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FRANCIS-MEDAL Dec-18-2006 (840 words) xxxn

President of Xavier University receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Norman Francis, the president of Xavier University in New Orleans for 39 years, was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, during a Dec. 15 White House ceremony.

During the presentation in the East Room, where Francis sat on the stage alongside nine other medal recipients, the longtime president of the nation's only historically black Catholic university was praised for being "a man of deep intellect and compassion and character."

In his remarks, President George W. Bush described Francis as the longest-serving university president in the United States and someone who has dedicated his life to education. He noted that Francis, who received his undergraduate degree at Xavier, was the first African-American to graduate from the Loyola University College of Law, also in New Orleans.

Bush remarked that, after Hurricane Katrina's damage to the Xavier campus, "Francis vowed the university would overcome and reopen its doors by January -- and he kept that pledge." He also noted that Francis continues to help the people of his state as chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority formed by Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

"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," Bush added.

Prior to the award ceremony, Francis, who has received 35 honorary degrees, was quoted as saying he wanted to recognize all the people who made the award possible and on whose shoulders he has stood. The award is "not for me alone," the 75-year-old said.

And soon after the ceremony he was live on CNN thanking his wife, Blanche, for her constant support. She and their six children attended the White House event along with two members of Xavier's board of trustees and Sister Patricia Suchalski, president of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the congregation founded by St. Katharine Drexel, who also founded Xavier University.

"Going to the White House is not part of my scheduled life," Sister Patricia told Catholic News Service Dec. 18 from her office in Bethlehem, Pa. She said she was pleased to attend the event on behalf of Xavier's president because he "exemplifies the mission of the university -- to be a person of faith and use the gifts we have to help others make the world a better place."

Sister Patricia also attended a reception in Francis' honor organized by former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, a graduate of Xavier. During the ceremony, she said Francis reflected his typical humility by saying: "You enjoy serving and you work every day with no expectation of being honored."

His immediate work after Katrina involved long days on Xavier's waterlogged campus, which faced $40 million in property damages after several feet of water flooded the entire campus and remained there for weeks. His own home was also destroyed by floodwaters and he and his wife lived with nearby family members while he worked on the university and larger-scale recovery through his role with the group responsible for determining how to spend federal hurricane relief funds.

On the day of the White House ceremony, Francis told a reporter that federal money has been slow to arrive in the city, but it is now becoming available. He also noted that insurance reimbursements from the hurricane-related damages might finally make their way to Xavier thanks to a decision in late November by a federal judge in Louisiana. The ruling specified that insurance companies must pay for flood-related damages not only from natural causes but human error, specifically the canal breaches after Katrina.

Xavier University was listed among the beneficiaries in the court decision based on the university's lawsuit against the Traveler's Property Casualty Company of America which had been refusing to pay for the university's repairs, claiming the damage had not been from natural causes of wind and rain. The company, along with other insurers facing lawsuits, planned to appeal the decision.

Other 2007 presidential medal recipients included: Ruth Johnson Colvin, a literacy advocate; Paul Johnson, a historian and journalist; B.B. King, the legendary singer and guitarist known as "the King of Blues"; Joshua Lederberg, Nobel-Prize winner for work in bacterial genetics who has also helped develop advanced computer technology, has worked with NASA in the search for life on Mars and has been a scientific adviser to national policymakers.

Also honored were David McCullough, a noted author and historian; Norman Y. Mineta, former transportation secretary, who also served as mayor, congressman and as President Bill Clinton's commerce secretary; William Safire, a writer and commentator; and Natan Sharansky, a former prisoner of the Soviet regime punished for advancing religious liberty and human rights who continues to be an advocate for freedom.

John "Buck" O'Neil, who died earlier this year, was honored posthumously. The medal was presented to his brother, Warren. O'Neil, a professional baseball player in the Negro Leagues was the first black coach in Major League Baseball and a co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.


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