Two Men, Differing Paths
Community College of Philadelphia's May 5th Commencement Features a Philantrophist from Its First Class and a Persevering Student Featured in The New York Times
Philadelphia, April 25, 2012 — Richard S. Downs, a prominent Philadelphia area executive who was a member of Community College of Philadelphia’s first graduating class, will give the commencement address on May 5 as Community College of Philadelphia hosts its 46th commencement at 10 a.m. at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, Broad Street at Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
Christopher Thomas, who aspires to teach history at Central High School, will represent the Class of 2012 as the student speaker. The New York Times recently shared Thomas’s gripping account of academic perseverance, which has earned him at berth at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. Following his community college classes, Thomas rode a bus for 60 minutes to his job as a waiter in a suburban restaurant. When the midnight shift ended, he took three buses to get home. He couldn’t afford a computer, so he then walked to his aunt’s house to do homework.
Since the newspaper published the story, a number of individuals from around the country have contacted the College offering scholarships for Thomas, 36, and other equally deserving students. Thomas told the reporter he briefly considered dropping out of college, but then an unexpected scholarship arrived–giving him the means and will to move forward.
Downs, who earned an Associate’s degree in 1967, ascended to the top of the corporate ladder – ending his career as vice chairman of American Foodservice Corp. Higher education gave him a professional calling card, as he received a Bachelor of Science from Drexel University and a Master of Business Administration from Temple University. He has given back, generously and often, to the College that made the initial investment in his future.
“Community College of Philadelphia was a life-changing experience,” says Downs, who is to receive an Honorary Doctoral Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters at the ceremony.
President Stephen M. Curtis said the compelling life stories of these two men demonstrate the transformative power of higher education. “We are fortunate to have Mr. Downs as our commencement speaker,” Dr. Curtis said. “He has generously provided scholarships and served as a champion for students on so many levels. Though generations apart, Downs and Thomas began their career paths at our College. In different ways, they have embraced our graduates’ rich tradition of giving back to a City that supports our students’ education.”
In fact, more than 94 percent of Community College of Philadelphia’s students will stay in this area, providing a steady talent dividend for the regional workforce. A research firm recently concluded that the activities of our 2008-2009 student body generate approximately $64.1 million in labor income in the state economy each year.
An inaugural member of the Community College of Philadelphia Foundation Board, Downs has maintained a close relationship with his first alma mater, which gave him an affordable pathway to a four-year institution. He currently is Emeritus Director of the Foundation Board.
He had a fulfilling business career, serving as one of four key executives that guided American Foodservice Corp., a manufacturing corporation, for over 30 years. During the time, the company sales rose from $25 million to $250 million.
Downs also has endowed a scholarship at the College in honor of Dr. Edward Anderson, a professor who had a profound impact on this life. Most recently, he worked on the College’s first capital campaign.
There are 2,258 candidates for associate’s degrees and academic certificates at Commencement, making it the largest graduating class ever.