Emory Medalists 2013

Sonny Deriso and Joan Houston Hall

By Michelle Valigursky

Candid shot from the event of Deriso and Hall together

legacy makers: 2013 Emory Medalists Sonny Deriso and Joan Houston Hall at the November ceremony.

Ann Borden

Though their professions are markedly different, 2013 Emory Medalists Walter M. “Sonny” Deriso Jr. 68C 72L and Joan Houston Hall 71G 76PhD share a commitment to cultivating a legacy that will endure.

A longtime Georgia business leader, Deriso served as chair of Campaign Emory, the successful $1.6 billion comprehensive campaign that concluded in 2012. For Hall, the love of words and cultural history fueled her pursuit of a scholarly achievement that took fifty years to complete: The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) documents the subtlety of American expression for future generations.

Deriso and Hall accepted the university’s highest alumni honor at the annual Emory Medal Ceremony in November. “Joan, thank you for your leadership and your steadfast commitment to scholarly works and research that further our understanding of language,” said President James Wagner. “And Sonny, we thank you for the financial and intellectual guidance you have given to this community and for shaping Emory’s future. It is an honor to present you both with the 2013 Emory Medal.”

As a history major in Emory College, Deriso was the first president of the Student Government Association, and was elected to both Omicron Delta Kappa and the D.V.S. Senior Honor Society. At graduation he received the Marion Luther Brittain Service Award. As a student at Emory Law, he served as student writing editor of the Journal of Public Law, and received his juris doctorate with distinction upon graduation.

Deriso was elected in 2002 as an alumni trustee to the Emory Board of Trustees and now serves as a term trustee. He serves as chair of the advisory board of the Center for Ethics at Emory. Since 2003 he also has served on the Candler Committee of 100. As chair of Campaign Emory, Deriso led the university to exceed a campaign goal of $1.6 billion.

Deriso was a practicing attorney in Albany, Georgia, from 1972 to 1991. In 1991 he became president of Security Bank and Trust Company of Albany, a Synovus bank; and in 1997 he was elected vice chairman of the board of Synovus Financial Corp., a role in which he served until 2005, when he retired from Synovus. In 2006 he became founding chair of Atlantic Capital Bancshares and led the bank holding company in raising more than $125 million in capital. He now serves as chair of the board of Atlantic Capital Bancshares and Atlantic Capital Bank.

He also serves as chair of the board of Georgia Regional Transportation Authority; is a member of the board of directors of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce; is a member of the Rotary Club of Atlanta (where he received the Ivan Allen Club Service Award); and is chair of the board of the Foundation of the Methodist Home for Children and Youth of the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

“Emory has enabled me to do so much of what I do and has been a big part of who I am,” Deriso says. He and his wife, Judy, have three sons. “At one time I was practicing law, coaching baseball, serving on three boards, building a house at the same time. Those were some of the best years of our lives. It wasn’t that I spent every moment with my family, but the things we did were quality things. Our children are a message to the future that we’ll never see, so we have to make sure we deliver that message correctly.”

As chief editor of DARE and a distinguished scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Hall has managed federal and private grants of more than $11 million for what has been called “one of the most significant humanities projects in the United States.” The project’s patrons include the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the New York Times Company Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and many other foundations as well as hundreds of individuals across the nation. The new digital edition (Harvard University Press, 2013) will allow readers to look up the meanings of local American words and phrases from Adam’s housecat to zydeco.

Hall has served as president of the American Dialect Society and the Dictionary Society of North America. She has been designated a fellow of the Dictionary Society of North America, and she was recently granted an honorary doctorate of humane letters by her undergraduate school, the College of Idaho. She serves as distinguished scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she has received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research. As well as publishing widely, she is a frequent lecturer and a guest on radio programs across the country.

DARE has been called “the greatest achievement in American lexicography in the past fifty years,” according to the Journal of American Speech. In her nominations, Hall was hailed as a prototype for the American “public intellectual,” and has been lauded for making her scholarship readily accessible to the public via widely acclaimed printed volumes and a user-friendly website.

Since childhood, Hall has been fascinated by the unique characteristics of regional language. Her love of linguistics grew while she attended Emory to study English and conducted fieldwork to capture regional dialects in rural Georgia. “It changed my life,” she recalls.

Though the DARE volumes A to Z may be published, the work is never done. “Language changes,” Hall explains. “What we tried to do in the original fieldwork was to record and preserve things that were going out of the language.” Hall’s leadership of DARE has been internationally lauded as an extraordinary contribution to cultural understanding.

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