The Boivin Center – 30 years of French Education, Enlightenment and Entertainment: Merci, Docteur Yoken
By Rona Trachtenberg
If you have ever taken a French language, literature, history, or culture class at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (UMD) in the past 50 years, you will undoubtedly have had the pleasure and privilege of being taught by or having rubbed elbows with its esteemed professeur merveilleux, Dr. Mel B. Yoken.
Despite being officially retired from teaching for a few years now, Dr. Yoken is busier than ever. He remains a ubiquitous presence on campus where he is involved with numerous activities and manifold endeavors. While he continues to enjoy seeing students in his university office for a variety of educational reasons, his passion in sharing all things French truly comes alive through his directorship of The Boivin Center for French Language and Culture.
Dr. Yoken and The Boivin Center have been symbiotically linked for the past 30 years beginning in 1985 when Fall River physician Dr. Omer E. Boivin generously donated $100,000 to UMD to start a center that would be dedicated toward studying, teaching, promoting, preserving, and instilling an appreciation of France’s rich language, culture and history at the university and community level.
“My parents and I knew Laurette and Omer Boivin very well,” recalls Dr. Yoken, “and I visited them many times in their comfortable Highland Avenue home in Fall River, Massachusetts. They lived their Francophone lives to the fullest, and, knowing this, I would state modestly that they would have been proud of our activities over the years, and delighted in the fact that we have encouraged the study of French at all levels of education, done research on the Franco-Americans of the region, and donated scholarships to worthy candidates.”
To fulfill this important mission, Dr. Yoken enlisted a team of capable, competent, professional, and equally enthusiastic Francophones to act as his colleagues in arms. The Boivin Center’s current Board of Directors consists of: Suzette Almeida, James Beardsley, Prof. Michelle Cheyne, Albert Dumoulin, Raymond Patnaude, Alfred Saulniers, Prof. Bridget Teboh, Norman Valiquette, and Cynthia Yoken.
Michelle Cheyne, Ph.D, Associate Professor of French at UMD’s Department of Foreign Literature and Languages, remarked that, “Over the past 30 years, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of Dr. Boivin, the Center established in his name has united the local French-speaking community in the New Bedford and Fall River area and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth community though a shared love of the French language and Francophone cultures. The Boivin Center has provided cultural programming and brought world-renowned authors, actors, singers, and chefs to share their talents and stories in a memorable series of lively lectures. The Center also is a valuable university resource that helps fund scholarships and research. We at the Department of Foreign Literature and Language at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth are grateful for the energy and leadership that Dr. Mel Yoken has shown at the helm of the Center.”
Board Member Raymond Patnaude offered the following compliment. “I have been involved in many Franco-American organizations in Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I cannot think of a more passionate promoter of French culture than Dr. Mel Yoken. The Boivin Center has provided the Southcoast with the opportunity to experience presentations from internationally known Francophones.”
Gerard Bourassa, one of the leading and well-known Francophones in the New Bedford area states that, “Dr. Yoken, director of The Boivin Center, is a man whose name has been for decades synonymous with promoting French language, culture and literature. The Southcoast community of Francophones, Francophiles and Franco-Americans is truly most fortunate to have this intellectually towering educator in its midst.”
“I only have words of praise for Dr. Yoken,” extolled Suzette Almeida. “He is a dynamic individual who is extremely passionate about the French language and culture. He works very hard to correspond to the demands and objectives of the Boivin Center and aims not only to expand its mission but is concerned about saving it. He is always seeking to bring to our community individuals who represent the very best; best lecturers; writers; chefs; performers. This is my second year as board member of the center and it has been a pleasure serving with Dr. Yoken. He leads by holding in high esteem the welfare of the Boivin Center and works diligently for its continuous development.”
Dr. Yoken generously shares his knowledge and expertise with whomever he comes in contact --from students, to colleagues, to administrators, and even interns such as me.
Ten years ago, I was one of those lucky individuals to have been chosen to work with such a well-respected, prominent, confident, and passionately dedicated leader. When Dr. Yoken stands before you and addresses you, he gives you his undivided attention and you feel as if you are the only person in the room. He makes you want to improve yourself … to bring yourself up to his high standard of expectations. That is a unique talent.
Dr. Yoken readily offered encouragement and positive feedback as I managed the Boivin Center’s speakers’ bureau, created its website, and organized his amazing archives at Brown University’s John Hay Library. Those two years, under his tutelage, were the most scintillating, enlightening, and rewarding of my public relations career.
Merci beaucoup, Dr. Yoken, for giving me the opportunity to work with you, your team, and your creatively, brilliant mind to enrich the lives of SouthCoast residents with such outstanding and enriching programs.
Indeed, throughout the past three decades, the Boivin Center has brought wonderful guest speakers to our community, including several who have been elected Honorary Life members. The list demonstrates the breadth and width of Dr. Yoken’s puissance and reach into the influential strata of luminaries. Some Honorary Life Members include: Marie-Claire Blais, Prof. William Carter, Florence Delay, Adam Gopnik, Frederique Hebrard, Dr. Jeremiah J. Lowney, Jr., Jacques Pepin, Prof. John A. Rassias, Annie Royer, Louis Velle, Eric Vincent, and Richard Wilbur.
Dr. Yoken speaks with particularly high praise about three other elected Honorary Life Members. “I can attest with unimpeachable authority to three local individuals, Jean-Louis Clapin, Dr. Lillian Lamoureux and Claire Carney, whose exemplary work as Franco-Americans have truly stood out as stunning examples of the very best kind of genuine devotion and solid integrity and indefatigable spirit. How fortunate we are to have these three in our midst.”
The following deceased individuals were also elected as Honorary Life Members: Dr. Nelson Brooks, Senator Paul Simon, Marcel Marceau, Professor Henri Peyre, Polly Platt, Ambassador Pierre de Boisdeffre, Art Buchwald and Julia Child.
Out of the 80 prominent speakers over a 30 year span who have become friends with Dr. Yoken, one stands out in his mind as formidable.
“Julia Child was amazing,” began Dr. Yoken as he enthusiastically recounts her visit. “She came to UMD for the first time in 2000 when she was in her late 80s. My son, David, went to Cambridge, to drive her and her assistant Stephanie Hirsch, to our house in New Bedford, and I thought that, since we had a great deal of time before appearing at the University, I would put on a good French film. I selected Notre Dame de Paris, a truly amazing spectacle of Hugo’s famous work, and lo and behold, Julia was so tired that she fell asleep. Upon awakening, some 30 minutes later, Cindy, David, Julia, Stephanie and I, and a few other guests, went to the University. After giving an outstanding lecture, Julia sat on a chair on the stage in the main auditorium, and must have signed 1,000 books for some 75 minutes. There was a never ending line of people, but she didn’t quit until the very last book was signed, and there were those who brought in many copies of her books. She was a trouper par excellence. We then adjourned to Georgio’s Steak Restaurant, now defunct, in Fall River, where the Master Chef and owner, George Karousos, prepared the most incredible, memorable eight-course dinner in Julia’s honor. Julia even told me that it was truly one of the very best meals she has ever had—or hope to have.”
To understand the tremendously positive impact these 80 guest speakers have had on the Francophone, French-Canadian, and public in general, one only needs to read the numerous accolades on the Boivin Center website. I’d like to just share just the top three comments on the page:
“We want to thank you, Dr. Yoken, for all you have done to bring quality events and brilliant speakers to the Boivin Center. Over the years, you have introduced us to many luminaries whom we would never have been able to see, hear and meet ourselves. You have truly introduced us to a new world of cultural life which we truly appreciate. Vive le Centre Boivin et le Docteur Yoken.” - Dr. Willam and Betty Abesh.
“When I had the pleasure of presenting a talk on Paris for a Boivin Center audience last November 4, 2013, I was delighted to see the hall full of people interested in France and French civilization. From what I learned about the Center’s schedule of programs, it clearly makes an important contribution to the area’s cultural life. And we at UMass Amherst, unfortunately a bit too far away, can only admire (and envy) it!” - Charles Rearick, professor emeritus of History, UMass Amherst.
“I found the Boivin Center a vital part not only of your University but also of your community, since it interconnects with a wider public. Numerous prestigious speakers from the area and outside come to visit your campus thanks to this dynamic Center. The reputation of the Boivin Center goes way beyond your campus and region. It is well known for its activities at least in the Northeast of the United States, in Canada and France. Needless to say, that it has an international reputation.” - Gaëtan Brulotte, Ph.D
Bringing renowned speakers to the Southcoast is only one objective of the Boivin Center. Enriching the educational lives of the students is equally important. To that end, over the three decades, $1,000 scholarships have been awarded to some 19 top-notch candidates with financial need. “Our standards are rigorous, as they should be,” defended Dr. Yoken, who judiciously bestows this gift only to applicants he believes have met his high standard of qualification.
Dr. Yoken is also involved with the International Marketing/French Certificate program, where a worthy student receives a $1,000 scholarship to put his/her French skills to good use in the business world.
For those of you who haven’t been fortunate enough to meet Dr. Yoken, allow me to present him to you through a snapshot of his five page biography of impressive credentials.
Dr. Yoken’s highest honors include receiving the prestigious “Medaille de Vermeil du Rayonnement de la Langue Française” from the French Academy; “Officer dans l'Ordre des Palmes academiques” from the French government; Robert Ludwig National Distinguished Leadership Award in Foreign Languages from the New York State Foreign Language Association; Mayoral citation for outstanding cultural achievements in Fall River; and Distinguished Alumnus Award from B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River and University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In addition, he has won several Excellence in Teaching Awards.
Dr. Yoken has had his biographical listing in 25 Who’s Who volumes and other national and international directories including Receuil Biographique de la Francophonie. Dr. Yoken has been quoted in numerous books and periodicals and takes great pride especially in being quoted by author George Seldes in his book The Great Thoughts, which are thoughts, quotations and ideas that have been identified as the intellectual history of the world.
Dr. Yoken is an accomplished auteur with eight of his books published, as well as numerous essays and articles in French, Quebecois and American periodicals, journals and magazines. He has been interviewed by many bilingual print, radio and television journalists and served for over 40 years as commentator and co-host on the highly popular Jean Caya Bancroft Radio Show.
Dr. Yoken has given back to his community through his leadership roles in the American Field Service, Association Francophone de Fall River, Club Richelieu of Fall River, Ligue des Presidents, and by interviewing local Franco-Americans to document for future generations the impact these wonderful individuals have had on their community.
Dr. Yoken has undertaken a vital leadership role at the Claire T. Carney Library Associates, where he was a former president and vice president and currently is in charge of all programming. At present, he is in the throes of organizing, planning, and choreographing their annual literary brunch.
We are grateful that Dr. Yoken was able to take time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions and to share his reflections, thoughts, and sentiments with us.
When you first started at the Boivin Center, did you ever envision it would last this long? Take on such importance in the community? Touch so many lives?
“Yes, at times, The Boivin Center becomes larger than life when luminaries such as the aforementioned grace our stage, and address our audience. The Center has touched a plethora of lives, and in so many variegated ways, over the years.”
Looking back over time, does it feel like three decades have passed since you first joined the board of the Boivin Center?
“The three decades have passed with alacrity and jubilation. It has indeed been a most rewarding experience to serve as Board member from 1985-1999 and director these past 16 years. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with my colleagues and fellow board members to share our wealth of resources as we continue to toil assiduously to provide cultural events with have a French tone, flavor and flair. In addition, I find joy in helping well qualified students of French and French teachers/professors to study or do research in locales such as Middlebury’s prestigious Ecole Française, preeminent universities in Paris, Quebec, or the Francophone countries of Africa and throughout the world.”
Has being involved with the Boivin Center been a blessing or a challenge to you? What personal satisfaction have you gotten from being involved?
“I have tried my utmost over the years to reassert the great importance of the French language, literature and culture in preparing students of the 21st century to meet the challenges of living in a multicultural world. It is critical, at this juncture, that we, as French teachers stick together and support each other to continue the vital programs we know that are invaluable for today’s students.
“One of my most cherished personal satisfactions/blessings is the fact that many of my students and many of the students associated with the Boivin Center have become French teachers, and good ones by virtue of their own hard work and drive. Many have gone on to receive their master’s degrees in French, and a few have gone on for a Ph.D. in French. And, many keep in contact with me, even to this day, and are grateful for all the help and support the Boivin Center has given them.”
Do you believe you have accomplished whatever personal goal you made for yourself when you first started?
“The Boivin Center has served as a vital link and pivotal role par excellence over the years, and, thanks to this, my goals have been satisfied. We must continue to reach out to the students and community and fellow language teachers to advocate and achieve these paramount goals, and we must remain committed to our goals. We must ameliorate public awareness of them through cultural activities and events. This has always been an integral part of our Center. One of my most cherished goals has been to ensure that the study and use of French remain dynamic and enriching in the future.
“I have always felt that it is important in life to give back, with volunteer service, and I have appreciated this unique opportunity at the helm of the Boivin Center. My professional background has deepened my understanding of the majestic role that the Boivin Center has played in our University, community, state and universe. The Boivins would have most certainly applauded that!”
How does it feel to have your name eternally associated with the Boivin Center?
“I am more than delighted to have my name associated ‘eternally’ with the Boivin Center. I consider it a tremendous honor and privilege to have served for such a long time as Director of such an outstanding university Center.”
Where do you envision the Boivin Center in another 10 years? Would you still like to be its leader? Can anyone fill your shoes?
“I would most certainly like to be involved with the Boivin Center in 10 years hence, although I assume there will be a new director at that time. I just hope that my experience and work ethics can and will contribute to build the Boivin Center’s quality and reputation in the decades ahead. My love, appreciation and connection with the Center will never diminish. I am, therefore, most optimistic about the Center’s future, and know it will continue to be quintessentially luminous.”
With what little spare time Dr. Yoken has he spends with his family, whom he treasures. The quote ‘Behind every successful man, there is an equally strong, supportive wife’ epitomizes the Yokens.
Cindy Yoken, is the powerhouse behind the throne of their wonderful 40 year marriage. One would think that being wife to the effervescent, non-stop, 24/7 ambassadeur to everything French might be challenging, but not to Cindy! In addition to raising their three sons, Andrew, David and Jonathan, Cindy is an accomplished linguist, an excellent language teacher, a respected leader in the Jewish community, and a competent colleague who assists her husband with his many educational endeavors. Cindy serves on several boards including the Claire T. Carney Library Associates and The Boivin Center.
When time permits, the Yokens enjoy visiting their six grandsons in Toronto and Concord, Massachusetts and travelling to their favorite city – Paris, as well as Montréal and New York City.
With regard to her husband’s 30-year commitment, Cindy believes that, “The Boivin Center has not only made a great impact on the people of the Southcoast with its excellent programs of French and Canadian culture but it has also provided the students at UMD with scholarships for further study of French and aided French professors with their research projects.”
For the past few years, Maria Sanguinetti has been Dr. Yoken’s assistant. He recently stated that “Maria is a woman of great integrity and intelligence. Her ability to relate to people is truly ageless and timeless, and she is a credit par excellence to our Center.”
This past April, the community, faculty and students were cordially invited to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Boivin Center by attending the following outstanding events.
- April 1 – the award-winning, highly acclaimed chef, Jacques Pépin, presented a lecture on his food memories in the Woodland Commons. There was an elegant six-course dinner in his honor attended by more than 100 guests, which included a silent auction during the dinner
- April 15 – a program co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish Culture where guests Sarah Lew Miller and Joyce Lazarus spoke about Ms. Miller’s memoir Hiding in Plain Sight, a written collaboration which detailed how her family evaded capture in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France
- April 29 – Mo Willems, the enormously popular Emmy award winning writer for Sesame Street, author and animator of children’s books, spoke about the year he and his family spent in France
In conclusion, Dr. Yoken has done such a superb job of upholding the Boivin Center’s mission for the past three decades that Dr. and Mrs. Omer Boivin must be smiling from on high, bien sûr, and must be exceedingly content that their investment has been put to excellent use.
May the Boivin Center, under Dr. Yoken’s leadership, continue to thrive and prosper for many, many, more years!