2013 Simon Benson Awards

Setting records for audience size and funds raised, the 14th annual Simon Benson Awards dinner on October 22nd proved to be the most successful in Portland State history.

With speeches from Award laureates, standout PSU students and CNN news anchor and journalist Anderson Cooper, the dinner inspired an especially celebratory atmosphere at the Oregon Convention Center.

Dubbed by emcee and PSU Geology professor Dr. Scott Burns as “Portland’s premier philanthropic event,” the event set new records for attendance and funds raised, with 1,832 attendees raising more than $1.2 million for the night—an unprecedented success that prompted PSU President Wim Wiewel to proclaim the 14th Awards dinner the “most successful Simon Benson awards ever.”

Award honorees for 2013 include long-time PSU donors Rick and Erika Miller, and PSU alum Bill Stoller. As the recipients for this year’s Simon Benson Award for Philanthropy, the Millers have donated gifts totaling $8 million toward the expansion of PSU’s School of Business.

Stoller, this year’s recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award, co-founded Express Employment Professionals and the Stoller Family Estate, the first LEED Gold-certified winery in North America.

Continuing a similar trend of increased gifts to PSU, the financial success of the Simon Benson Awards dinner has risen dramatically in recent years. Figures supplied by PSU indicate the dinner raised $285,000 in 2010, $465,000 in 2011, and $1 million in 2012. Proceeds from the evening go to the PSU Foundation and are utilized to fund scholarships, university programs, and faculty endeavors.

Monetary figures ultimately took a backseat to human generosity, with speakers’ stories providing inspiration and insight into more than financial matters.

The keynote speech by Anderson Cooper and his subsequent Q&A with Oregonian Editor Peter Bhatia drove home the evening’s message of generosity.

Amid bursts of jokes on topics ranging from politics to celebrity to his own self-image, Cooper related details from his early career, including the decision to go to “places that [were] dangerous” as a means of meeting “[little to] no competition” from other journalists.

While reporting from war-torn and impoverished countries in the 1990s and early 2000s, Cooper began to recognize the importance of helping people when the opportunity arose.

Acknowledging the importance of being a dispassionate observer, Cooper related a story about dropping his camera and aiding a badly injured boy during a riot in Haiti. His decision to help the boy was subsequently criticized by other journalists and media figures, but Cooper dismissed these criticisms.

“There are times when it’s important to just be a person and help someone,” Cooper said, later emphasizing his belief in “being a human being first [and a reporter second].”

His coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 subsequently solidified Cooper’s beliefs in the importance of recognizing and honoring the humanity of every individual.

“The frailty of the heart should not be denied,” Cooper said, later adding a further realization of his journalistic drive: “I knew I couldn’t stop [suffering in the lives of others],” Cooper said, “but I could give testament to their lives.”

While Cooper provided the night with humanistic insight from expertise, it was Zanele Mutepfa who gave the evening an emotional and motivational center. A junior at PSU, Mutepfa is the founder and director of Empowering Sisterhood, a community-building initiative in PSU’s Diversity and Multicultural Student Services specifically designed for African and African-American women.

Delivering her speech, Mutepfa drew on her personal story to illuminate her sense of gratitude to PSU donors as she offered details on her early life in Zimbabwe, including the death of both her parents before she reached age 11 and her subsequent adoption by a “simply amazing” American family.

In 2009, Mutepfa returned to her village in Zimbabwe to mourn her parents.

“It was the first time in nine years that I was able to return to Africa,” Mutepfa said, “and feel the sun of my homeland hit my face and the people of my heart gaze into my eyes. I promised myself I would learn and embrace my culture, my family’s traditions and most importantly, the legacy my parents had left behind.”

After detailing the story of a woman committed to tending the village, Mutepfa spoke of an afternoon when she volunteered to watch the woman’s children.

“Immediately, six girls [swarmed] around me, singing and dancing,” Mutepfa recounted. “One of them pulled my arm and said, ‘Take me to America with you. I want to learn. I’m a smart girl, just like you.’”

As the girl began to recite poems and demonstrate her prowess in solving mathematical problems, Mutepfa found herself delightfully baffled by the child’s talents—and suddenly discovered her calling, too.

“My heart [filled] with pride, hope and a profound sense of responsibility,” Mutepfa said. “At that moment, I believed that it is my responsibility to get a college education and achieve a position that would allow me to grant opportunities for young women, worldwide.”

Mutepfa also praised PSU donors for helping her achieve success.

“My parents have the same heart for generosity as each of you in this room,” Mutepfa said. “Because of you, there are programs at PSU … which allowed me to found and serve as the director of Empowering Sisterhood. This program empowers women by providing mentoring resources and encourages community outreach.”

With a playful joke about “[working] for Big Bird” as an intern at Sesame Street Workshop in New York this past summer, Mutepfa outlined her ambitions for empowering women and children through educational media.

“I aspire to build my career in the media industry as an author and TV personality, serving as a catalyst for women and youth,” Mutepfa said. “I believe the media is the largest educational platform in the world.

“Therefore, if I can travel the world and broadcast stories [that] influence people globally, I would be fulfilling my ultimate purpose. I believe everyone has a story to tell; they just need someone to amplify them.”

And in a surprise moment, after a standing ovation from the audience that Mutepfa said made her “[feel] at home,” she received exactly the kind of amplification that she had championed moments before.

“Shortly after my speech,” Mutepfa said in an email to the Vanguard after the awards dinner, “Anderson Cooper [followed] me outside and offered his mentorship and guidance [to me]. He said, ‘There you are. I’m Anderson Cooper. So, you’re interested in the media?’”

“I must say,” Mutepfa said, “Mr. Cooper has kept his promise and we’ve stayed in [touch]. I feel honored and blessed.”