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“You all look beautiful, and it fills my heart to be able to celebrate with you and your families today.” Thus began remarks from Jenifer Lewis ’79 to thousands of Webster University graduates and their families at The Muny in Forest Park or watching online during the 96th commencement ceremony. Lewis was “home” again, returning during her alma mater’s centennial year to share inspiration and wisdom with 6,574 graduates from 110 countries.

During the ceremony, Lewis received the Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree for her outstanding stage and screen career and for her many international community engagement efforts. In her commencement address, Lewis thrilled the audience with words – and song – as she recalled her own personal journey from the poverty-stricken St. Louis suburb of Kinloch to starring in the entertainment industry and dealing with her own challenges along the way.

“Now Kinloch sits directly on the border of Ferguson, where, throughout the 1960s, I was warned never to go alone,” Lewis said. “We were not welcome in Ferguson. But see, Ferguson had a movie theater and Kinloch did not. So there I was. Alone.”

Lewis recalled how, as a 12-year-old, she spent Saturday afternoons at that theater, “eating my popcorn, imagining myself starring up there on the screen. Little did I know at that time, I was setting a standard for my entire life. Racism? I wasn’t thinking about racism. I had a dream. And that dream took me to Hollywood, Broadway and concerts all over the globe.”

After graduating in 1979 from Webster’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts with a bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts, Lewis’s dream quickly became reality; she landed a role in the Broadway show “Eubie” within a month. That launched a successful entertainment career spanning more than 35 years and resulting in more than 200 television appearances, 60 films and four Broadway shows. “Class of 2015, there is a point to this,” she said. “When you have a great passion to do something, to be someone, as I’m sure all of you do, there is nothing that can keep you from achieving it. In fact, if you are breathing you are unstoppable.”

Currently, Lewis is cast opposite Laurence Fishburne in the number two comedy in America, ABC’s “Black-ish,” and has been invited to be a regular cast member on the show during its upcoming second season. Her latest movie is “The Wedding Ringer,” starring Kevin Hart. Other film credits include “Think Like a Man” and “Think Like A Man Too,” “The Preacher’s Wife,” the “Sister Act” films, and “Beaches” with Bette Midler. Disney fans recognize her distinctive voice as Flo in “Cars” and “Cars 2” and as Mama Odie in “The Princess and the Frog.”  Her television work includes six seasons on “Strong Medicine,”  “Meet the Browns,” “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “A Different World.” Lewis has co-starred opposite Meryl Streep in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s presentation of “Mother Courage and her Children” in New York City and earned two NAACP Theater Awards for her one-woman show “The Diva Is Dismissed.” Last year, the multi-faceted entertainer received an electrifying standing ovation at Carnegie Hall while singing with the New York Pops orchestra.

Growing up, Lewis’s idols were all what she calls “triple threats” – versatile performers who could sing, act and dance, such as Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as singing idols Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey and Ethel Merman. And even though Lewis feels gifted with that same versatility, she says her first love is singing and that she favors onstage work over television and film. Lewis’s own one-woman shows are her favorite performances. “It’s immediate,” she said. “The connection you get with all of those eyes; there’s nothing like it.”

But, for all her professional success, Lewis has faced numerous challenges as well. Those challenges provided the framework for Lewis’s message to Webster graduates.

“There are three things I want to share with you today,” she said. “One: The elevator to success is broken. Take the stairs. Two: It’s when you are hardest hit that you mustn’t quit. Three: Love yourself so love will not be a stranger when it comes.”

After that first Broadway show, Lewis moved to LA, but her career languished. “I went on audition after audition, but I didn’t get a job! I didn’t understand. That elevator to success got stuck between floors,” she said.

  • Learn more about the photographer: Maarten de Boer ’00

    Catching Stars

    Webster alumnus Maarten de Boer has made a career of photographing some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities

    By Jenny Starkey ’98, Associate Director, Public Relations

    Webster University alumnus Maarten de Boer ’00 majored in special education during his time in Webster Groves. But it was photography and the photo classes he took as electives that developed into a career as a sought-out photographer of the stars.

    “At that point, it still hadn’t occurred to me that photography could have been a viable career choice,” said de Boer. “I continued to take photo classes as electives, spending more time in the dark room. It wasn’t until my final year in school that I dabbled with the idea of pursuing photography.”

    Not only has de Boer found a way to turn his love for photography into a career, he’s developed a successful business in Los Angeles with a strong portfolio of celebrity portraits.

    “My first real job where I was shooting famous people was a music press junket I shot back in 2008,” said de Boer. “I remember Fall Out Boy stopping by and at that time they were the biggest names that I had shot.”

    Since that day, de Boer has taken photos of a number of Hollywood’s “A list” including Ewan McGregor, Kevin Bacon, Zooey Deschanel, Bryan Cranston, Gary Oldman, Aaron Paul, Zach Galifianakis and many others.

    “I’ve worked hard to create a strong portfolio of celebrity imagery,” he said. “Recently I had the opportunity to shoot Leonardo DiCaprio and I really enjoyed this opportunity and I’m really happy with the final image.”

    While de Boer wasn’t a photo major at Webster University, he fondly remembers the classes he took.

    “Ann Tolin was one professor who had a huge impact on me. She taught my Photo 101 class and was incredibly encouraging and giving and it meant so much to me that she was always there to give advice.”

    He also credits photographer Arthur Meyerson with helping him make a career out of his love of photography.

    “Working as a full-time first assistant for Arthur Meyerson was my actual start and beginning of my career in photography,” said de Boer. “A lot of my behavior today in this business was built off of what I learned from him.”

    When de Boer first arrived in Los Angeles, he assisted other photographers and eventually was able to open his own small digital capture company, later transitioning to his current work. He said that working with different photographers doing a variety of jobs helped him fine-tune his focus.

    “If you’re a student wanting to be a photographer, enjoy your time in school and take every opportunity to learn and experiment and find your voice as a photographer,” he said. “Also, go out there and get some real set experience, find a photographer you admire and work for them as an assistant. Building upon the knowledge you gain in school is invaluable.”

    When asked what is next for his career, de Boer admitted that there are a few stars on his career wish list, “I’ve said for years, that the one person I’d love to photograph is Christoper Walken. I’ve just always loved his work, and I think his face is super interesting. I would guess that it would be an amazing shoot.”

    Otherwise, de Boer is happy that he’s found a way to be successful in career he feels passionately about.

    “There’s nothing else like photography and I hope I’m lucky enough to get to do this for the rest of my life.”

    His celebrity portraits can be seen in a number of publications such as People Magazine, Time Magazine, TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly or on his professional website.

Lewis became depressed and ultimately was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “The unpredictable force that is life itself demanded that I take the stairs,” she said. “But sometimes climbing steps is hard. Knees hurt. Back hurts. Outta breath. Sometimes you will slip and fall. And when these hits come, take the opportunity to reflect; gather up some wisdom before you make the next choice. Then grab hold of that rail and keep it moving! Keep. It. Moving.”

That statement segued naturally to Lewis’s second piece of advice for Webster graduates. “Some of my hits stopped me dead in my tracks,” she said. In addition to bipolar disorder, those hits included losing more than 200 friends and colleagues to AIDS, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Ferguson. “Sometimes it hits you so hard you don’t know what to do at first,” she said. “But then I got up and I did my utmost to help however and wherever I could.”

One such example: Her early work as a member of a group called Divas for Dollars in the 1980s, which, through impromptu musical performances at New York nightclubs, raised more than $30,000 to help people affected by AIDS. She remains today a forceful proponent for AIDS education and treatment and has performed at more than 15 AIDS walks around the country. She is particularly proud of launching more than 10,000 walkers on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Lewis is involved in other community efforts as well. Her numerous one-woman shows have raised funds for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and last year, she received the Ally for Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign. Lewis also speaks to groups across the country about eradicating the stigma targeting people suffering from mental illness. She also has been involved with the Big Sisters/Big Brothers organization.

For Lewis’s third point – Love yourself so that love will not be a stranger when it comes – she said, “Finding your deep passion, your dream as it were, is an important step in finding love for yourself. Find your passion; pace yourselves. Help others when you can. Help even when you think you can’t. Because, make no mistake, when it is all said and done, it is our humanity that will matter above all things. So love hard.”

For Lewis, her work is never done. New milestones include receiving the Career Achievement Award from the American Black Film Festival organization during the recent “Best of the ABFF” Awards Ceremony. Other luminaries to receive this prestigious honor include Spike Lee and Morgan Freeman. She also is writing her (as yet untitled) memoir, to be released in mid-2016 by publisher Harper Collins.

When asked if she had one piece of advice in particular for this year’s graduates from Webster’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts, Lewis said, “Live your dream, stay in your passion. Don’t ever let you stop you.”