Former President John F. Kennedy established the Medal of Freedom in 1963 to honor people contributing to the national interest, world peace, cultural or other endeavors. President George W. Bush, Laura Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney attended the White House ceremony presenting this year’s awards to Xavier University President Norman Francis and nine others, including blues legend B.B. King, writer William Safire and acclaimed scientists, writers and educators.
“As they continue to rebuild from the devastation of the hurricanes, the people of the Pelican State will benefit from the leadership of this good man. And all of us admire the good life and remarkable career of Dr. Norman C. Francis,” said President Bush at the ceremony.
Francis was nominated for the medal by Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who said in a statement that Louisiana was fortunate to have “such an able administrator” overseeing the enormous hurricane recovery effort as Chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
Xavier was founded in 1925 by Saint Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for the higher education of black students. Francis, a 1952 graduate of the university, became its first lay leader in ‘68, when the university transitioned away from administration by clergy. He has continued in the role ever since and is now the longest-serving university president in the U.S. During his tenure, Xavier has more than doubled its enrollment and expanded its campus and curriculum.
Xavier’s campus was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but Francis insisted that it would reopen for the spring 2006 semester, which it did.
In 2005, Francis was named a “living legend” in education by the National Urban League and was named “man of the year” by the civic group 100 Black Men of America, Inc. He received The Times-Picayune’s prestigious Loving Cup award in 1991.