By: Rachel Cain — Staff Writer
Hollywood actor and social activist Martin Sheen will join the class of 2015 at commencement May 3 where he will receive an honorary degree for a lifetime commitment to social justice, according to a University of Dayton press release.
Sheen, a practicing Roman Catholic, has earned fame for his performances on stage, in films and on television. In an acting career spanning nearly 50 years, Sheen has become best known for roles such as President Josiah Bartlett in the TV show “The West Wing,” a serial killer in the movie “Badlands” and a soldier in the Vietnam War film “Apocalypse Now.”
“Martin Sheen is a legendary actor. More importantly, he’s a legendary humanitarian, who advocates for peace and justice around the world,” UD President Daniel Curran said.“He has used his celebrity status to be a voice for the voiceless, and, in the Marianist education tradition, he leads through service to others. The University of Dayton is honored to award him with an honorary degree for his humanitarian service.”
Martin Sheen, born Ramon Estevez, grew up in Dayton during the 1940s. He lived only a few blocks away from UD, according to the press release. He attended Chaminade High School, which was founded by the Society of Mary, according to the press release.
The Marianist ideals have continued to inspire and influence Sheen throughout his life.
“I was inspired and nourished by the basic, fundamental education of service to others. That’s how we really grow ourselves—giving to others,” Sheen said, speaking to Chaminade students in 2012. “We can’t really know ourselves except through community. None of us live an isolated life. We’re made to walk the journey alone, but we can’t do it without community.”
Sheen purposely failed his entrance exams to UD so he could move to New York City to pursue his acting career, much to the disapproval of his father, according to the New York Times.
Off screen, Sheen has become well known for his passionate involvement in activism work.
He has advocated against euthanasia, abortion, war, capital punishment and the School of the Americas, according to IMDb. Sheen has also supported causes for the environment, workers’ rights and human rights, according to the press release. Sheen also considers himself a feminist.
Sheen donated all his earnings from his performance in the 1982 film “Gandhi” to charity, according to the New York Times.
“The interesting thing that Martin and his friends bring to their social activism is a sense of joy. Certainly, they’re heartbroken and angry over the injustices,” Sister Rose Pacatte of the Daughters of St. Paul, author of the new biography “Martin Sheen: Pilgrim on the Way,” said in an interview with Flyer News. “They’re angry about that, but they bring to the protests this Christian joy.”
Sheen has been arrested multiple times due to his involvement in liberal protests, according to IMDb.
“Sheen talks about [the first time he was arrested] as the most joyful time in his life,” Pacatte said. “He said they were all singing hymns and talking about Jesus, talking about the truth of the Gospel and trying to live what they knew inside themselves.” UD has been developing the plan to give Martin Sheen an honorary degree for the past two years, according to Paul Benson, Ph.D., the interim provost.
“His schedule has been such that it’s been very difficult to coordinate with him,” Benson said. “But we did manage earlier this winter to connect with him, and he cleared his schedule and really made a firm commitment to come.” The Honorary Degree Committee rarely gives honorary degrees, usually only one every three or four years, Benson said. “It’s infrequent, and that’s intentional. We try to make this really a special honor to individuals who represent the values and mission of the University of Dayton,” Benson said.
The decision to award Sheen an honorary degree of humane letters is based on Sheen’s Catholic identity, commitment to social activism and his connections in the Dayton community.
“The single most important thing is that Martin Sheen has become a very vocal advocate for some of the core values of Catholic social teaching, especially values of solidarity with marginalized people,” Benson said. “Throughout his career, and especially the latter part of his career, a good deal of his work in Hollywood has really been focused on trying to promote Catholic social justice values. And that, we feel, is such an important and influential thing, in addition to his Dayton roots and his deep attachment to the Marianists.”
Benson believes Sheen intends to deliver a short speech during commencement.
Immediately following graduation, Sheen will attend a luncheon.
“He will have the opportunity to meet with some selected members of the university community: faculty, staff, students,” Benson said. “Especially some faculty who are very involved in our human rights studies program and our new human rights center because that connects directly to Sheen’s interests and his own Catholic roots.”
Mark Ensalaco, director of human rights research, looks forward to meeting Sheen.
“It’ll be interesting to hear his perspective on human rights, particularly because he has such a strong Catholic identity, and that’s a big part of who we are as a Marianist institution,” Ensalaco said. “I hope he expresses an interest in what we’re doing. I hope he asks some tough questions and challenges us into thinking in new ways.”