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Northwestern Honors Alumni & Friends for Achievement and Service

Outstanding individuals from here and abroad honored at annual awards ceremony

EVANSTON, Ill. --- An audience of close to 400 alumni, faculty, administrators, family and friends gathered to celebrate Northwestern University’s 81st annual Alumni Awards April 12. The top award of the program, the Alumni Medal, was given to Dennis H. Chookaszian, a University Life Trustee and retired chairman and CEO of CNA Insurance Companies.

Eighteen others received alumni merit, service, emerging leader and achievement awards during the ceremony, held at the Union League Club of Chicago.

Welcoming addresses were given by Dan Jones, president of the Northwestern Alumni Association (NAA) and a 1961 business alumnus, and Laura Wayland, executive director of the NAA.

Among the awardees was Cody Keenan, a 2002 graduate of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, who was honored with the 2014 Emerging Leader Award. Keenan serves as assistant to the president of the United States and as director of speechwriting at the White House, overseeing all public remarks for President Barack Obama. President Obama congratulated Keenan in a brief video, saying, “Over the years, I have come to rely on Cody not only as a brilliant writer but as somebody who is focused on doing right by the American people every single day.” Watch the full 25-second clip here.

Since 1932, the Northwestern Alumni Association (NAA) has honored alumni who have distinguished themselves as outstanding professional and personal achievers and who have loyally dedicated their time and service to Northwestern. This year’s award recipients have earned acclaim in business, law, medicine, economics, the sciences, education, philanthropy and the arts.

In his opening remarks, Northwestern President Morton Schapiro thanked award recipients for their impressive contributions to the world and to Northwestern.

The awards were presented by Peter Alexander, 1998 graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. He is a White House correspondent for NBC’s “Today” show and NBC Nightly News. An Emmy Award-winning journalist, Alexander has covered the globe from Afghanistan to the Arctic Circle.

Award recipients follow:

To view extended profiles of the 2014 honorees, visit Northwestern Alumni Association.


Dennis H. Chookaszian 

B.S., Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, 1965

The Alumni Medal is the mark of highest distinction granted to a Northwestern alumnus or alumna who has achieved eminence in his or her community and field of endeavor and who has rendered exceptional service to the University, bringing honor to Northwestern. This year’s winner, Dennis Chookaszian, credits his time at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science with launching a career that culminated in his becoming chairman and CEO of CNA Insurance Companies. “It gave me the confidence to know that there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t do,” he says. “No business problem seemed complicated to me after studying engineering.”

While his career did not follow a traditional engineering path, he says courses on creative thinking and entrepreneurship gave him the tools to succeed in business. He held several executive roles during his 26-year tenure at CNA, including serving as chief financial officer, chairman and CEO, and chairman of its executive committee, and was named the Financial Times’ Outstanding Director in 2010. Chookaszian also served for five years as chairman of the Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council. Since retiring, he has served on the boards of 11 public companies and 50 private companies. 

Chookaszian has given back to the University in many significant ways. He serves as a Life Trustee and is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board at the Kellogg School of Management, the McCormick Advisory Council and the Northwestern Memorial Foundation’s Board of Directors. He and his wife, Karen, have given to several areas of the University, including McCormick and the Kellogg School of Management.


Alumni Merit Awards were given to 11 alumni for high achievement in a profession or field of endeavor. Recipients, selected by the schools they attended, are as follows:

Victor A. Benedetti

B.M., Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, 1990

M.M., Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, 1992

Benedetti, a baritone who has performed in operas around the world, credits his time at Northwestern with teaching him what it means to be an actor and musician. While still at Northwestern, he was invited to join the training program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he first sang roles that would take him to companies around the world. After earning his degrees, he went on to a professional musical career that has spanned the country and the globe, including many seasons with New York City Opera, where he received the Debut Artist of the Year Award for the title role in “Don Giovanni.”

Scott O. Bergren

B.S., Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Communications, 1968

M.S., Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Communications, 1969

As CEO of Pizza Hut and chief innovation officer of Yum! Brands, Bergren has been involved in both the for-profit and philanthropic arms of the organization, the latter of which raises money for the World Food Programme, part of the United Nations Outreach. He has visited under-resourced areas of Central and South America, where he witnessed the positive impact of philanthropic activity for those living in need. His master’s degree program in advertising was the precursor to today’s degree in integrated marketing communications. According to Bergren, it “was then and is now one of the greatest programs of its kind.”

Martin S. Gaynor

M.A., Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, 1979

Ph.D., The Graduate School, 1983

Gaynor is a national leader in economics and the E.J. Barone Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, on assignment to the U.S. government as director of the Bureau of Economics at the Federal Trade Commission. Gaynor is one of the founders of the Health Care Cost Institute, an independent nonprofit dedicated to advancing public knowledge about U.S. health care utilization and spending, and he served as the first chair of its governing board. He also is an International Research Fellow with the University of Bristol, a research associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research, and was a member of the Editorial Board of the American Economic Review. His awards for published papers and research are numerous.

Agnes Eckhardt Nixon

B.S., School of Communication, 1944

Nixon created, wrote and produced the popular soap operas “All My Children” (1970–2011) and “One Life to Live” (1968–2012). She also created “Loving” and was head writer for “Another World” and “Guiding Light.” She received the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Entertainment Emmy Awards, and she was the first woman and writer to receive the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Trustees Award in 1981. She was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 1992.

Robert M. Pick

D.D.S., Northwestern Dental School, 1980

M.S., Northwestern Dental School, 1983 

As a member of the Northwestern Dental School faculty and hospital attending staff, Pick worked with his residents on cases dealing with lasers in dental surgery. He and his team published the first articles about lasers in dental surgery, leading to the first textbook about lasers in dentistry. He was a founding member of the Academy of Laser Dentistry in 1993 and joined the international lecture circuit. For the past 25 years, Pick has been an official American Dental Association spokesman for implants, periodontics and lasers and has appeared on “Good Morning America” and other TV shows, as well as in magazines and newspapers. He currently runs a private practice, Progressive Periodontics, in Aurora, Ill.

Nichole Pinkard

Ph.D., School of Education and Social Policy, 1998

A leader in education research today, Pinkard participated as a high school student in the University’s LEAD (LEADership, Education, and Development) program, part of a national nonprofit that helps youth of diverse backgrounds become high achievers and responsible leaders. She returned to Northwestern to pursue a Ph.D. in learning sciences. Pinkard founded the Digital Youth Network, a literacy program that has helped hundreds of Chicago youth learn media skills. She has earned a National Science Foundation Early Career Fellowship, the Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies and the 2010 Common Sense Media Award. 

David L. Porges

B.S., Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, 1979 

After graduating from Northwestern, Porges began his career in the energy field with Exxon Corp., before moving on to Bankers Trust Corp. for 11 years. In 1997, he joined EQT Corporation as chief financial officer and eventually became chairman, president and CEO in 2010. Porges still finds time to give back, including serving as an advisory council member for the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Cesar Purisima

MBA, Kellogg School of Management, 1983

A native of the Philippines, Purisima has served as the country’s finance secretary since 2010. He has been recognized annually as “finance minister of the year” in the last four years by the premier global financial magazines Euromoney, London-based Emerging Markets and The Banker, a subsidiary of Financial Times. Before joining the government, he was Andersen Area Managing Partner for the Asia-Pacific region for Assurance and Business Services, the first and only Filipino so far to head an area practice of a “Big 4.”

Mark A. Ratner

Ph.D., Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, 1969

After earning his Ph.D., Ratner embarked on a career as a professor and acclaimed theoretical materials chemist. He has spent four decades studying electron transfer, which is one of the most important processes in chemistry, required for life’s most basic functions. The study of electron transfer led to the development of nanotechnology. Among his hundreds of publications and significant honors, in 2011 he received the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Bourke Award. The Society honored Ratner for his “seminal contributions to the areas of electron transfer, nonlinear optics, relaxation dynamics, polymer electrolytes and theoretical chemistry, and for key efforts in establishing, defining and championing of the field of molecular electronics.”

Wayne W. Whalen

J.D., School of Law, 1967

Whalen has practiced law for 46 years. After 10 years as a partner at Mayer, Brown & Platt, Whalen and five other partners set up the Chicago office of New York firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. He helped build the Chicago office into one of the firm’s busiest, with legal services in such areas as mergers and acquisitions, corporate restructuring advice and litigation. Wayne was head of the legal powerhouse’s Chicago office until 2010. He has also been chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation and board member of the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy.   

Elizabeth Ann White

B.A., School of Continuing Studies, 1981

As an urban planner and the current Chicago Region Director of The Trust for Public Land, White leads the trust’s regional land conservation and park creation efforts. She also travels to Washington, D.C., monthly to serve on the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal planning oversight body for the capital region. White served as managing director of communications, policy planning, resource development and intergovernmental relations for the Chicago Housing Authority’s $1.5 billion Plan for Transformation. She has also won the Metropolitan Planning Council’s Daniel Burnham Award for Planning for her work on the Chicago River Urban Design Guidelines and has been inducted into the Lambda Alpha Honorary Land Economics Society.


The Service to Society Award recognizes the exceptional advancement of causes or ideas that improve society. This year’s award was presented to:

Mary Pettinato

MBA, Kellogg School of Management, 2008

While a student at Kellogg, Pettinato co-founded Honor Flight Chicago. The nonprofit organization flies Chicago-area World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., for a full-day celebration to honor their service. Today, Honor Flight Chicago is the largest hub in the nationwide Honor Flight Network. They have served 4,612 WWII veterans, the most of any hub. Pettinato is the former president and CEO of Intron Corporation, a Chicago-based health care and leasing company she founded.


Alumni Service Awards are given in recognition of outstanding service to the University. This year’s recipients included:

Frank D. Cohen

B.A., Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, 1995

Cohen is a private equity real estate investor. Since joining Blackstone as a 24-year-old analyst in 1996, he has been involved in over $70 billion of real estate transactions and was named a senior managing director of the firm in 2006. In addition to making gifts to the University, Cohen has shared his time with Northwestern in many ways. He is chairman of the Kellogg School of Management Real Estate Advisory Board, where he assists the real estate program, and is an active member of the Weinberg College Board of Visitors.

Steven R. Nelson

B.A., Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, 1983

After graduating, Nelson worked as assistant director of admission at Northwestern. Today he is senior executive director of external relations at Harvard Business School and has been recognized for his work with awards such as the Robert Greenhill Award for outstanding service to the Harvard Business School. Nelson served as director of the Northwestern Alumni Admission Council of Boston from 1997 to 2010 and on the Northwestern Alumni Association Board from 2002 to 2012. He has chaired the NAA Membership, Reunions, and Global Connections committees, been a longtime officer of the Northwestern Club of Boston and served as co-chair of his 25th and 30th Reunions.

Jonathan Newcomb

B.A., Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, 1979

J.D., School of Law, 1982 

Newcomb is assistant general counsel in the law department at Comcast Cable Communications LLC. He has a close relationship with the University. He has been active on the Law School Fund Board since 1998, serving as chair from 2004 to 2006. His efforts have helped grow the board and increase alumni participation in giving to the law school. He is also a proud supporter of Northwestern athletics, including the Northwestern Gridiron Network, the official booster organization of Wildcats football.

Hollis Leach Sunshine

B.A., Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, 1971

Sunshine’s greatest achievement as a Northwestern volunteer is the Dinner with 12 Strangers program, which she conceived and implemented with two of her fellow alumni. Now in its ninth year, the program invites alumni to host a diverse group of students, faculty and trustees for dinner to help bring together the University community. Sunshine also served as president of The Alumnae of Northwestern University, as director-at-large on the NAA Board of Directors and as a member of the Board of Directors of the Northwestern University Settlement House in Chicago.


The 2014 Emerging Leader Award, which recognizes an alumnus or alumna for making a significant impact in his or her profession and/or community by the age of 35, was presented to:

Cody Keenan

B.A., Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, 2002 

Keenan serves as assistant to the president of the United States and as director of speechwriting at the White House. He is responsible for overseeing all public remarks for President Barack Obama. Known as one of President Obama’s most powerful writers, he authored the State of the Union addresses in 2013 and 2014.


The Grant Goodrich Achievement Award recognizes one outstanding individual who, while not a graduate of Northwestern, greatly enhances the University through his or her accomplishments, commitment and service. This year’s award was presented to:

Donald Perkins

Life Trustee and Retired Chairman and CEO of Jewel 

Before becoming a Life Trustee, Perkins served on the University’s Board of Trustees from 1970 to 2003 and was vice chairman from 1986 to 2003. As its founder, he chaired the national advisory council of the School of Communication from 1989 to 1995, co-chaired Campaign Northwestern from 1998 to 2003, and currently serves on the advisory boards of the School of Communication and the School of Education and Social Policy. Among his proudest accomplishments at Northwestern is serving as co-chairman of Campaign Northwestern from 1998 to 2003, during which time Northwestern surpassed its campaign goal by 55 percent, as well as helping to increase diversity on the Board of Trustees.