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Martin, Veffer to Receive SUNY Honorary Doctorates at Commencement

Martin, Veffer to Receive SUNY Honorary Doctorates at Commencement

Posted: May 16, 2019

Buffalo State College and the State University of New York will bestow two SUNY honorary doctorates during the college’s 2019 Commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 18. 

Jesse L. Martin, actor and singer, will receive a SUNY honorary doctor of fine arts degree at the morning (9:00 a.m.) baccalaureate ceremony and deliver the commencement address at all three ceremonies. Sophia Veffer, ’71, Holocaust survivor and retired special education teacher, will receive a SUNY honorary doctor of humane letters degree at the afternoon (1:00 p.m.) baccalaureate ceremony.

Actor Jesse Lamont Martin is best known for his roles in the Pulitzer Prize–winning musical Rent and the television series Law & Order and The Flash.

Born the third of five sons on January 18, 1969, in Rocky Mount, Virginia, Martin moved to Buffalo with his family when he was in grade school. He attended the College Learning Laboratory/Campus West, then located on the Buffalo State campus. He was often shy and did not like speaking in school because of his heavy Southern accent. His fourth-grade teacher suggested he join the school play and cast him as the pastor in The Golden Goose. He attended high school at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, where he was voted “Most Talented” in his senior class. He later enrolled in New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts theater program and attended the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.

Martin toured the United States with John Houseman’s Acting Company, which was his first paid job as an actor. He appeared in Rock-in-Roles at the Actors Theatre of Louisville and later in The Butcher’s Daughter at the Cleveland Play House. He also had minor roles in the soap operas One Life to Live and Guiding Light. While working at the Moondance Diner in New York City, he met Rent composer Jonathan Larson.

In 1993, he made his Broadway debut in Timon of Athens (as Alcibiades’s Officer and Second Masseur), and in 1994, he performed in The Government Inspector (as Abdulin). That same year, he appeared in the Off-Broadway production of The Arabian Nights (as Prince of Fools, Clarinetist, and Boy). His breakout role came in 1996 as Tom Collins in the original Broadway production of the critically acclaimed musical Rent. He would later recreate the role in 1998 during the West End production, alongside fellow cast members Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Anthony Rapp, and Adam Pascal, and in the 2005 film version.

After Rent, Martin appeared in several episodes of Ally McBeal and landed a main role, as Detective Ed Green, on NBC’s long-running crime drama Law & Order in 1999. He left Law & Order in 2008 to pursue other projects. In 2009, he guest-starred in NBC’s The Philanthropist as Philip Maidstone.

Martin went on to star in repertory performances of The Merchant of Venice (as Gratiano) and The Winter’s Tale (as Polixenes) during the 2010 season of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. He returned to Broadway later that year when The Merchant of Venice transferred to the Broadhurst Theater. The show received seven Tony nominations, including Best Revival of a Play.

In 2012, Martin appeared on NBC’s Smash for nine episodes as Scott Welker, the artistic director of a Manhattan theater company. He currently portrays Joe West in the superhero series The Flash, a spin-off of Arrow, which premiered in October 2014.

Sophia Veffer, a survivor of the Nazi campaign that orchestrated the systematic slaughter of European Jews during World War II, was born in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1929. Her father was a stamp dealer, and the family lived in a middle-class neighborhood, where Veffer attended school with Anne Frank.

Life changed dramatically in 1938, when the Kristallnacht pogrom spurred a huge influx of German Jewish émigrés to the Netherlands and other countries. Veffer’s father wanted to move the family as far away from Europe as possible, but her mother was reluctant to leave. In late 1939, her father sold his business and bought passages to England. One week before they were to depart, her mother refused to go. Six months later, the Germans invaded the Netherlands.

The Nazis deported more than 100,000 Dutch Jews to concentration camps between 1942 and 1944. Veffer’s family went into hiding and were forced to split up. Veffer left her parents, changing her identity, leaving school, and divesting herself of all personal possessions.

Near the end of the war, Veffer was arrested and transported to the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Nearly 50,000 people perished in the camp, including Anne Frank. The British liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, and after several weeks of recuperation, Veffer was transported to a small city in Holland, where she stayed until she could be reunited with her parents in Amsterdam. She eventually returned to school, finishing a five-year high school in only three years. She went to college in Amsterdam, married in Holland, and came to the United States in 1954.

Veffer became a special education teacher, receiving her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Buffalo and her master’s degree in special education from Buffalo State College. She also raised three sons, all of whom are now successful attorneys.

Veffer began publicly sharing her story several years later. She has taught thousands of students and young adults the important lessons of the Holocaust and other mass atrocities. In January 2006, Veffer received the National Conference for Community and Justice Brotherhood Sisterhood Award for outstanding leadership in promoting goodwill and understanding in the community. That same year she was contacted by Drew Kahn, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor, who requested her assistance with his theater production of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Since that time, she has dedicated herself to the mission of Buffalo State, speaking each year at the Anne Frank Project’s annual social justice festival and sharing her wisdom with thousands of students, faculty, staff, and community members. She is especially committed to refugee and immigrant populations, who share her story.

Veffer serves as a founding board member of the Anne Frank Project. Last year, the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo created the annual Sophia Veffer Upstander Award. This summer, Buffalo State will unveil the Buffalo State College Social Justice Fellowship: Sophia’s Legacy, a teacher-training initiative designed to ensure that Veffer’s story will be shared throughout area schools for decades to come.

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