The highlights reel of Norman Francis’ career could take a while to show.

You would see him at the forefront of various civil rights battles; advising a series of U.S. presidents in addition to governors, mayors and national luminaries; receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush; and hosting visits from President Barack Obama and Pope John Paul II at Xavier University, where he has been president for 46 years, making him the longest-tenured university president in the country.

If there was room on the tape, you might see him leading the Louisiana Recovery Authority after Hurricane Katrina and becoming the first African-American to graduate from Loyola Law School and the first African-American appointed to the city’s Civil Service Commission.

But on Thursday, when Francis announced he would retire as president of Xavier, he said none of those things marked the pinnacle of his long, accomplished career.

“My greatest moments are on commencement day, watching the diploma in my hand and looking at the next student who’s standing at the top of the steps,” he said. During his presidency, which began in 1968, he has bestowed an estimated 26,000 Xavier degrees.

Before he hands over each diploma, he said, he looks into the eyes of a proud, successful student, someone he has watched mature over four or five years.

“It’s an amazing sight, and it’s so fulfilling,” Francis said. “That has kept me going.”

For many of those in the caps and gowns, his face has had the same effect.

Nearly 20 years ago, New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell was standing at that top step, waiting expectantly.

“Seeing Dr. Francis, him being proud of you doing good,” Cantrell said, her voice faltering slightly as she recalled the moment. “He was like a daddy, a nurturing father figure, to thousands of children, but he had a way of making you feel like you were the only one.”

Before Francis leaves office in June, Cantrell plans to get a new copy of her diploma — lost in 2005’s floodwaters — because she wants his signature on it, she said. “It’s like he’s a part of who I am,” she said.

Zeal for excellence

Francis’ legacy reflects that personal touch, along with a devotion to justice, an unwavering integrity and a zeal for academic excellence, said former Tulane University President Scott Cowen.

“His body of work as president of Xavier is remarkable and probably will never be surpassed by another university president in America,” Cowen said. “Xavier has more African-American graduates go on to complete medical school than any other institution in the country. Their pharmacy school is one of the best in the country. He developed a center of excellence. And he did that in his lifetime.”

Other college presidents also hailed the huge imprint Francis has left on his university. By shaping Xavier into a powerhouse of African-American science and pre-med graduates, Francis helped to diversify America’s entire health-sciences workforce, said Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University in Washington, D.C., like Xavier a private, historically black school.

In May, just before Cowen retired after 16 years as president of Tulane, he attended Xavier’s commencement and watched Francis, his longtime mentor and friend, at work.

“Dr. Francis shook hands with every single student who graduated,” Cowen said. “I asked him afterward, ‘How do you do that?’ ”

Francis told Cowen that most Xavier students are first-generation college graduates whose families, including younger siblings, were watching closely from the audience. “So I want to congratulate them personally,” Francis said.

“That was profound,” Cowen said. “What some would consider just gestures, he saw as meaningful for students, their family and the next generation.”

Cowen got to feel the magic when he took his turn on the Xavier stage, receiving his own handshake along with an honorary Xavier degree. “And I got that degree from Dr. Francis. That meant a lot to me,” he said.

Classmate of Morial’s

The second honorary degree this year went to educator Sybil Haydel Morial, wife of former Mayor Dutch Morial, mother of former Mayor Marc Morial and a civil rights advocate in her own right, who produced “House Divided,” a documentary about the desegregation of New Orleans.

Dutch Morial started classes with Francis at Xavier in 1948. Francis was a 17-year-old freshman from Lafayette, the son of a barber who also painted houses to make ends meet.

Francis planned to join the military because college seemed financially impossible. “We were poor as church mice,” he has said, describing how his family would bicycle to visit relatives across town because they didn’t own a car. He ended up at Xavier on a work scholarship, thanks to a phone call made by a nun at St. Paul’s High School who saw promise in him.

He would go on to spend most of his life at Xavier. He met his wife of 59 years, Blanche, on the campus, where she was teaching modern dance. The couple’s six children were basically raised there too, he said.

Even as a freshman, Francis emerged as a leader: He was elected class president every year for four years and became student body president.

“He just stood out from all the rest,” Sybil Morial said. “Students looked up to him. He was very articulate. He was humble. He always gave other people credit. Even then, you knew there was something in store for him.”

Despite his stature on campus, he was approachable, she said. “That’s the way he was all his life: He was as at ease with the elite as he was with those in need.”

Francis earned his bachelor’s degree in 1952. That fall, he was one of two black students to enter Loyola Law School; he alone went on to graduate.

Changing attitudes

During an interview, fellow law student and eventual Mayor Moon Landrieu recalled the private law school’s quiet desegregation two years before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which forced the integration of the nation’s public schools.

Through his Jesuit instructors at Loyola, Landrieu was broadening a mindset formed during a Jim Crow-era childhood. His friendship with Francis hastened those changes, he said.

“Norman was such a good guy that all that bulls--- I’d learned in the street was blown away automatically,” Landrieu said.

It was the beginning of a close, lifelong friendship between the two civic leaders. When Landrieu was elected to the City Council, he asked Loyola to nominate Francis to the city’s Civil Service Commission, to take a fresh look at hiring practices that seemed to perpetuate racial discrimination. Later, as mayor, Landrieu integrated City Hall’s administration. He credits Francis with shaping his views on race. “I just thank Norman for reforming part of my conscience,” he said.

Pascal Calogero, a Loyola Law School classmate of Landrieu’s who became his law partner and then chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court, said he too had attended only all-white schools and so his evolving views on race were, like Landrieu’s, shaped by Francis.

“My education in race relations came after hours, through Norman, a man of real quality and integrity, a kind and good person,” he said.

Calogero looks back at the small group of Loyola students from that time and how they were introduced to social justice through classes and new friendships.

“It was a fantastic experience that led to political turnabout in New Orleans when Moon was elected mayor,” he said. “And I ascribe a large part of that success to his relationship to Norman Francis and the formation of friendships that began at Loyola at that time.”

Open to all approaches

After law school and a stint in the U.S. Army, Francis worked on special assignment for the U.S. attorney general, helping to desegregate federal agencies in Birmingham, Alabama, and other cities known for racial divisions.

When he returned home to New Orleans, he was one of a handful of lawyers willing to represent civil rights activists. He was known for sitting everyone down in a room and creating master plans mapping out each group’s role, said Don Hubbard, a local leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, a group of mostly young people known for direct action like protests and picketing.

Sometimes, there was tension between CORE and other civil rights groups, which preferred legal challenges or boycotts. But as long as there was a larger plan, Francis embraced all approaches. “He knew that it took more than one crumb to make a cake. He understood that the legal process could only be helped by direct action,” Hubbard said.

Francis continued his close work with the civil rights movement even after he was appointed Xavier’s dean of men in 1957. At the request of local CORE leader Rudy Lombard, a Xavier student, he opened up a Xavier dorm in 1961 to house Freedom Riders whose bus to New Orleans had been bombed in Anniston, Alabama.

He also became part of a team of black leaders, among them Dutch Morial, who negotiated with city business leaders to desegregate local stores, buses and streetcars.

In 1972, he helped to found and chaired the board of Liberty Bank, which grew into one of the largest black-owned banks in the country.

“Norman is a trailblazer, a quiet trailblazer,” Hubbard said.

The governor calls

The levee failures during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 sent deep water into Gert Town and the Xavier campus and deluged the Francis home in Gentilly. Francis announced he would reopen the badly damaged campus by Jan. 17, 2006, the beginning of the next semester, which he did, though it seemed almost impossible at the time.

He had his hands full.

Then the governor started calling.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco asked him to lead the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which would handle all federal disaster money allocated to the state.

Francis told her no three times, according to Blanco’s chief of staff at the time, Andy Kopplin, who understood why he’d turned her down. “His house flooded. His kids’ houses flooded. His university flooded,” Kopplin recalled. “But each time Dr. Francis said no and we had to figure out a plan B, she kept going back to plan A: Dr. Francis.”

Blanco recalled this week that she needed a person with integrity, who commanded widespread respect and who could speak sincerely and with authority. “And no one fit the bill like Norman Francis,” she said. So she decided she couldn’t take no for an answer.

“I think I just wore him out,” Blanco said. “I knew that he could help effect recovery efforts that touched the lives of everybody.” He continued his focus on an equitable recovery until he resigned in 2008 to again focus on his beloved Xavier, she said.

Francis’ widely known integrity was also key, Blanco said, because critics were openly questioning whether Louisiana officials could handle billions of dollars in recovery money, given the state’s reputation for corruption.

When Don Powell was put in charge of federal efforts to rebuild the Gulf Coast, he interviewed everyone who was leading Louisiana’s recovery efforts to ensure they were all on the same page.

“He told me, ‘Your man, Norman Francis, is undoubtedly one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met,’ ” Blanco remembered.

Kopplin, who became executive director of the LRA and is now Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s top aide, remembered a number of meetings where speakers were pointedly, and understandably, critical of the LRA’s lack of progress in bringing everyone from New Orleans back home.

“Dr. Francis managed the tone and tenor of the debate by embracing the sentiments that were raised and addressing them all with grace. He did it time after time,” Kopplin said. “Nobody else could’ve done what he did.”

Still not content

Though he looks back with fondness on his career, Francis is not content with where things stand in America. He told reporters Thursday that he was disturbed by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and he emphasized that the country still needs to address racial disparities.

“We have to close the gap in quality-of-life issues,” he said. “The playing field is not level.”

Middle-class families across the nation are feeling the pinch of stagnant incomes and increased college costs, he said. But because of well-documented white-black income disparities, black families are facing worse challenges in sending their children to college.

On the Xavier campus, where 75 percent of students are African-American, more than 80 percent of students receive some sort of financial aid. In recent years, however, fewer students have been able to afford Xavier because of what Francis calls a “double whammy”: tightened federal student-loan criteria compounded by the emptying of many Louisiana parents’ savings accounts to make post-Katrina home repairs.

As a result, some students are choosing less expensive state schools, he said. But he also sees talented students forgoing college entirely for lack of aid.

Once students are on campus, Francis and his staff actively try to hold onto good students whose money is tight, said Duane Cruse Jr., the hall director at St. Michael’s dormitory. “He will make phone calls, tap into scholarship funds or do whatever he can,” Cruse said.

The issue hits home for Francis.

“He raised money for scholarships. He encouraged his faculty and staff to write proposals for funds. He actively advocated for federal education grants,” said Sybil Morial, who worked at Xavier for nearly 20 years.

“He’s very sensitive to those issues, partly because he wouldn’t have gone to Xavier if he hadn’t gotten a work-study scholarship,” she said. “Can you imagine what a waste it would’ve been if he couldn’t go to college?”

For every bright student who leaves college for lack of money, Francis laments not only the loss of human capital but also the continued jobs-skills mismatch in Louisiana, where highly skilled workers are in short supply.

That mismatch can’t be resolved without decent student financial aid, he said, adding that it’s one of his top issues moving forward: to advocate for more reasonable federal-aid criteria and to build access to scholarships and grants.

“I want to get more of those students educated and working, to pay for my Social Security,” he quipped.