Delta State University President John Hilpert (at right) presents Dr. Morgan Freeman with a framed honorary degree from Delta State University NASA CFO Gwen Sykes (at right) visits with Delta State students Tarishan Winder-Esters (at left), of Greenville, and Andrea Tatum, of Southaven. Both students received a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication & Theatre Arts.
It had all the trimmings traditionally associated with a graduation ceremony – camera flashes popping; loud thunderous applause; standing ovations; and proud, beaming, barely containable smiles from graduates, friends and families.
But Delta State University’s 79th Spring Commencement, held this morning inside Walter Sillers Coliseum on the campus, had one additional element that only elevated and intensified the camera flashes popping; the loud thunderous applause; the standing ovations; and the proud, beaming, barely containable smiles from graduates, friends and families – Hollywood icon, Morgan Freeman.
Delta State conferred Freeman for the degree, Doctor of Arts and Letters, honoris causa (“for the sake of honor”) in front of a filled-to-capacity coliseum. “Mr. Freeman’s commitment to the Delta has been steadfast and solid. He has never forgotten his roots and we appreciate him for that,” Delta State President, Dr. John M. Hilpert, lauded. “We are privileged to honor Morgan Freeman, an outstanding Mississippian whose long and distinguished career has brought great pride to everyone in his home state and particularly to all of us who live in the Delta.”
Freeman, amidst countless cameras flashes and an extended standing ovation, accepted his large framed degree, smiled brightly and acknowledged, “I had two pages of remarks written, but for the sake of being shorter, I will simply express my appreciation, my gratitude and say, ‘Thank you.’”
Later at a reception following the commencement services, Freeman acknowledged Leola Gregory Williams, an elementary teacher in his native Greenwood. “She was a magician, a true magician.” Williams inspired Freeman and challenged him “to make something of my life, to do good.”
Williams would become the first African-American instructor in English at Delta State. Annually the University awards The Leola Gregory Williams Award to students who have written outstanding papers in general education classes.
Freeman becomes the third recipient of an honorary degree from Delta State, joining alumnus Elbert R. Hilliard, Director Emeritus, Mississippi Department of Archives and History; and Charles W. (Charlie) Capps, a native of Cleveland, and former District 28 Representative in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
In 2004, he appeared in “Million Dollar Baby,” for which his on-screen performance as ex-prize fighter Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris, was critically acclaimed and won Freeman his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
On the day, Delta State also welcomed Gwen Sykes, Chief Financial Officer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to campus, as she delivered an uplifting and inspiring keynote address.
Sykes joined NASA in November 2002 when she was selected as the Deputy Chief Financial Officer for Financial Management. Since that time, she has made significant strides towards improving agency-wide financial integrity. She has launched several management initiatives, aligned with principles of the Federal Government’s Joint Financial Management Improvement Program (JFMIP), designed to improve NASA’s financial health and performance. Her leadership and resourcefulness are invaluable assets to the NASA community.
In 2003, Sykes was awarded the NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal for outstanding budgetary and financial management leadership of the NASA financial community.
From the lectern, she urged graduates, “to dream and dream big. Be hopeful and optimistic. Be inspired to reach for something you would have thought could never have happened.
“Be resilient. See the opportunities in life, remembering opportunity may disguise itself as a challenge, at first,” she continued. “Stay true to your family and friends, always.”
“I am awed by what you will achieve. You carry the torch of discovery with you now and I ask you to remember, education is a gift that can’t be taken away,” Sykes offered, repeating again for emphasis and clarity. “Education is definitely a gift that can not be taken away.”
Delta State graduated over 425 graduates, all of which were able to shake, both Sykes and Freeman’s hands, before collecting their conferred degrees. Some graduates even asked for hugs, to which Freeman agreed cordially.
Two doctor of education degrees and six educational specialist degrees were conferred during the commencement exercise, while numerous master’s and bachelor’s degrees were awarded through the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Business, the College of Education and the School of Nursing.