Emmy-winning comedian Ben Karlin, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Julie Rikelman and fourth-generation Volante Farms owners Dave, Teri (Boardman) and Steve Volante — all Needham High grads — returned to their alma mater last week for the George A. Dennett Distinguished Career Awards Program at Needham High School. The special event for the junior class honors NHS graduates who have made significant contributions to our society and aims to expose the students to different career paths.
The awards were created in 1990 by NHS teacher George Dennett, who is represented every year at the event by his daughter Gay Ellen Dennett, a decades-long reference librarian at Needham Free Public Library.
Student presenters introduced this year’s honorees. Volante siblings Dave (‘99), Teri (‘03) and Steve (‘06) talked about their great-grandparents who emigrated from Italy in 1917, and credited their parents with the family work ethic. The Volantes have greatly expanded and updated the farmstand and greenhouse over the years. They have also employed many NHS students and continue to support community charities. The next generation of Volante children are now coming through the Needham schools.
Ben Karlin (‘89) has won 14 Emmys, three Peabodys, and has written for “The Onion,” “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” and “Modern Family.” He also wrote The New York Times No. 1 bestseller “America (The Book).” He began by revealing he was once a bagger at Roche Bros., and that his children told him he is not funny. He went on to praise Bethany Nichols, his freshman English teacher at NHS, who taught him writing tools and principles, listened to his problems, and became his “therapist and friend.”
Judge Julie Rikelman (‘89) told the students that she and her parents were Ukrainian immigrants who fled antisemitism. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she clerked in Alaska, worked as litigation director at the Center for Reproductive Rights and at NBC Universal Inc. She recalled arguing twice on abortion issues before the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was nominated to judgeship by President Biden, and now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston. She credited NHS and its teachers with fine preparation and caring.
After their presentations, the honorees answered questions from students. They were asked about having to deal with despicable people, how to retain one’s values, how to be an effective advocate, and how to give back to one’s community. In response they told students to develop empathy for opponents, be thoroughly prepared with facts, be willing to do every job in one’s business, be unafraid of failing, and to work for nonprofits and volunteer.