Surrounded by the stunning New York skyline, a sold-out crowd filled the iconic Rainbow Room 65 floors above Rockefeller Plaza for the 2023 International Quality of Life Awards (IQLA) on Dec. 4. The College of Human Sciences hosts IQLA each year, honoring organizations and individuals who make a profound global impact on quality of life.
Through its appealing artwork, entertainment, architecture and more, Rockefeller Center serves as a place for guests to surround themselves with the best of the human spirit making the venue a perfect match for the 30th anniversary of IQLA.
Close to 300 distinguished guests, including members of the Auburn University Board of Trustees, President Christopher B. Roberts, senior leadership and leaders across campus were treated to stunning views and inspiring stories. Those in attendance heard from Bob Woodruff, ABC News correspondent and founder of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, and Ginger and Walt Woltosz, entrepreneurs and philanthropists, honored for making a significant impact on quality of life for others around the world.
“Our distinguished honorees share a common ethos: the remarkable ability to turn adversity into opportunities for transformation, leveraging challenging life events to make a profound difference in the lives of others,” said College of Human Sciences Dean Susan Hubbard in her opening remarks to the engaged and enthusiastic crowd.
CEO and Founder of California Compaction Corporation and longtime friend Mark Norris presented the 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award to the Woltoszs. Norris shared multiple stories of the Woltoszs quietly helping others.
Walt Woltosz, who completed both his Bachelor of Aerospace Engineering in 1969 and his Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering in 1977 from Auburn University, worked in the aerospace industry for 12 years. However, after Ginger learned of her mother’s diagnosis of ALS disease several decades ago, the couple turned their attention to founding the company Words+, Inc. This would ultimately produce the first PC-based communication system for people with severe disabilities. The most public display of this communication system was seen through the work of arguably one of the world’s most renowned physicists, Stephen Hawking. The Woltosz-created augmentative communication system through Words+, Inc., allowed Hawking, considered a brilliant physicist, to continue sharing lectures and his expertise.
A select group of College of Human Sciences students took in the sights and sounds of New York City as part of the IQLA Study Tour.
In addition to creating world-changing software, whenever the Woltoszs’ name is mentioned, the word that Norris, along with countless others, use to describe them best is generosity. Norris recalled a primary example of the couple’s giving spirit after meeting an Auburn student majoring in aviation management working at his job outside of school. After speaking with the student, Walt was so impressed with his work ethic and drive, he and Ginger decided to pay for his tuition.
“Here’s a kid that’s working, going to school and he’s paying for flying, which is really expensive, and on the way out of the store I said ‘you know, this is a really good kid. Why don’t we see if we can help him?’” Walt said. “We didn’t let him know it was us until the day he graduated.”
Anne Marie Dougherty, CEO of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, presented the IQLA Laureate Award to Woodruff who joined ABC News in 1996 and has covered major stories throughout the country and around the world for the network. He was named co-anchor of "ABC World News Tonight" in December 2005. Six weeks later, on Jan. 29, 2006, while reporting on U.S. and Iraqi security forces, Woodruff was critically injured by a roadside bomb that struck his vehicle near Taji, Iraq.
His story of tragedy to triumph continues to inspire millions through the creation of the Bob Woodruff Foundation and through Woodruff’s journalism career. In February 2007, just 13 months after being wounded in Iraq, Woodruff returned to ABC News with his first on-air report, “To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports.” The hour-long, primetime documentary chronicled his traumatic brain injury (TBI), his painstaking recovery and the plight of thousands of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with similar injuries. Woodruff was honored with a Peabody Award in 2008 for his reporting on the subject.
When addressing the room, Woodruff reiterated how life can be unpredictable. He has strived to make the most out of his time through his career as an ABC News correspondent, his work through the Bob Woodruff Foundation, co-writing a best-selling memoir, In an Instant, with his wife Lee and more.
“I just think this honor and what you’re doing is amazing. I think the biggest message from me is life is unpredictable and you don’t know what’s going to happen to you,” Woodruff said. "By the time you are 30 (years old) you plan to do this and by the time you are 40 you plan to do that, but how often does that work out? In some ways, I think my story is like that. I told my wife that if there’s anything good to come out of this, it is the work through the foundation to help others.”
The evening included a tribute to Dean Emerita June Henton who passed away in August. Henton served as the dean of the College of Human Sciences for 34 years before retiring in 2019. She was remembered and honored for her vision in creating the International Quality of Life Awards as a means to showcase Auburn University globally and highlight the College of Human Sciences’ mission — to promote human well-being and quality of life worldwide.
“It was a hard loss when June passed away four months ago in August, but here we stand in the middle of her legacy, marking 30 years and celebrating all that is yet to come,” Hubbard added.
A select group of College of Human Sciences students took in the sights and sounds of New York City as part of the IQLA Study Tour. The tour is an educational enrichment opportunity in which students experience the mecca of cultural diversity, the arts, fashion and finance that only a city like New York, with such rich history, can deliver.
Liza Anderson, a senior majoring in Event Management, experienced the Rainbow Room for the first time and took away an abundance of knowledge she will use in her future career.
“Being in the Rainbow Room tonight, I just thought it was so significant because John Rockfeller made such a difference in people’s lives and the room is so iconic,” Anderson said. “It ties into the space and to the purpose of the event tonight because it was about the honorees improving the quality of people’s lives. The event was so thought out from everything to the purpose and significance of the venue all the way down to the details like the orange and blue florals. It all truly had a purpose and I appreciated that.”
The night prior to the International Quality of Life Awards, many of those attending IQLA also enjoyed a College of Human Sciences reception at the United Nations with fellow CHS alumni in the New York area. The reception offered a nod to IQLA’s beginnings, where the first awards ceremony took place at the UN in 1994 and was subsequently held for 26 consecutive years until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
President Roberts offered a welcome on behalf of Auburn University and commended the College of Human Sciences for carrying on the mission of recognizing the excellence of the human spirit.
“We commend Dean Hubbard and the College of Human Sciences for continuing to host, with extreme hospitality, this annual celebration of the human spirit, emphasizing how together, we can change lives for the better,” Roberts said.
For more information about the International Quality of Life Awards, visit iqla.auburn.edu.