Honorary degree recipients: Elizabeth Coleman, Doctor of Humanities; Mardi Ann Crane-Godreau ’98 Ph. D, Doctor of Science; John F. Downing, Doctor of Public Service; and Diane B. Patrick, Doctor of Laws.
On Saturday, May 18, 2013, Soldier On president and CEO Jack Downing was awarded a degree of Doctor of Public Service, honoris causa, by the Board of Trustees of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Below is a letter to Jack from MCLA explaining the work he has done with veterans to earn this degree.
“Jack Downing, It is impossible to overstate the impact that you, and Soldier On, the organization you serve as a president and CEO, have had on how we treat out veterans in this country. Your passionate defense of your values, your sense of social justice, your empathy, and your boundless energy have resulted in an improved quality of life for the most vulnerable members of American society.
As a boy growing up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, you were one of nine children. Your brothers and sisters were encouraged by your parents to engage in debate, and you learned early on how to argue the values and positions you held dear.
As a young man you won the heart of Mary Tobin, and Mary has been your source of strength, love, and truth through good times and bad. Together, you and Mary have created a home for your two biological children, and for the seven you’ve adopted.
You have been a powerful advocate for youthful offenders, and for the imprisoned and the addicted. These experiences, and your service to your community, prepared you for what would become your defining work: changing the end of the story for homeless veterans of U.S. military service.
In 2001 you became the head of United Veterans of America, Inc. in Leeds, Massachusetts. At the time, the UVA shelter program was in disarray and the Veterans’ Administration had cut the program’s funding. In your words, veterans were ricocheting between the medical center, the shelter, the streets, and prison. You went to Washington, made your case, and your funding was restored.
You recast UVA as Soldier On, an agency that would create permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless veterans. Speaking truth to power, you fearlessly advocated for new programs and increased funding for homeless veterans.
You sounded the alarm that women veterans were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with all the injuries suffered by mal veterans, in addition to alarming rates of rape and abuse. You have borne witness, and your testimonies before congressional committees are both legendary and memorable.
You hired new, young professional staff, among them women. You trained Soldier On’s formerly homeless veterans to manage the facilities in Leeds, and embarked on unprecedented and ambitious effort to create a home ownership opportunity for homeless veterans. Your dream was that of veterans owning, occupying, and managing their own homes and living free of institutional constraints.
Today, the Gordon Mansfield Veterans Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts is home to 39 formerly homeless veterans. Currently, Soldier On is building two new veterans villages in Massachusetts, and another is planned for New Hampshire. In nine more states across the country, Soldier on is providing technical assistance to others wishing to emulate the model. BusinessWest Magazine has recognized you as a Difference Maker and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has singled Soldier On out for recognition as well.
You have shown us that veterans deserve better, and that therapy, support, case management, and safe, decent housing can help our veterans return to productive lives once their military service is complete. You have opened our eyes to the plight of women veterans. You have rebuilt lives and sheltered battered souls. And, yes, you have changed the end of the story for homeless veterans.
John F. Downing, on behalf of veterans everywhere, the Board of Trustees of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is proud to award you the degree of Doctor of Public Service, honoris causa.”