Dr. William G. Cioffi

When Rhode Island suffered one of the worst fires in modern U.S. history, the Ocean State was fortunate in one regard. Rhode Island Hospital’s chief of surgery, Dr. William Cioffi, happened to be an eminent burn specialist who had spent eleven years as a U.S. Army surgeon.

Ninety-six people perished in the Station nightclub fire and close to 190 were injured. Within a few short hours on that terrible night in February 2003, literally dozens of severely injured burn victims were rushed to Rhode Island Hospital. Thanks in no small measure to Dr. Cioffi’s prior efforts to make Rhode Island a national model of trauma management, only four of those who escaped from the blaze would later succumb to their wounds. All those treated at Rhode Island Hospital survived.

Dr. Cioffi earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Vermont. Following his residency in general surgery, he served eleven years in the United States Army. Dr. Cioffi is the surgeon-in-chief at The Miriam and Rhode Island hospitals. He is also the J. Murray Beardsley Professor and chairman of the department of surgery at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

The Honorable Claiborne and Nuala Pell

For over half a century, Claiborne and Nuala Pell played leading roles in the civic life of Rhode Island and the nation. While Mrs. Pells’ work has been behind the scenes as much as her husband’s achievements have been in the national spotlight, their joint contributions qualify them to be considered Rhode Island’s “first couple.”

During his thirty-sixth year Senatorial career Claiborne Pell powerfully championed causes as varied as arms control, environmental protection, and federal funding for the arts and humanities, often taking leadership roles in drafting and passing legislation that made them possible. But it is surely Senator Pell’s long and effective advocacy of federal student aid for higher education for which his career will be most remembered. Congress recognized this achievement in 1980 when it voted to officially rename the “Basic Educational Opportunity Grants” he shepherded through Congress in 1972 Pell Grants.

Nuala Pell’s political and civic partnership with her husband dates to his very first senate campaign when she donated her own funds to his campaign. Active in political campaigns on the state, local, and national levels, Mrs. Pell has also been active in community service. Mrs. Pell served as a trustee of the John A. Hartford Foundation and numerous educational and cultural institutions across the state. Mrs. Pell received the Brown University President’s Medal in 1997 in recognition of her extensive work.

Senator Pell passed away in 2009 at the age of 90. Nuala Pell passed away in 2014 at the age of 89.

Michael S. Van Leesten

Michael S. Van Leesten’s commitment to equal opportunity goes back to the mid-1960s, when as a Rhode Island College undergraduate he traveled to Georgia and Alabama to take part in voter registration drives.

A former Executive Director of the Providence Department of Planning and Development, Mr. Van Leesten was the Executive Director of the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Rhode Island from 1968 to 1985. During his tenure, he grew the program’s professional offerings and built partnerships with local corporations to offer hands-on training. In the 1970s the OIC served over 10,000 students.

From 1994-2006, Van Leesten served as Executive Assistant to Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Chairman Kenneth M. Reels, working vigorously to improve relations between New Englanders of Native American descent and their neighbors.

Mr. Van Leesten’s wide-ranging community service encompassed involvement in the NAACP, Urban League, Black Repertory Company, and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society.

Van Leesten passed away in 2019 at the age of 80. In the Summer of 2020, the Providence City Council voted to rename the Providence Pedestrian Bridge in honor of Van Leesten.