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Nikiases and Marlo Thomas honored by Town and Gown

Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas, Niki C. Nikias and USC President C. L. Max Nikias at Town and Gown’s annual benefit luncheon (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

Town and Gown of USC, the university’s longest-serving support organization, held its annual benefit luncheon on April 9 under the banner of “Visions and Voices of Philanthropy.” The event at the Beverly Hilton Hotel honored USC President C. L. Max Nikias and Niki C. Nikias for their continued support and promotion of the arts and humanities at the university. In addition, actress Marlo Thomas ’59 received the Town and Gown Lifetime Achievement Award.

“We’re honoring Max and Niki not only because they’re the president and first lady of USC, but also because they established Visions and Voices, USC’s university-wide arts and humanities initiative,” said Michele Dedeaux Engemann ’68, USC trustee and benefit co-chair.

Vicki McCluggage ’77, benefit co-chair, elaborated: “Visions and Voices allows students to experience each other’s passions. This makes a doctor a better doctor, an architect a better architect — it broadens their perspectives when they’re exposed to something outside the realm of what they normally do.”

Nikias established Visions and Voices in fall 2006, during his tenure as USC provost, to provide an inspiring and provocative experience for all USC students, regardless of their major or class level. Showcasing the entire range of arts and humanities, the initiative presents theatrical productions, music and dance performances, film screenings, lectures and workshops held on USC’s two main campuses as well as at venues throughout Los Angeles. Augmenting the impact of the performance or presentation, every Visions and Voices program invites students to engage in dialogue with artists, authors, professors and other special guests.

The initiative sponsors some 100 events each year, which are conceived and organized by faculty and schools throughout the university. Isabel Allende, Pedro Almodovar, Paul Farmer, Ira Glass, Quincy Jones, Spike Lee, Anna Deavere Smith, Patti Smith and John Williams are a few of the distinguished artists who have participated. Last year alone, more than 30,000 people attended Visions and Voices events, approximately 20,000 of whom were USC students.

Niki Nikias, honorary president of Town and Gown, was recognized for her influential role as an art aficionada. The arts are a priority for all members of the Nikias family, and she in particular is mindful about creating time for them to go to the opera and local theater productions.

She is also an enthusiastic advocate for incorporating the arts and humanities into university life, and a strong supporter of Visions and Voices. In addition to attending signature events with her husband, she frequently hosts receptions and dinners for visiting artists, welcoming them to the USC community.

“As an alumna and a member of Town and Gown, I feel great pride that we’re helping future leaders, in a little or big way, to change the world,” Engemann said. “Our students’ educational experience is not just for four years — it’s for a lifetime. By exposing students to the arts, Max, Niki, USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett and also Town and Gown — through scholarships — are producing students who will be world-changing in their fields.”

In honor of the Nikiases, Town and Gown is endowing a scholarship in their name.

Thomas, an actress, author and activist, was a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority at USC. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education and English.

Thomas began her career performing in regional theaters around the country, then burst onto the scene in the series That Girl (1966-71), the first television show to focus on an independent single woman living alone. Since then, Thomas has remained a constant presence on screen and stage. Her most recent theatrical appearance was a critically acclaimed performance in Elaine May’s George Is Dead, part of the anthology Relatively Speaking, which closed on Broadway in early 2012.

A member of the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame and recipient of four Emmy Awards, the Peabody Award, a Golden Globe and a Grammy, Thomas is also well known for “Free to Be … You and Me,” a project that became a platinum album, best-selling book, Emmy Award-winning television special and stage show. She has written six best-selling books and has been honored with the Helen Caldicott Award for Nuclear Disarmament, the American Civil Liberty Union’s Thomas Paine Award, the American Women in Radio and Television Satellite Award, and the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award, among others. She is national outreach director for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., which was founded by her father, Danny Thomas.

Previous Town and Gown Lifetime Achievement Award honorees include entertainer Debbie Reynolds (2012); USC President Emeritus Steven B. Sample and Kathryn Brunkow Sample (2010); KTLA reporter Stan Chambers (2009); and USC Trustee Wallis Annenberg (2008), chairman, president and CEO of the Annenberg Foundation.

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