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When Annie Louise Pitts Handy, 95, attended Wayne State University in the 1950’s, she said the campus was radical politically and there weren’t as many buildings as there are today.

She reflected on those memories Friday afternoon as she joined hundreds of Wayne State University students, alumni and staff to celebrate the university’s 150 years of achievements during its sesquicentennial celebration kick off.

“Lovely,” Pitts Handy described the program that honored the achievements of alumni through live acting performances, music and song. “I love the fact that they always have the performing arts do their thing for any celebration here.”

The event, held inside a packed Community Arts Auditorium on the university’s campus, was the first in a series of events that will be held throughout the year to celebrate the milestone.

“All last year, throughout the many receptions and conferences and other pubic events I was always talking about the fact that this was going to be our sesquicentennial year,” said WSU President M. Roy Wilson. “And it’s finally here.”

More than a dozen notable WSU graduates were honored during the program including Lawrence Patrick and Harold Mertz, who are considered the fathers of the crash test dummy. Patrick used himself as a human crash test dummy while one of his students, Mertz, went on to develop the current standard crash test dummy.

Others honored during the celebration included George Shirley, the first African American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The 1956 graduate also became the first African American member of the United States Army Chorus and the first African American to teach music in Detroit. Shirley, who attended Friday’s event, received a standing ovation from the audience.

Also honored and met with a standing ovation was Wei-Zen Wei, a WSU School of Medicine professor, who pioneered the human Her2 DNA vaccines for breast cancer patients.

“This is just a tiny bit of what we have to offer in our 150-year history,” said Sandra Hughes O’Brien, chair of the WSU Board of Governors. “Ever since our founding our faculty and students have defined excellence, determination, innovation and a commitment to the greater good. They laid the groundwork on which we build our present and future successes. And we are humbled by the responsibility to build on that foundation.”

The program also included WSU trivia and afterward, attendees were treated to birthday cake.

“I love any chance I get to celebrate my school and to show off how wonderful our history is,” said Courtney Buzzell, a 21-year-old junior design and technical theatre major.

Peter Her, a 2015 graduate with a degree in biology, said initially he didn’t know that the school started in the 1800s. It began as Detroit Medical College in 1868 and was founded by five Civil War physicians.

The university underwent a number of changes over the years, including changing its previous name, Wayne University to Wayne State University in 1956.

Her, 31, said he’s seen a lot of changes on campus development-wise since he first began classes in 2005.

“Every time you come here something is always new,” he said, noting building additions and a parking structure being constructed on Anthony Wayne Drive. “They’re developing all these things.”

Upcoming events for Wayne State University’s Sesquicentennial Celebration include a Wayne State University Pharmacy Alumni Reception on Feb. 23, a Graduate and Postdoctoral Research Symposium on March 6, and a 10th Anniversary Lecture Series: What in the World is Going On? on March 7.

For information, visit the university’s website.

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: CWilliams_DN

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