As 750 graduating students from Loyola University walked across the stage Saturday morning at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they had Grammy-winning musician and actor Harry Connick Jr. cheering them on.
The New Orleans native was also celebrating with them, for the school bestowed an honorary doctorate in music on him. Because Connick dropped out of Loyola after one semester 30 years ago, it was the first time he received a degree of any kind from the school.
“I can hold my head high, because you and I have something in common: It may have taken me 30 years longer than you, but all of us get degrees from Loyola today,” Connick, 48, told an applauding graduating class.
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During his career, the singer and pianist has sold 28 million albums and had more No. 1 records than anyone else in the history of U.S. jazz charts. He also has won three Grammy Awards and two Emmy Awards and is debuting a new live-music entertainment show called “Harry” this fall.
Connick isn’t known just for his talent or for co-founding the Krewe of Orpheus, one of Carnival’s superkrewes. In New Orleans, he’s become widely recognized for his philanthropic work. Among his accomplishments is the construction of the Musicians’ Village in the Upper 9th Ward, which he co-founded with fellow musician Branford Marsalis after Hurricane Katrina.
On Saturday, Connick took a break from his busy schedule to give the day’s commencement speech, which got off to a lighthearted start when he joked about his experience with Jesuit education.
Although he graduated from Jesuit High School, he never earned academic honors there, and he spent only one semester at Loyola before leaving to pursue his music career in New York, he said.
“Today represents the most important day in your academic career. It’s the culmination of all of your years of dedication and hard work. This is your graduation day,” he said. “This is the perfect time for (Loyola President) Father (Kevin) Wildes to turn the mic over to a college dropout who didn’t know what a commencement address meant.”
Connick talked about his personal history: the Lakeview neighborhood he once called home and a family anchored by Harry Connick Sr., who was the district attorney of Orleans Parish for 30 years.
He also spoke highly of his late mother, a judge, and his big sister, a psychiatrist, internist and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
“Both my parents and my sister are highly educated, over-achieving public servants,” he quipped again. “I, on the other hand, spend most of my time either singing songs to strangers or putting on makeup in a trailer pretending to be other people.”
Joking aside, Connick lavished praise on Jesuit education. He cited both St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, saying they instilled lessons of personal development, discernment between right and wrong and the duty that individuals have to be charitable.
He also advised the students not to partake in “vainglory” but to pursue good deeds with honorable intent, to truly serve the community and to “focus on the minutiae” of the everyday, whether in work, personal relationships or faith.
Above all, he encouraged the new graduates to be “spiritually and morally ambidextrous,” and said he had faith in them.
“You will be great because you will clutch the possibility of hope with one hand, and help to clear the obstacles of the poor, the hungry, the sick and the underserved with the other,” he said.
“You may not know right now what you want to spend your life doing, but you can decide right now what you want to spend your life being,” he said. “Keep your eye on the prize, but keep your heart in the game.”
Connick wasn’t the only person to be honored Saturday. The school gave honorary degrees to three others, including Phyllis Landrieu, the president and CEO of the Early Childhood and Family Learning Foundation. Landrieu has an extensive history in advocating for children and other New Orleanians by helping to improve their education, health care and safety.
The school also honored Alden McDonald Jr., the president and CEO of Liberty Bank and Trust Co., one of the top three African-American-owned banks in the United States. McDonald was the first black bank officer to be hired in Louisiana in 1966, and he has continued to advocate for underserved communities ever since, particularly through public education reform.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Nalty also got an honorary degree. The president of the Edward G. Schlieder Educational Foundation’s board has long been known for her volunteerism and philanthropic work for schools, museums and local nonprofits.
Wildes told the Class of 2016 they had big shoes to fill, given the great role models who have graduated before them, but that he had “high hopes” they would do well.
“Your time in Loyola has instilled in you, no doubt, a devotion to community, an enchantment and fascination with the world and the skills of thinking critically,” Wildes said. “Our hope is you will carry these habits of mind and heart into a world that so desperately needs questioning, creativity, imagination, beauty and hard work.”