City Council President William Dwight finally gets his diploma

Last modified: Friday, May 31, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — William H. Dwight has had many titles over the years: city councilor, nonprofit board member, radio show host, movie store clerk, and perhaps most intriguingly, pheasant farm crew foreman. Now the City Council president can add high school graduate to the list.

Dwight finally passed his General Educational Development (GED) tests in September, earning himself a high school equivalency diploma 39 years after he would have graduated from high school in Holyoke.

“I have it hanging over my desk,” he said proudly in a telephone interview from his office at the Media Education Foundation in Northampton.

The diploma will be taken down later this month, however, so that part-time Valley resident and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow can present it to her old friend Dwight as part of a fundraising celebration June 2 called “Maddow Cum Laude.” Maddow will entertain an expected sold-out audience at the Academy of Music in what she is calling her only commencement address of the year.

The proceeds of the event will go to support the Literacy Project, a Hampshire and Franklin county nonprofit that offers free literacy, GED and other classes to adults. Dwight received support from the nonprofit’s Northampton office in the weeks before he took the test.

“We are very, very lucky to have her,” Literacy Project Executive Director Judith Roberts said. The three all met while Maddow and Roberts were radio hosts on Northampton’s WRSI-FM The River and Dwight was a frequent guest on Maddow’s show.

Maddow worked at local radio stations WRSI and WRNX before her broadcast journalism career took off. She is now a national news television icon, hosting MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, and a published author. She splits her time between New York City and a home in the Hilltowns.

“She’s our hometown hero, so to have her come back to Northampton to do this is thrilling,” Roberts said. “She is a good supporter of the Literacy Project. She understands the importance for low-income families to attain their educational goals and turn their lives around.”

Dwight said he’s pleased his studying paid off. Not only does he have his GED, but he also is helping raise awareness and funds for the Literacy Project. Without the nonprofit’s assistance, he’s not sure how his test results would have turned out.

“If I had gotten one more math question wrong, I wouldn’t have passed and we wouldn’t be having this ceremony,” he said.

A modest proposal

Dwight said he did not graduate in 1973 because he had trouble in school for a variety of reasons as a teenager growing up in Holyoke. “I flunked things, got kicked out of schools, and denied entry to others,” he said.

Roberts encouraged him to earn his GED after she learned that he never graduated from high school, he said. She brought a few Literacy Project students who had recently earned their GEDs to a hearing before the mayor’s advisory board to help her make the case that the nonprofit deserved grant funding.

“They were really nervous and probably terrified to be sitting in front of this august board,” Dwight said. “So to kind of put them at ease, I said, ‘You all have it over me, you have diplomas and I don’t.’”

Roberts said she called him the next day and talked him into trying to earn his GED because she thought it would raise awareness about the Literacy Project.

“He’s highly visible on the City Council and he’s a much loved local character,” she said. “But he’s not our typical student. He’s highly literate. Most students are below the poverty level, because low-income coincides with low literacy.”

She said most of the students can read and write, but often not well enough to create a professional resume or do other things needed to get a good job. In the last year, the project helped 67 other students ages 16 to 76 receive their GEDs, Roberts said.

The nonprofit provided Dwight with study materials, a math class and tutoring before he took the test last summer “with no small amount of anxiety.”

“But it must have been nothing compared to everyone else; my greatest risk was embarrassment. Everyone else had much more to lose,” he said.

The experience opened his eyes to a population for which a diploma is a ticket to a better life. Even when he knew he wasn’t going to graduate from high school in the 1970s, he was not worried about what it would mean for his future.

“I came from a background of privilege,” he said. “I could screw up many times and I knew my parents wouldn’t kick me out and I wouldn’t starve. I was going to be OK.”

He said that among his fellow students at the Literacy Project’s Northampton office were immigrants for whom English is their second language and city residents who knew they needed a diploma to get a decent job. “They all had unique challenges in their lives and chose to take a step to improve their lot in life, for themselves and for their families,” he said.

A hometown hero returns

Dwight said he, Roberts and Monte Belmonte of WRSI radio, who will serve as master of ceremonies, knew that getting Maddow to host his GED celebration would raise the profile of the event.

“But we’re always kind of squeamish to ask her because she’s so busy,” Dwight said.

Now that she’s agreed, Roberts said it will almost certainly be the biggest fundraising event the Literacy Project has ever had. If it sells out, it will raise over $30,000, she said. “That’s a lot of money for us,” she said.

“But it’s not just about raising money. It’s also about raising visibility and making friends for the Literacy Project,” she said. “We live in a very literate area, so it’s hard for a lot of people to imagine the lives of those who aren’t highly literate.”

“Maddow Cum Laude” will resemble a commencement ceremony, with Maddow delivering the main address. It will also feature a short film about the Literacy Project, performances by the Young at Heart Chorus and Erin McKeown, and comments from special guests Mayor David J. Narkewicz and former mayor Mary Clare Higgins.

It will be held at 11 a.m. June 2 at the Academy of Music. Tickets are $35 or $75 for premium seating and are available online at

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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