheeler, who shared Lamar Soutter’s inspirational vision and, through his surgeon’s pragmatism, helped to move it forward to a reality,” said Collins.

A member of numerous professional societies, Wheeler has served as a director of the American Board of Surgery and a governor of the American College of Surgeons. He has served as president of the Boston Surgical Society, the New England Surgical Society and the New England Society of Vascular Surgery, as well as the Massachusetts Chapter of the American College of Surgeons. In 1984, he received the Distinguished Service Medal of the University of Massachusetts. In 1990, he was selected to give the Centennial Shattuck Lecture to the Massachusetts Medical Society; in 2005, the society presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. A leader in his field, Wheeler, affectionately known as “Brownie,” was one of the rocks upon which this great medical school was built.

“We feel enormously privileged that these remarkable and distinguished individuals will participate in our Commencement Exercises, and we look forward to welcoming them to campus on June 1,” said Collins.

Commencement Exercises of the University of Massachusetts Worcester will take place on the campus green, with seating beginning at 11 a.m., the processional initiating at 11:45 a.m., and the ceremony starting promptly at noon.