Whitcomb: Civics Class; Creepy Designer Genes; Cost of Endless Wars; Letting Fish Commute

Monday, December 03, 2018

 

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Robert Whitcomb, columnist

“All the complicated details

of the attiring and

the disattiring are completed!

A liquid moon

moves gently among

the long branches.

Thus having prepared their buds

against a sure winter

the wise trees

stand sleeping in the cold.’’
 

-- “Winter Trees,’’ by William Carlos Williams
 

(Yesterday was the first day of “meteorological winter.’’)

 

xxx

 

“{Cindy} Hyde-Smith succeeds [in the U.S. Senate} the ailing Thad Cochran, a veteran who was famous for his ability to Get Stuff for his state. As a result, Mississippi moved into the 21st century receiving $3 in federal aid for every dollar it sent to Washington, including funding for about a quarter of the public schools’ budgets.’’

-- Gail Collins, writing in The New York Times

 

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Governor Gina Raimondo

The Atlantic reports that a class-action lawsuit, Cook v. Raimondo, has been filed in U.S. District Court in Providence alleging that the state has failed to provide an adequate education for many students, especially in civics education. Part of the headline of the article reads “A new federal complaint with a unique argument accuses the state of Rhode Island of failing to provide students with the skills they need to participate effectively in a democracy’’.

 

Rhode Island happened to be a handy locale for the suit, but very similar ones could be filed in just about any state.

 

Implied in all this is that our constitutional system can’t function as intended without some sort of minimum civic knowledge by the citizenry.  And certainly, the teaching of civics and its sibling history has grossly deteriorated in recent decades. The results can be seen in a decline in the quality of our political life, with an increase in successful demagoguery and tribalism.

 

The suit also reminds us of the differences in the quality of education between rich and poor districts – inequality worsened by too-heavy reliance on local property taxes, as well as by the family dysfunction more likely in low-income than higher-income places. Thus, students in affluent districts are more likely to receive the tools needed to defend their interests, and the public interest, in our federal system; having affluent parents is the most important factor in students’ success in school and later. But, as I have discovered in my teaching gigs over the years, even kids in affluent public-school districts and private education in the last few years display more ignorance about how their government works, and of history and current events, than similar cohorts a half-century ago.

 

Public education is legally a state, not a federal function, and I would guess that higher federal courts won’t want to open the can of worms that is education inequality and its relationship to widening socio-economic and political-power inequality. Still, the plaintiffs have served the public interest by making us think more about the dangerous inadequacy of civics education in our frayed quasi-democracy.

 

To read The Atlantic’s article, please hit this link:

See interview with Jennifer Wood, the attorney in the case

 

Trying on Designer Genes

A Chinese scientist named He Jiankui asserts that he altered the DNA of twin girls before their birth by using a gene-editing technology called Crispr-Cas9. He claims that he used the tool to modify a gene in order to make the twins resistant to the HIV virus.  His work has not been peer-reviewed and no one has enough information at hand to verify his claims. Some other scientists, and regulators, have denounced He for ethical violations and some have implied fraud.

 

Whatever.  The case reminded me of the ethical, psychological and other ambiguities of trying to use new genetic tools, to, as it were ‘’play God.’’ Obviously, many good things can come out of this knowledge but it can also be abused. And one would guess that rich folks will benefit much more than poor ones from the genetic revolution. Expensive designer babies and all that.

 

That, in turn, reminds me of how technology allows us to be better protected from criminals, including terrorists, by the use of ever more intrusive surveillance systems. But those systems can also be used to violate the privacy of law-abiding people and suppress dissent. Just ask the Citizens of increasingly Orwellian China.

 

Technology’s quandaries….

 

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Automakers facing challenges

The Joys of Capital

General Motors Corp.’s announcement that would close four plants and lay off around 14,000 employees has drawn the predictable complaints and threats from Trump. After all, our capo dei capi made his promise to boost U.S. manufacturing a central element of his presidential campaign, and many people in such swing states as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin fell for it.

 

But big companies will go their merry way, whatever a president says – the way to maximizing profits to benefit shareholders, especially shareholders who also happen to be companies’ senior executives and such big institutions as pension funds and university endowments. It’s all part of the “creative destruction’’ of capitalism, which is great at invention/innovation, and creating long-term economic growth, but which also throws a lot of people overboard to the sharks along the way.

 

General Motors assumes that it won’t need as many workers in the future, primarily because of computer-run hyper-automation and the movement away from the internal-combustion machine and toward electric cars. I found it troubling that at the same time, the company apparently plans to double down, at least in the near term, on its production of high-profit-margin, gasoline-guzzling SUVs and trucks and to reduce the output of sedans. That means adding to global warming.

 

It also means that more people will be borrowing more money to buy trucks and SUVs, which cost more than most sedans. That will cause a crunch in the next recession as unemployment rises. It sometimes seems as if we’re partying as if it’s 2006.

 

As for the thousands being laid off, in America, capital almost always wins over labor.

 

Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler may make similar announcements soon. And, blessedly, there’s little that Trump can do about it.
 

 

From the Rivers to the Sea

The law of unintended consequences perhaps:

 

As part of the multibillion-dollar post-Superstorm Sandy federal cleanup, a small amount – about $11 million – of the money has been used in southern New England and the Middle Atlantic states to remove dams and other blockages that have prevented fish from migrating between the sea and coastal rivers, blockages that have much diminished their numbers. Species include sea-run brown trout, Eastern brook trout and river herring.

 

This has already paid dividends in an increase in these fish in some places. As Tim Dillingham, the American Littoral Society’s executive director, told the Associated Press in regard to the construction of a culvert connecting a New Jersey pond and the ocean: “The restoration of connectivity to allow fish to spawn has been a great success. We’re seeing fish come back in numbers we hadn’t seen before.’’

 

To read more, please hit this link:

 

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Then we have phragmites, an invasive plant most often called the “common reed’. This thing grows like crazy -- to 13 feet high -- and blocks out sunlight for native marsh plants. And, as a WBUR article by Barbara Moran notes, its shed leaves create “a thick layer of wrack that keeps native plants from germinating. Its stalks clog waterways, thwarting fish travel….The roots…secrete a chemical that prevents other plants from growing, and they grow so deep they are nearly impossible to pull out.’’

 

Nasty, but, Ms. Moran reports, the “Smithsonian Environmental Research Center found that the very traits that make phragmites a tough invader – larger plants, deeper roots, higher density –enable it to store more carbon in marshy peat. ‘’ As climate change races forward, carbon storage becomes a bigger part of the ecosystem equation.

 

So the question arises: Should phragmites be planted in some places as part of a big program of natural carbon sequestration? It’s the need for biodiversity versus the need to slow manmade global warming.

 

To read the WBUR piece, please hit this link:

 

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U.S. Military

Wars Since 2001…

The open-ended U.S. wars in the Islamic world since 2001 have cost trillions of dollars and drained resources that could have been used to do such things as improve infrastructure, education and healthcare in America. It would have been wiser to have taken a much smaller and more surgically targeted approach to the dangers posed by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorists instead of sending armies to try to pacify places that no outside force can pacify for long.

 

Some of the money could have been used to strengthen America’s overall defense posture, especially as we face increasing threats not so much from terrorists as from increasingly aggressive and expansionist China and Russia.
 

And now the National Defense Strategy Commission reports that America could suffer a “decisive military defeat’’ in war against China or Russia.  That’s not surprising given the erosive effects of so many years of open-ended war in the Mideast. And Trump’s undermining of our alliances with such traditional allies as Western European nations further weakens our military strength.

 

As a result of the commission’s report, some members of Congress will call for big increases in defense spending. Many of the same people will also call for more tax cuts.

In any event, we need a reappraisal of our global military strategy and a fast strengthening  (or perhaps “repair’’ is a better word) of our military alliances. And we simply can’t afford to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.

 

 

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Providence Graffiti

Clean It Up

Graffiti is a very tough eyesore for mayors to keep up with. But they must try. Providence has seen an explosion of this defacement on buildings, walls and elsewhere in recent months. To ignore it encourages more of it, and worse. See James Q. Wilson’s famous “Broken Windows’’ theory: The Wikipedia definition is as good as any:


“{A}criminological theory that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes. The theory thus suggests that policing methods that target minor crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, and fare evasion help to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes.’’

 

It’s Canute against the waves to some extent, but newly re-elected Mayor Jorge Elorza would do well to put this on his to-do list.

 

To Scare ‘Em Everywhere

The torture and murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khasshogi at the order of Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, was not meant to silence just one critic, but, as with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s and North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-Un’s murders of foes at home and abroad, It’s also  meant to scare the living into silence and hiding.

 

That the Trump administration fails to strongly denounce and punish such outrages encourages more such murders.
 

D.C.’s ‘Play-Date Police’

If you try to regulate everything, you won’t well regulate things that really need regulating. My eye caught a Nov. 17-18 Wall Street Journal headlined “The Play-Date Police’’ about District of Columbia education officials seeking to close down the Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School because it doesn’t operate as an officially recognized day-care center.

 

The District’s regulations are supposed to exempt “informal parent-supervised neighborhood play groups’’ from rules for formally recognized day-care centers. But, the WSJ notes, the regulators have declared the group at issue “formal’’ “because it has a Web site, draws participants from a hat to limit play-date sizes, and hosts scheduled get-togethers. In other words, the parents aren’t organized enough for the government’s satisfaction but are too organized to escape its harassment.’’

 

As The Washington Post noted: “The play group is a neighborhood tradition, used by families since the 1970s to provide toddlers and their parents with regular social interaction and a sense of community.

 

“There are no teachers and no staff — just parents watching children play, for no pay. The families pay a fee at the beginning of the year of about $175, which covers supplies such as craft materials and tissues, and a donation to the Lutheran Church of the Reformation for using its nursery.’’

 

The Wall Street Journal noted that the D.C. City Council has enacted a temporary measure to let this and similar parent-run organizations operate. But that measure will expire on Jan. 21.

 

Let’s hope that the measure is made permanent. The Capitol Hill Cooperative Play School is the sort of voluntary civic organization that Alexis de Tocqueville quite rightly lauded in Democracy in America. To try to oversee them as one would a public agency or a business reduces their ability to innovate and to respond to the particular needs of individual children and parents, as well as their communities.

 

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Can the Churches diversify their revenue?

Churches Should Diversify Revenue

The closing of St. Anne’s Church in Fall River,  whose twin towers are a much loved feature of the Spindle City’s skyline, as well as the closing of many other Catholic and mainline Protestant churches across America, make me wonder if many could have remained open if their leadership had been more able and willing to repurpose parts of their churches for  regular non-religious functions to bring in revenue before closings became unavoidable.

Probably most of these old churches will never again have the big congregations they once had in more religious times.  But many more of the spacious rooms within old churches could be used for small businesses, exercise studios, co-working spaces, artists’ studios and so on, if churches would market those uses much more – and faster -- than they have. The naves would continue to be dedicated to religious services.

 

Now how to save beautiful St. Anne’s from being torn down? It sure would be a prettier City Hall than the Brutalist beast that now serves as that function!

 

Baltimore’s ‘Vacants to Value’ Experiment

Old cities such as Providence have lots of old, abandoned and decrepit houses that just sit there. Baltimore, in the face of worse problems than Providence’s, is taking a promising approach to alleviating this problem, reports Governing Magazine. In a program called Vacants to Value, Baltimore offers “city-owned vacant homes to developers and individuals alike.’’ (The city owns about 2,500 vacant houses and 7,000 empty lots.)

 

But, “buyers must prove they can afford to purchase a property. They also have to secure funding to rehabilitate it, which costs much more than buying it….Help is available in submitting bids and applying for an array of financial incentives and tax credits offered by the city and state.’’ Importantly, only homes that are “in places that seem to have at least some chance for a comeback’’ (or even full-scale gentrification) are in the program.

 

The depressing sight of blocks of crumbling and vacant buildings undermines the strongest efforts to revitalize cities.  The Vacants to Value project is worth following and perhaps emulating, especially in cities such as Providence and Fall River with large stocks of houses that may be old and falling apart but that still have enough physical integrity and aesthetic appeal to be rehabilitated. To read the Governing article, please hit this link:
 

Undermining a Basic Service

Even as the number of beneficiaries has swollen by 17 percent, Congress cut the Social Security Administration’s operating budget by 9 percent from 2010-2018 while eliminating 67 field offices. This has led to much longer in-person and on phone wait times, The New York Times reports. It has also meant longer delays in processing disability-benefit appeals.


Social Security has become a basic federal service that many millions of people rely on. Making sure it can provide good service would seem even more important than Donald Trump giving himself a big tax cut.

 

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President Calvin Coolidge

The Last ‘Jeffersonian’ President

Coolidge: An American Enigma, by the late Robert Sobel, published by Regnery, is a very well written look at the life of the Vermont-born Massachusetts lawyer and politician who became our 30th president. I found the stuff about “Silent Cal’s’’ early life particularly engaging. Sobel calls Coolidge our last  “Jeffersonian’’ (limited government) president.

 

 A man of integrity and reserve, Coolidge rather incongruously presided over “The Roaring Twenties’’.  The well-educated and smart Coolidge was, of course, a far more complicated character than many people thought when he was president. He was also a good writer, and sometimes showed flashes of sentiment/emotion in speeches and letters that he usually kept hidden from the public. And he wrote almost all of his own speeches – the last president to do so.

 

Coolidge would have agreed with this quote from James Madison:

“The infirmities most besetting popular governments…are found in defective laws, which do mischief before they can be mended, and laws passed under transient impulses, of which time and reflection call for a change.’’


 

 

Related Slideshow: The 50 Greatest Living Rhode Islanders

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#50

Professor J. Michael Kosterlitz

Nobel Prize Winner

In October 2016, Brown University Professor J. Michael Kosterlitz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. He has been at Brown since 1982.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that it awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2016 to three U.S. scientists, including Kosterlitz ”for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter."

"They revealed the secrets of exotic matter," wrote the Academy in their October 4 release.  "This year’s Laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics."

The Academy wrote:

The three Laureates’ use of topological concepts in physics was decisive for their discoveries. Topology is a branch of mathematics that describes properties that only change step-wise. Using topology as a tool, they were able to astound the experts. In the early 1970s, Michael Kosterlitz and David Thouless overturned the then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures.

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#49

Barnaby Evans

Artist

Barnaby Evans is the creator of WaterFire, cited as one of America’s most important pieces of public art. Friedrich St. Florian called WaterFire the “crown jewel of the Providence renaissance.”

He has won numerous regional, national and global awards for his creation of WaterFire. The art and event has helped to transform Providence.

As his bio states, he "is also known for his photography which is included in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Bibliotheque National, Paris; the Musee’ d’art et d’histoire, Fribourg, Switzerland; the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; and the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design among others."

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#48

Howard Ben Tré

Sculptor

Ben Tré is a world leader in innovating cast glass as a sculptural medium, and his work has been exhibited at more than 100 museum and public collections worldwide -- and his studio is located in Pawtucket, RI. 

His works have been at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Art, Houston; the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Nice.

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#47

Bill Reynolds

Sportswriter

Reynolds' books use sports as the framework, but are deeper examinations of poverty, race, and addiction.

His book "Fall River Dreams" defined him a leading American writer who uniquely captures the intersection of sports and culture. 

“Bill Reynolds is one of the best writers around, and this book is the Friday Night Lights of high school basketball,” said Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe.

"Success is a Choice," which he co-wrote with Rick Pitino, is a business "how to" book that was a New York Times best-seller.

Reynolds has written 11 books and is a sports reporter for the Providence Journal.


 

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#46

John McCauley (Deer Tick)

Singer-Songwriter

McCauley has been a leading voice in the alternative, indie rock sphere for more than a decade. His work is a mix of rock with folk, blues, and country influences.

Along with his band, McCauley won Rock Artist of the Year at the Boston Music Awards (beating out Aerosmith) in 2013. He is married to fellow musician Vanessa Carlton -- Stevie Nicks officiated their wedding.

With Deer Tick he has produced five albums. 

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#45

Ira Magaziner

Business Consultant

He created one of the most innovative university curriculums in America while he was an undergraduate at Brown, and went on to a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford.

Magaziner founded a leading business consulting firm - Telesis -- and then sold it to Towers Perrin. He served as the policy point person in President Bill Clinton’s Health Reform initiative that was led by Hillary Clinton. The effort failed and Magaziner was sued and fined — it ultimately was overturned

Today, he serves as the vice chairman and chief executive officer of the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI). His son Seth is RI’s General Treasurer.

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#44

Angus Davis

Entrepreneur

Few business innovators in America have had the success of native Rhode Islander Davis. 

He co-founded Tellme, raised more than $200M in capital, and helped to lead the company to more than $100 million in sales and 300 employees. Tellme was acquired by Microsoft for nearly $1 billion.

Now, he is trying to do it again with Upserve, formerly Swipely. The company is "the smart management assistant serving up clear guidance that makes your restaurant thrive" - a tech firm that creates an information infrastructure for restaurants. He has raised upwards of $50 million for Upserve. Davis is a leading American business thinker -- all before the age of 40.

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#43

Terry "Mother" Moy

Navy SEAL

If the Navy SEALs are the best trained and most respected in the United State Armed Forces, Moy is the "Mother" of the SEALs.

The Newport native is the embodiment of military lore. He was a famous SEAL instructor and one of his most infamous trainees was Jesse "The Body" Venture - Seal, professional Wrestler and Governor of Minnesota. 

While most SEAL activity is undisclosed, his effort to recover Apollo 17 was globally broadcast.

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#42

Phil West

Government Reformer

Once dubbed the Godfather of Ethics Reform, West has been the driving force in reforming governmental ethics for three decades in Rhode Island. 

His successes include a then-record fine against Governor Ed DiPrete, Separation of Powers, downsizing and modernizing the legislature, and the requirement of electronic filing of bills and making hearings accessible to the public.

He was the head of Common Cause RI for eighteen years and retired in 2006, but still remains a guiding force in reform. Two years ago, the master lever was eliminated and this year major ethics reform is moving through the General Assembly — all under the watchful eye of West.

West has taken on the most powerful forces — sometimes alone — and made Rhode Island a better place as a result.

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#41

Richard Jenkins

Actor

Jenkins is the consummate American actor. His work ranges from everything from “The Witches of Eastwick” to “Hannah and Her Sisters” to HBO's "Six Feet Under" to his award winning role in “Olive Kitteridge”

His formative acting years took place at Trinity Repertory Company (now Trinity Rep). Jenkins then returned later in his career to help save the financially struggling theater.

He has starred and appeared in more than 80 movies and television series or movies. In 2014, Jenkins and his wife Sharon received the Pell Award for Lifetime Achievement from Trinity Repertory Company in Providence.

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#40

Alan Hassenfeld

Business 

The former CEO and Chairman of Hasbro was a driving force in transforming the company from a toy manufacturer to an entertainment company.

Michael Jackson and slews of others came to Rhode Island to tour the company and negotiate licensing deals.

In the early 1990's he became a force in initiating ethics reform in Rhode Island. More recently, he endowed the creation of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University.

The Rhode Island-based Hassenfeld Foundation gave out roughly $4.7 million in donations in the most recently reported year. 

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#39

M. Therese Antone, RSM, Ed.D

Educator

Sister Antone was born in Central Falls, and educated at Salve Regina University, Villanova University, Harvard University and MIT Sloan School of Management.

Correspondingly, she has taught almost every level of education, rising to President of Salve Regina. There, she transformed the school, and Salve Regina’s national rankings and student profile vastly improved under her leadership.

During her tenure, the University's endowment grew from $1 million to more than $50 million and the University invested $76 million on renovations and expansions and has received numerous awards for restoring the historic mansions, cottages, and gatehouses on its campus. She transformed the University and correspondingly has won countless awards for her service.

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#38

Umberto Crenca

Artist and Entrepreneur

Artist, visionary and business leader, Crenca took a crazy idea of developing a sustainable art cluster in Downtown Providence and made it the most unimaginable success, and has become a national model. 

AS220 was founded in 1985 to "provide a local, unjuried, and uncensored home for the arts," and has grown to own and operate multiple facilities, currently providing fifty eight artist live and/or work spaces, four exhibition spaces, a print shop, a media lab including a black and white darkroom, a fabrication lab, a stage, a recording studio, a black box theater, a dance studio, and a bar and restaurant.

In 2016, Crenca was awarded Honorary Degrees from two different Rhode Island Universities.

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#37

Carolyn Rafaelian

Businesswoman

In July, Forbes announced its “America's Richest Self-Made Women” list for 2018 and Rhode Island’s Carolyn Rafaelian came in at #21 on the list.

The list includes Oprah Winfrey at #6, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook at #12, Sara Blakely of Spanx tied with Rafaelian at #21, and Kylie Jenner at #27.

“Despite this crazy state, it’s possible for a Rhode Island woman to reach this self-made list. For that I am proud,” said Rafaelian, Founder and CEO of Alex and Ani in an interview with GoLocal.

“I am thrilled with my new team in place and we will continue to attract all the right people and continue to streamline the business and its efficiency. After all, we are the jewelry capital of the world!” she said.

In June, Alex and Ani hit a milestone that few companies could ever dream of achieving — it has surpassed the donation of $50 million to more than 50 non-profit partners through its Charity by Design program.

The program was created in 2011 to “spread the Alex and Ani ideal of sharing positive energy worldwide, igniting passion for the wellbeing of our planet, our communities, and our individual paths. Since 2011, Alex and Ani has donated $52.6M to organizations large and small,” she said.

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#36

Louise Durfee

Environmentalist and Attorney

When one talks about trail blazers in Rhode Island, Louise Durfee’s image should be the first thing that comes to mind. She was the first female partner at a major Providence law firm at a time when most law firms did not employ women attorneys. She was one of a small group of Tiverton residents who joined together in the early 1970's to oppose a proposal to build a major oil refinery. 

The fight was so profound that it was featured in 1971 in Life Magazine and resulted in the founding of an organization that ultimately became Save the Bay. Again, Durfee the trail blazer.

In the 1980’s she helped to clean up the aftermath at Rhode Housing after widespread corruption was found. In 1991, Governor Bruce Sundlun named her Director of the Department of Environmental Management and just three years later, he fired her.

So she ran against him in the Democratic primary for Governor. 

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#35

Ron Machtley 

Politician and University President

Rhode Islanders were first introduced to Ron Machtley in 1988 when he traveled around Rhode Island with a pig named Lester “Less" Pork to point out the wasteful spending of then-Congressman Fred St. Germain.

Machtley upset the 28-year veteran and Chairman of the House Banking Committee to take the Congressional seat. In 1994, he was the odds-on-favorite to win the Governorship, but was upset in the GOP primary by Lincoln Almond, who went on to serve eight years as Governor.

After his defeat, he was the surprise choice to serve as President of then-Bryant College. At first appearances it was a strange choice, but Machtley could not have turned out to be a better selection.

Under his leadership, the college transformed to a University, with massive improvements in the University’s campus, an elevation to Division I Sports, and an overall improvement in Bryant’s academic position. 

When he assumed office Bryant had a $1.7 million operating deficit and a tiny endowment. Today, the University’s endowment is nearing $200 million. Over the past 20 years, Bryant has become one of the most improved higher education institutions in America.

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#34

U.S. Senator Jack Reed

Politician

If this list of greatest living Rhode Islanders had been developed twenty years ago, it might have been rich with elected officials - the likes of Senators Claiborne Pell and John Chafee, the retired John O. Pastore and Bruce Sundlun, but today there are few with the gravitas of achievement of those politicians. 

However, there is the now-senior Senator from Rhode Island, who has a national reputation as an expert on issues of national defense and is a constantly rumored to serve as the Secretary of Defense.

The former Army ranger worked his way up the political ladder as a State legislator and Congressman before winning the Senate seat of the retiring Pell.

In a time of great diverseness, he is a rare member that has conversations across the aisle.

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#33

Trudy Coxe

Environmentalist and Historic Preservationist

Coxe has now headed three of the most most important preservation organizations in New England. As the long-time Executive Director of Save the Bay in the 1980's and 1990's, she was a powerful force in driving the preservation of Rhode Island's open space and improvements to Narragansett Bay.

Coxe lost a close race for Congress against Jack Reed, but was later appointed head of the largest Environmental Agency in New England when then-Governor Bill Weld named her head of the Massachusetts environmental agency - the Department of Environmental Protection.

After a multi-year stint in the Commonwealth, she came back to Rhode Island to lead and transform the Preservation Society of Newport.  In that role she has helped to recpaitalize and modernize the non-profit that stewards the mansions and other assets in Newport and across Aquidneck Island.

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#32

Ken Read

Sailor

No one on this list may be more accomplished in their individual field than Ken Read is to sailing. Twice the Rolex United States Yachtsman of the Year, three times leading America’s Cup yachts, and dominant in the Volvo Ocean Races for decades.

One could argue Read may be the most accomplished sailor in the world. He was a three-time college All-American at Boston University.

Today, he sails leading privately owned yachts and has been involved with the North Sail company. 

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#31

Michael Littman

Academic

There are few computer science professors that get tapped for their celebrity for a national television commercial (see below), but Brown University’s Littman is an academic rock star.  After ten years at Rutgers he left to join the faculty at Brown 

He leads an effort called Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI) in which Brown University aims to become a global leader in the field of creating robots that benefit, learn from, teach, support, and collaborate with people.

One of his recent journal articles he co-wrote was titled, “Learning behaviors via human-delivered discrete feedback: modeling implicit feedback strategies to speed up learning.”

His commercial was easier to understand -- it has been viewed 550,000 times. 

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#30

Johanne Killeen 

Restaurateur

For decades the nicest restaurant in Providence might have been the old Rusty Scupper, but in the 1980's, Johanne Killeen and George Germon not only transformed the restaurant scene in Providence, but also proved that small cities with brilliant chefs could compete.

Food & Wine honored Al Forno for launching 'a new era of ambitious cooking in Providence [in 1980] with their thin-crusted grilled pizzas topped with superfresh ingredients.' The editors singled out Al Forno's Margarita Pizza (with house-made pomodoro, fresh herbs, two cheeses and extra virgin olive oil) as the signature item.

John Mariani, the food writer for Esquire put the new restaurant, Al Forno, on the national map by naming it the best new restaurant in America. Other food and travel magazines followed and the recognition transformed Providence, and as a result other mid-sized cities.

Al Forno put Providence on the food map and sparked many other creative and smart chefs. George Germon passed away in October of 2015. 

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#29

Terry Murray 

Business

It has been a number of years since Terry Murray ran one of the biggest banks in America. In 2004, Fleet Bank was acquired by Bank of America. Even today, Bank of America is headed up by a former Fleet executive -- Brian Moynihan.

In the 1990’s, Fleet was a superstar financial service firm — it gobbled up bank after bank in the U.S. and in 1999 Murray and Fleet made the biggest buy - acquiring BankBoston. The new FleetBoston was a megabank. 

FleetBoston was the seventh-largest bank in the United States, as measured by assets (US$197 billion in 2003). It employed over 50,000, served more than 20 million customers globally, and revenues of $12 billion per year.

Murray grew Fleet from a small RI community bank to a global player.

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#28

Farrelly Brothers

Movie Producers

The Cumberland brothers - Peter and Bobby - are two of the most prolific comedic movie makers in Hollywood. They created a genre of politically incorrect, slapstick humor that has generated billions in box office sales.

Their movies include Kingpin, There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber --  to name a few of their 15 movies.

The Farrelly Brothers also co-wrote one of the all-time great Seinfeld episodes -- titled "The Virgin."

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#27

Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson

Judge

In 1965 Thompson came to Providence from South Carolina to attend Brown University and never went home. Today, she serves on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals - one of the highest federal courts in America.

She was elevated to the seat previously held by Judge Bruce Selya.  Before serving on the court she served on the District and Superior Courts in the Rhode Island Courts.

Today, she serves on the Brown Corporation, the Board for College Unbound and Save the Bay.

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#26

Sid Abruzzi (Johnny Morocco)

Surfer/Skater

Abruzzi is known as the "godfather of the New England surf/skate mafia."

"With a face that launched a thousand spliffs, ‘The Package’ has skated, surfed, and partied over the last 50 years with no end in sight. After reaching rockstar status with Big World in the mid ’80s, Sid’s infamous Water Bros. Surf shop brought vert skating to the beaches of Newport, RI," wrote Jim Murphy in Juice Magazine.

Before ESPN's X Games (Extreme Games) or the Gravity Games were envisioned, Abruzzi was an innovator helping to create a movement and industry that was primarily a West Coast phenomenon.  

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#25

Duke Robillard

Musician

The blues guitarist and Woonsocket native is well-known locally for co-founding Roomful of Blues, but his presence on the national stage, performing with The Fabulous Thunderbirds and recording with the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits has helped make Robillard a bona fide star in American music. 

He is a two-time Grammy nominee, won the W.C. Handy Award in 2000 and 2001 for Best Blues Guitarist, and in 2007 received a Rhode Island Pell Award for Excellence in the Arts.   But don’t take our word for it — Tom Clarke with Elmore Magazine extolled Robillard’s virtues when he reviewed “The Acoustic Blues & Roots of Duke Robillard” in 2015."

“A jazz man, a front porch pickin’ blues man and one-time guitarist for Dylan. A string band, jug band, ragtime, delta, Louisiana, Appalachian folk and Jimmie Rodgers-country aficionado. A backwards traveler, but forward thinker. A writer and singer with distinct style, and a studio owner and in-demand producer. Did I miss anything? Duke Robillard may wear a handsome, if nondescript, lid lounging on the cover of The Acoustic Blues,but he almost literally wears a hundred hats—all of them damn well. It’s hard to believe any one man can be as prolific as this Rhode Island Duke of the blues,” wrote Clarke. 

 

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#24

John Ghiorse

Meteorologist

Ghiorse may be Rhode Island’s most trusted and beloved television and digital news personality of all time. The Air Force Veteran and Harvard educated weatherman studied Meteorology at Penn State. He transformed weather reporting in Rhode Island and created his own branded measure — the Ghiorse Factor.

He first joined WJAR-10 in 1968, then moved to Channel 6 for nearly a decade and then back to WJAR. He retired from Channel 10 in 2009 and joined GoLocal and helped the digital media company launch its first site in 2010. He has delivered the daily Ghiorse Factor to GoLocal for the past five plus years. 

Ghiorse continues to be one of Southeastern New England’s most beloved news personalities.
 

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#23

Eugene Lee

Set Designer

If you have watched Saturday Night Live, the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon or many a production of A Christmas Carol at Trinity Rep, you have seen the work of Eugene Lee. He is one of America’s most creative and accomplished set designers.

The Providence resident has won three Tonys for Wicked, Sweeney Todd, and Candide. He has won multiple Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Set Design and has won an Emmy for the design of the set for Saturday Night Live.

He is a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame.
 

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#22

Claire Andrade Watkins

Scholar

Rhode Island has always been one of the top destinations for Cape Verde emigres — and next month, Emerson College Professor and Brown University Fellow Andrade-Watkins, who grew up in Fox Point, will have a thirty year retrospective of her work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

The subject? “Our Rhode: 30 Years of Cinema by and About Cape Verdian Rhode Islanders.”

Andrade-Watkins, a PhD, is Professor of Africana and Postcolonial Media Studies at Emerson, and is a Fellow at the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown (as well as a visiting scholar). She is the Director of the Fox Point Cape Verdean Project, President, SPIA Media Productions, Inc., and a pioneer of global, intercultural media, marketing and distribution.  Her CV of work and accomplishments is 17 pages long. 

In 2006 Dr. Andrade-Watkins released "Some Kind of Funny Porto Rican?" A Cape Verdean American Story" (SKFPR), the “popular and critically acclaimed feature documentary about the Cape Verdean community in the Fox Point section of Providence, RI, and the first in a trilogy of documentaries about this unique and important community of the Africana Diaspora,” states her Emerson bio. 

She’s won numerous awards including the 2008 Community Service Award from Fox Point Boys & Girls Club Alumni Association.
 

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#21

Freidrich St. Florian

Architect

St. Florian is one of the most accomplished and varied architects in America. At one extreme he was the architect of the critically acclaimed World War II memorial in Washington, DC and on the other he designed the Providence Place Mall.

 St.Florian has won numerous awards for his architectural achievements. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome. His drawings are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris. In 2006 he was an awarded an honorary degree from Brown University.
 
 

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#20

Brad Read

Sailor/Educator 

Over the past few decades, Brad Read has built Sail Newport into a leading world class sailing education organization. Their programs vary from a partnership with the MET school  that introduces urban children to sailing to running world class sailing events. 

In 2015, Read was the driving force to bringing the Volvo Ocean Race to Rhode Island and then followed it up by leading the state’s effort to successfully bring the Volvo race back in 2017.

Read is a leading sailor, educator, facilitator, organizer and leader. His impact on Newport — and Rhode Island — has been remarkable. 
 

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#19

Gordon Wood

Historian

In a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon humiliates a Harvard grad student by picking apart the student’s thesis regarding Wood’s “pre-revolutionary utopia.” (see scene below)

Matt Damon aside, Wood is one of America’s most accomplished scholars on the American Revolution — he won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History for his work The Radicalism of the American Revolution. In 2010 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal.

He is the Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. His list of academic awards over the past 50 years is unmatched - he is the leading Revolutionary era historian.


 

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#18

Barrett Hazeltine

Business Mentor

For the past 60 years Hazeltine has been one of the most important educators at Brown University. While Brown does not have a traditional B-School like Penn’s Wharton, it does have one of the top American business mentors. According to many of the top business leaders in America, Hazeltine was a guiding influence on their careers.

A 2000 article in Brown Alumni Monthly unveiled in 2000 that 10% of the freshman class at Brown University took his “Engin. 9” class — short for Engineering 9.

Entrepreneurs as diverse as “Tom and Tom” (First and Scott, who met at Brown), Founders of Nantucket Nectars to John Koudounis, the CEO of Calamos Investment to Marques Coleman at Carlyle Group all identify Hazeltine as being a driving force in their business careers.
 

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#17

John Donoghue

Brain Scientist

Donoghue is one of the leading brain science researchers and entrepreneurs in the world. At Brown, he led the enhancement and growth of the Brain Science Center and his work to develop BrainGate, a mind-to-movement system developed in Donoghue’s lab.

Donoghue has published over 80 scientific articles in leading journals including Nature and Science. His work was featured on 60 Minutes and he has served on advisory panels for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and NASA.

On October 2, 2018, he got another accolade that might just change the course of humanity -- "Brown scientist wins $1.5 million innovator award for new approach to decoding brain signals."

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#16

James Woods

Actor

The Warwick native is a two-time Academy Award nominee and winner of a Golden Globe, and three-time Emmy Award winner. His acting career ranges from The Onion Field to Casino and Nixon. 

More recently his voice work has been featured on The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Stuart Little 2.

Between TV, voiceover work and movies he has played roles in more than 100 productions.

Once dubbed as a genius by Business Insider for his attendance at MIT and his reported near-perfect SAT score and IQ of 184.

Today he is a Republican activist and supported Ted Cruz for President.  He has also been the center of controversy.

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#15

Arlene Violet

Politician

Violet was one of a group of pioneering women who changed the face of politics in Rhode Island.

Claudine Schneider had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980 in the 2nd Congressional District.  Susan Farmer won the Secretary of State post two years later in 1982. Violet was the first female Attorney General in the United States when she was elected by Rhode Island voters in 1984. The new decade had ushered in a new era in Rhode Island politics. All three were Republicans.

It was her work and the work of other women that set the stage for Governor Gina Raimondo to be elected Rhode Island's first woman Governor in 2014.

Violet was defeated in her re-election bid in 1986, but her political presence continued in the state.

She was a talk radio host.

She penned two books, Convictions: My Journey from the Convent to the Courtroom and Me and the Mob, a book about the witness protection program. Violet was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1996.
 

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#14

Meredith Viera

Journalist/Entertainer

A native Rhode Islander, TV-journalist Vieira is one of the leading Portuguese Americans in the United States. She attended Lincoln School and Tufts before landing her first job in Worcester in radio and on television as a reporter at WJAR-TV in Providence.

Her hard news journalism bona fides were earned while working on the CBS news magazine West 57th, then as an investigative report for 60 Minutes.

Then in the late 1990s she shifted to more entertainment focused broadcast as a co-host to The View, hosting the game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” co-hosting the Today Show and Dateline NBC. She hosted her own show, The Meredith Viera Show for two years.

More recently she has been involved with a range of event and initiatives in Rhode Island including speaking at RIC regarding her heritage — all four of her grandparents were born in the Azores. Last year, URI’s Harrington School of Communication traveled down to Viera’s show at NBC Universal.
  
 

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#13

Leon Cooper

Physicist

Brown University's Leon Cooper held the distinction as Rhode Island’s only Nobel Prize winner -- until colleague J. Michael Kosterlitz earned the honor in 2016.

Cooper won the Nobel Prize in 1972 for Physics (along with J. Bardeen and J.R. Schrieffer) for his studies on the theory of superconductivity. The winning work was completed while still in his 20s.

He has received seven honorary degrees from leading academic institutions from across the globe.

In the past few years, his work at Brown has focused on neural and cognitive sciences and has been “working towards an understanding of memory and other brain functions, and thus formulating a scientific model of how the human mind works.”
 

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#12

Ernie DiGregorio

Athlete

There are certain athletes who transcend the game and elevate it from sports to a higher level of entertainment.  Ernie D. was one of those rare athletes. He was am epic story, the 6 foot guard from North Providence who helped to take the beloved Providence College Friars to the final four. His skills and showmanship helped to transform the game from fundamentals to entertainment along with players like Connie Hawkins, Pistol Pete Maravich, Dr. J, and then Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. They all may have had better and longer careers, but none of them put on any better a show.

His NBA career was cut short due to injury but in his first year in the league he dazzled and won the NBA Rookie of the year. He was the third pick in the NBA draft.

For Rhode Islanders at the time his achievements were mythical. He teamed with fellow local boy Marvin Barnes and put little Providence College in the same sentence with powerhouse programs like UCLA.
 

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#11

Elizabeth Beisel

Athlete

Arguably the best swimmer to come out of Rhode Island, the Saunderstown native and North Kingstown high school grad first competed in the 2007 World Championships at the tender age of 14, placing 12th in the world in the 200 meter backstroke after advancing to the semi-finals. 

Beisel was the youngest member of the U.S. swim team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, finishing just out of medal contention with a fourth place in the 400-meter individual medley and fifth in the 200 meter backstroke.  Four years later in London, Beisel made it to the Olympic podium with a silver in the 400 meter individual relay and a bronze in the 200 meter backstroke. 

The SEC Female Swimmer of the Year in 2012, Beisel won two individual national titles and was an eighteen-time All-American at the University of Florida, and a first-team Academic All-American.  According to her USA Swimming bio, the college communications major had dreams as a child of being an actress, but now has professional aspirations of being a news anchor.  As someone accustomed to being in the headlines, it’s not hard to imagine we’ll be seeing more from Beisel in the future. 
 

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#10

George Wein

Promoter

The Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals would not be among the top American music festivals were it not for Wein, who celebrated his 90th birthday last year. 

Trained as a jazz pianist, Wein might be Boston-born and educated, but it was the Newport Lorillards who invited Wein down in 1954 to the City by the Sea to establish the first outdoor jazz festival in the country.  Wein went on to form Festival Productions to promote large-scale jazz events, and has been well-lauded for his efforts — both nationally, and internationally.

In 1995, Wein received the Patron of the Arts Award from the Studio Museum of Harlem, and in 2004 given an Impact Award from the AARP. He was decorated with France's Légion d'honneur and appointed a Commandeur de L'Ordre des Arts et Lettres (Commander of the Order of Arts and Literature) by the French government, and has been honored at the White House twice, by Jimmy Carter in 1978 and Bill Clinton in 1993. In 2005 he was named a "Jazz Master" by the National Endowment for the Arts. He has received honorary degrees from the Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island College of Music.

GoLocal’s Ken Abrams sat down with Wein for a one-on-one last summer — read more here.

 

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#9

Jeffrey Osborne

Musician

Grammy Award-winning Osborne, born and raised in Providence, came from musical lineage. His father, Clarence “Legs” Osborne was a trumpeter who played with the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  And the Osborne roots are firmly planted here — in 2012, the city named a portion of Olney Street “Jeffrey Osborne Way,” to honor him. 

Osborne’s biggest hits include “On the Wings of Love” and a duet with Dionne Warwick, “Love Power.” He wrote the lyrics for Whitney Houston’s “All at Once,”  appeared in the fundraising “We Are the World” video in 1985, and has sung the national anthem at multiple World Series and NBA finals games.

While Osborne is an international legend in his own right, his star status continues to grow and impact the community here through his charity work.  He’s done golf and softball classics, comedy nights, celebrity basketball games. And he brings in the big names, from Magic Johnson to Smokey Robinson to Kareem Abdul Jabbar — the list is extensive.  Osborne is the epitome of a “greatest Rhode Islander” — one who’s gone on to make the state proud, and keeps coming back to help use his celebrity to benefit the community. 
 

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#8

Tom Ryan

Pharmacist/Business

Ryan helped to build one of America’s Fortune 500 top 10 companies, as CVS is a leading retail and healthcare force in America. 

More recently, the URI pharmacy grad has been involved with two of the biggest initiatives in Rhode Island in the past few years.

He and his wife Anne donated $15 million to fund the George and Anne Ryan Center on Neuroscience at URI. The effort is one of the key elements in bringing together major educational and health organizations in a broad-based neuroscience initiative in Rhode Island.

Ryan’s neuroscience gift coupled with his fundraising leadership and donations to build the Ryan Center have made him the single biggest individual donor to URI. 
 

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#7

Ann Hood

Writer 

Born in West Warwick and a URI grad, Hood is a best-selling novelist and short story writer; and the author of fifteen books, with her latest, The Book That Matters the Most, due out this August.

Hood has won two Pushcart Prizes, two Best American Food Writing Awards, Best American Spiritual Writing and Travel Writing Awards, and a Boston Public Library Literary Light Award. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Tin House. Hood is a regular contributor to The New York Times' Op-Ed page, and is a faculty member in the MFA in Creative Writing program at The New School in New York City.  Hood’s “An Italian Wife” was recently featured as a play at the Contemporary Theater Company in South Kingstown. 

Of Hood's The Knitting Circle, The Washington Post wrote, “A wondrously simple book about something complicated: the nearly unendurable process of enduring a great loss."  Fellow best-selling writer Jodi Picoult even asked if anyone could top Hood. “Is there anyone who can write about the connections of ordinary people better than Ann Hood?" posed Picoult. 

While her reach is worldwide, Hood lives in Providence and is a fixture in the Rhode Island community.
 

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#6

Bob Ballard

Oceanographer

Ballard found the Titanic.  And yes, he was a URI undergrad and now serves multiple leading roles at URI as a Professor of Oceanography; Director, Center for Ocean Exploration; and head of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography.

Today, the Archeological Oceanography, which he started in 2003 is a unique institute “combines the disciplines of oceanography, ocean engineering, maritime history, anthropology and archeology into one academic program.” The institute involves a broad cross section of URI faculty and includes faculty from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, Florida State University, MIT and Woods Hole.

He is the rockstar face of oceanography in the world.
 

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#5

Jonathan Nelson

Investor

Nelson is one of America’s leading investors. In an era of Wall Street mega firms, Rhode Islander Nelson has built in Downtown Providence a $40 billion private equity fund Providence Equity Group. 

Once the golden boys of private equity and lauded for putting together “the biggest deal in the world,” he and the firm have had a series of set backs.

The highest profile bump was the firm’s loss of nearly $800 million in the firm, Altegrity, that was contracted to review federal contractors like Edward Snowden.

As GoLocal previously reported, the domino effect of Snowden’s absconding with federal data bases exposed the deficiencies of Altegrity’s vetting process.

He has become more active as a philanthropist and is listed by Forbes richest in Rhode Island.
 

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#4

Dennis Littky

Educator

Littky is a rebel, a disruptor, an innovator, a trouble maker, and an educator.  They made a movie about him, Newsweek has featured his schools, President Obama talks about his schools and Bill and Melinda Gates gave him millions to grow, refine and scale is model of disruption.

In 2009, Littky defied all and created an alternative college and by 2015 the Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education approved College Unbound as a degree-granting postsecondary option in the state.

In Rhode Island, The Met School celebrated its 20th Anniversary this past week. Thousands of students who would not have finished high school have graduated and moved on to college, business and beyond.

There may be no more accomplished innovator than Littky.
 

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#3

Bill and David Belisle

Coaches

Bill and David Belisle may be the best high school and youth coaches in history. Going by the statistics, the record of twenty-six consecutive state hockey championship (1978 to 2003) and a total of 32 may be a record never to be matched. Bill Belisle (the father) has coached at Mount for 42 years and his son David has been his assistant for years.

The younger Belisle made national headlines with his post-game speech to the Little League team he was coaching was defeated in the Little League World Series.

Twice their players have been selected #1 in the NHL Draft, countless others played in the NHL, and dozens played college hockey. There are movies and books on the exploits of Mount Hockey under the Belisles. 

Photo courtesy of Dave Belisle

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#2

Nick Benson

Artist 

There are few people in the world that are recognized as the very best in their craft, but Nick Benson of the John Stevens Shop in Newport is globally recognized as the best stone cutter in the world. 

Founded in 1705, The John Stevens Shop specializes in the design and execution of one-of-a-kind inscriptions in stone — the MLK Memorial, FDR’s Four Freedoms Park, and the inscription for the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, to name a few. 

Benson won a Genius Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, and was recently featured on CBS news. The John Stevens Shop is one of America’s longest continuously running businesses.
 

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#1

Viola Davis

Actor

Davis is one of the most accomplished actors in the United States. She is the winner of two Tony awards, an Emmy and a SAG award as well as being nominated for an Oscar.  With regards to her Emmy, she became the first African-American to win the Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2015. Amazingly, she did not earn her SAG card until she was 30 years old.

Davis self-describes that she grew up in abject poverty in Central Falls and worked her way to Rhode Island College and now beyond but has been a constant force in helping Central Falls to recover from its bankruptcy and rebuilding its spirit.

She is a leading fundraiser for a range of Rhode Island causes.  Davis is the embodiment of the Rhode Island spirit and a model of how to overcome the greatest challenges to reach greatness.
 

 
 

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