On Tuesday, November 17th, Dana Gershengorn ’87 accepted Nobles’ 2015 Distinguished Graduate Award for her moral strength and professional success as a judge advocating for the rights of children. Gershengorn’s achievements include work at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, in the Child Exploitation Section of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice in Washington, and on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee for Nationwide Child Exploitation Investigations. In 2005, Gershengorn returned to Massachusetts to serve in the U.S. Attorney’s office as deputy chief of the Major Crimes Unit, as the Project Safe Childhood coordinator, and as the primary child-exploitation prosecutor for the District of Massachusetts. In 2009, Governor Deval Patrick appointed Gershengorn to serve as a judge for the Massachusetts Juvenile Court. After accepting the Distinguished Graduate Award, the Honorable Dana Gershengorn gave the following remarks at assembly.
Honorable Dana Gershengorn ’87 Distinguished Graduate Acceptance Remarks
Thank you to the Nominating Committee. I am honored to receive this award and I’m especially honored to receive it here at this school that started me on the path that would become my professional life.
I grew up in Weston. I went to Nobles, my brother went to Roxbury Latin and my sister went Windsor. The three of us had so many advantages, like many of you do. But my parents didn’t grow up with any of those advantages and it was important to them that we understood that not everyone had what we had: an intact family, a supportive community and the opportunity to attend a private high school. They instilled in us the ethic that those privileges come with an obligation, the obligation to give back and to use our opportunities to help others. I think it’s best summarized in the biblical quote: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." The Nobles mission statement incorporates that idea when it speaks of inspiring leadership for the public good.
Thirty-two years ago I’m a freshman at Nobles I play soccer and tennis. But I don’t skate, and I have no height to speak of, and I want to do something in the winter that allows me to give back. At that time there was no formal community service program at Nobles so I found myself talking to Mrs. Van der Eb, a teacher and mentor to me at this school. She asked me, “Outside of sports, what do you love to do?” I told her that I really loved working with kids, and the next thing I knew I was spending my afternoons working with a child who had cerebral palsy and volunteering at a low-income childcare center.
The following year I wanted to do more. So, she said, “Well, you know what you love to do, what are you interested in?” And I told her I was interested in the law and we brainstormed how to put those things together. And suddenly, I was writing to the Chief Judge of the Boston Juvenile Court asking if I could possibly volunteer there. When he offered me an afterschool internship, I went back to Nobles and, although it was completely different from anything anyone at Nobles was doing, the school supported it.
I know it’s hard for you to realize it when you feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get your homework done, study for the next exam, play in the next sports game and finish your college application, but you have amazing opportunities here at Nobles. And I’m not talking about the formal school organizations. I’m not talking about the Nobles Prefects or the Nobleman staff, or the Debate team or the Shield committee. I’m not even sure I knew what those things were when I was here.
I’m talking about the fact that you’re at a school that encourages you to look outside the walls of this privileged institution. To look inside yourself, to find your own voice to discover what you’re interested in and what you love, and then to figure out how you can use those things to give back. And to know that you’re part of a community that is going to support you 100% in that endeavor. That same opportunity started me on an amazing journey giving me a career in which I’ve loved every job I’ve ever had.
My job today as a judge in the juvenile court is challenging. On the criminal side, I handle cases that range from trespass to murder. In my civil cases, I handle the emergency removal of children from abuse and neglect, I terminate parental rights, and I handle the adoptions that can result from those terminations.
The cases are difficult and they’re emotional. One morning I can be forced to remove a child from an abusive situation that is so bad I can’t believe it’s real and I wonder how any child has survived it; and then in the afternoon I’ll be presiding over an adoption where a family has opened their home and their hearts to adopt a child who now has an incredible future in front of them. It’s a daily rollercoaster for me.
But I’m blessed to have incredible support from family and friends. My Nobles friends who have been at my side now for over 30 years. My parents who gave me the opportunity to come here, and have supported me in every job I’ve had even when I had to move home after law school because I couldn’t afford an apartment on a DA’s salary. My husband of 18 years, who would love to be living somewhere with palm trees, but who endures the New England winters so that I can do the work I love. And my children, who deal with living in a town where every police officer knows their name and they know they can’t get away with anything. I want to thank all of them.
I sometimes receive letters from families who appear before me in court. A while ago I received one that said the following: "You recently oversaw and concluded a case on behalf of my granddaughter, Vivian. I would like to simply say Thank you. Our court system is a treasure, dispensing justice in a fair and impartial way…but the cases are often heartbreaking and painful, and I would rather not have had my little granddaughter involved in these kinds of legal matters. All through the judicial process you inspired hope and confidence that the legal process would be deliberate and attentive. The image that remains with me is that of a female judge who safely and securely "tucked us under her wing. I note your local roots: you graduated from Nobles and you attended the University of Michigan and then U. Penn law. Professionally you had all roads open, yet decided to work on behalf of vulnerable children. On behalf of little Vivian, thank you for embodying the best of the court system."
On the days when I wonder if I am living up to the expectations, the demands, of my family and my Nobles education, I reread that letter. I want to say again how grateful I am to the Nominating Committee—especially given the remarkable contributions that Nobles graduates have made and continue to make every day. But I’m even more grateful to have been given the opportunities that allow me to do the work I’m passionate about and to continue to strive to be a leader for the public good.
I hope each of you use your opportunities to find a path that fulfills you as much as mine fulfills me every day. Thank you again.