Campus & Community

Three alumni to receive 2021 Harvard Medal

Clair, Sheerr, and Williams honored for extraordinary service to University

5 min read
Widener Library.

Widener Library.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

The Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) has announced that Walter K. Clair ’77, M.D. ’81, M.P.H. ’85, Nancy-Beth Gordon Sheerr ’71, and Preston N. Williams, Ph.D. ’67, will receive the 2021 Harvard Medal.

First awarded in 1981, the Harvard Medal is given to those who have demonstrated extraordinary service to the University in a variety of areas, including teaching, fundraising, leadership, innovation, administration, and volunteerism. Alumni, former faculty and staff, and members of organizations connected with the University are eligible for consideration. The medals will be presented virtually to the 2021 and 2020 recipients at the HAA’s annual meeting on June 4.

Walter K. Clair

A deeply committed leader and mentor, Walter Clair has strengthened collaboration across Harvard’s Schools and supported generations of students. As a member of the University’s Board of Overseers from 2009 to 2016, he served as vice chair, led several visiting committees, and served on many others, including those to the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He was also a member of the Joint Committee for Alumni Affairs and Development from 2011 to 2015, helping foster lasting connections with Harvard alumni. Prior to that, he served as an elected director of the HAA and chair of its Awards Committee.

Walter Clair.
Photo by Susan Urmy

The executive medical director of the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute from 2015 to 2021, Clair is now professor of clinical medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and vice chair for Diversity and Inclusion in the Department of Medicine.

Throughout his career, he has dedicated himself to supporting students of color, including through his work with the nonprofit mentoring program 100 Black Men of Middle Tennessee, which seeks to enhance educational and economic opportunities for young Black men.

Clair attended St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass., later receiving its Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2013. He currently serves as a trustee. At Harvard, where he earned his bachelor’s and professional degrees, he was a nonresident tutor and premedical advisor in Leverett House.

The winner of an HAA Award for outstanding volunteer service in 2016, he previously served as an executive committee member and alumni interviewer for the Harvard Club of Middle Tennessee.

Nancy-Beth Gordon Sheerr

A passionate Harvard volunteer and proud alumna of Radcliffe College, Nancy-Beth Gordon Sheerr has devoted her time, energy, and talent to advancing Harvard’s mission. As chair of the Radcliffe College Board of Trustees from 1990 to 1999, she was instrumental in the successful Harvard-Radcliffe merger and the creation of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Today she continues to serve on the Dean’s Advisory Board of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

Nancy Sheerr
Photo by Ivory Tree Portraits

Her longtime dedication to Harvard is also marked by decades of service to the HAA. Gordon Sheerr chaired the Awards Committee, Schools and Scholarship Committee, and the HAA Recent Graduates Committee, and she helped drive initiatives focused on leading and inspiring volunteers, bolstering clubs and shared-interest groups (SIGs), and promoting organizational problem-solving. In addition, she was an HAA regional director for the Greater Delaware Valley from 2006 to 2010 and an HAA-appointed director for Radcliffe from 1972 to 1974. She was recognized with an HAA Award in 2010.

Deeply involved in her class and local Harvard activities, Gordon Sheerr is a past president and longtime board member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Club of Philadelphia, an active class reunion committee member, and past president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1971.

Gordon Sheerr graduated cum laude from Radcliffe, where she studied social relations, and earned her master’s in psychology from Columbia University in 1978. Formerly a senior financial adviser at Veritable L.P., she is now an independent trustee for families and the Value Line Funds. She is also a former trustee and chair of The Baldwin School Board.

Preston N. Williams

Preston Noah Williams has dedicated his life to working for social and racial justice and supporting belonging and inclusion of all scholars and students at the University. The first tenured African American faculty member of Harvard Divinity School and the first to lead HDS when he was acting dean from 1974 to 1975, he was also the founding director of Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Research Institute.

Preston Williams
Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo

Now the Houghton Professor of Theology and Contemporary Change Emeritus at HDS, Williams is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington and Jefferson College, with a bachelor’s of divinity degree from Johnson C. Smith University and master’s of sacred theology from Yale Divinity School. He taught at three historically Black colleges and served as associate chaplain at Pennsylvania State University.

After completing his doctorate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Williams taught at Boston University as the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Theology. In 1971 he became the Houghton Professor of Theology and Contemporary Change at HDS, chairing the ethics department from 1977 to 1980. He led efforts for the inclusion of African American religion in the curriculum, incorporating African religions into HDS’s Center for the Study of World Religions and improving services to students of color. He was an associate at Mather House from 1973 to 2018.

In recognition of his service, Williams was awarded the Harvard Foundation Medal for Intercultural and Race Relations, the W.E.B. DuBois Medal, the Black Alumni/ae network Award, and the Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honor. HDS also established the Preston N. Williams Black Alumni/ae Award in his honor.