Homecoming 2021: A star-studded return

Andrew Cummings | multimedia editor. UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse during "An Evening with the Stars."

Mary Liz Flavin & Colleen Hammond | news editor & editor-in-chief

Sept. 30, 2021

A jazzy rendition of Fred Rogers’ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”gently bubbled throughout the room as spectators took their seats in the new UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse, excitedly awaiting a glimpse of the star-studded line-up for the grand finale event of Homecoming Week 2021. 

On Saturday night, the Fieldhouse was transformed from center court to center stage as Duquesne welcomed celebrities, dignitaries, donors, community members, alumni, family and students for “An Evening with the Stars,” a highly anticipated ending to the first in-person homecoming since 2019.  

Homecoming kicked off the weekend on Friday, Sept 24 with a campus tour for the classes of 1970, 1971 and the Golden Dukes followed by a Welcome Mass and a Golden Dukes Luncheon in the Duquesne Union Ballroom. Alumni from these classes were invited to attend a special celebration where members of the 50th Reunion classes were inducted as Golden Dukes.

The Golden Dukes are any graduates of Duquesne who have reached their 50th “golden” anniversary since their graduation. At the celebration each graduate received a 50 year pin from a former member of the Golden Dukes.

“I think everyone was eager to have some normalcy in terms of attending in-person events after being so distant from others throughout the pandemic, so we had a really successful turnout of alumni and students throughout the week,” Mary Wattick, Student Alumni Association Advisor, said. 

After a praise-filled introduction by Assistant Vice President of Alumni Engagement Sarah Sperry, University President Ken Gormley took to the stage and said how thrilled he was to host this performance. He welcomed the audience to what he described as the “first major event,” at the new Fieldhouse. 

“How do you like it?” Gormley said, gesturing his arms to illustrate the magnitude of the room. 

After his remarks, Gormley sat downstage in a large, plus chair,  as alumna Michael Warren stepped out on the stage and belted out his rendition of Lionel Richie’s hit song, “All Night Long.” 

Blue and white lights swirled in rhythm to the celebratory lyrics as Warren’s powerhouse vocals immediately drew the audience in. 

After the song, Gormley was joined in this onstage reading nook by multi-award-winning star, actor, director, mother, philanthropist and choreographer Debbie Allen and her husband, Duke men’s basketball legend Norm Nixon. The three laughed and joked about the early days of Allen and Nixon’s relationship while filming The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh in the late 70s. 

“It happened on the dance floor, really,” Allen said, noting the start of her love for Nixon. 

Allen’s comments would prove to be emblematic of her life’s work, as she discussed at length all her achievements that happened — at least in part — on the dance floor. The Fame and Grey’s Anatomy star has been heavily recognized in recent years for her philanthropic work, primarily through her and Nixon’s work to found the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, a non-profit dance, voice and acting training center designed for young people of minority descent. 

From Gormley’s questioning, it became clear that the lessons Nixon learned at Duquesne went far beyond the classroom. 

“I had people here that really supported me,” Nixon said. 

As Allen put it, “I kind of lit a flame that people fanned to help me go further.”

Both Allen and Nixon said they viewed themselves as life-long learners, and it is that desire for knowledge and wisdom that still ties them to institutions like Duquesne. 

“I’ve always been training this whole time,” Allen said. “I’m still a student at this ripe age.” 

In line with the theme of the pursuit of learning and constant exploration, Gormley was later joined on stage by literary preservationist, renowned costume designer and widow of the late August Wilson, Constanza Romero Wilson, and broadway actor, Stephen McKinley Henderson.

Also included in the evening was an in-depth discussion on the works of time-honored Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson. In their conversation, Gormley, Romero Wilson and Henderson spoke of the unique tie between August Wilson, the steel city and its proximity to Duquesne’s storied history. 

“I think Pittsburgh was the universe in which he wrote,” Romero Wilson said.

In this final celebration of returning to one’s roots this Homecoming week, Romero Wilson’s words reminded the crowd of the rich history of Duquesne and the city it calls home. She even recited an unpublished poem by her late husband, remarking on the vast city of bridges, as she accepted her honorary degree from Gormley. 

“Whatever it was he was writing about,” Romero Wilson said. “Pittsburgh was the platform. It was his world.”