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Former Jennings Superintendent to Address Graduates at Special Commencement Ceremony

by Joe Barker on 07/28/2021

Saint Louis University will honor May 2020 graduates with a special commencement and celebration weekend Aug. 6-8.

In April 2020, SLU officials made the difficult decision to postpone commencement because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had forced the University to transition to remote learning and working just weeks before.

A SLU diploma

 Saint Louis University will honor May 2020 graduates with a special commencement and celebration weekend Aug. 6-8.  Photo by Garrett Canducci.

University leaders remained hopeful that they would be able to hold a delayed ceremony in the months that followed, but the ongoing pandemic made that impossible. This spring, SLU surveyed the class on possible weekend dates to celebrate their accomplishments. Aug. 6-8 emerged as the top choice.

Commencement Speaker

The commencement ceremony will be held Aug. 7 in Chaifetz Arena. SLU alumna Dr. Tiffany Anderson (Ed ’94, Grad Ed ’01) will deliver the commencement address to the May 2020 graduates.

Anderson earned national acclaim for leading a dramatic turnaround of the Jennings School District, a predominantly African American school system in suburban St. Louis that was on the verge of becoming unaccredited when she became superintendent in 2012.

Under Anderson’s direction, the district made significant academic changes, started a Saturday school and launched a college-prep program. It also opened a food pantry; established a homeless shelter; opened a free medical and mental health clinic for students; and installed washers and dryers in schools that students used in exchange for providing community service.

The changes resulted in the Jennings district becoming fully accredited by the state of Missouri. Student attendance and graduation rates increased as well.

In 2016, Anderson was named the first African-American female superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, in Topeka, Kansas. Under her leadership, the system doubled its college course offerings, student attendance increased above 90%, ACT participation increased and achievement scores have improved across the district.

During her 30-year career in public education, Anderson has received numerous honors, including Education Week’s nod as one of the nation’s 16 “Leaders to Learn From” and a Lifetime Achievement award for volunteerism from President Barack Obama, among many others.

Honorary Degree Recipients

In addition to delivering a commencement address to May 2020 graduates, Anderson will join several others in receiving honorary doctoral degrees from Saint Louis University.

The Most Rev. Robert J. Carlson 

St. Louis Archbishop Emeritus Robert J. Carlson will receive an honorary doctorate of divinity for his contributions to the growth and vitality of all the dioceses he has served, for his outstanding support of Catholic education and his commitment to St. Louis and its citizens.

A native of Minnesota, Carlson was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He went on to receive a master’s degree in divinity from St. Paul Seminary in 1976 and a licentiate in canon law from the Catholic University of America in 1979. 

Carlson was ordained as an auxiliary bishop for his home archdiocese in 1984, after which he was named bishop of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In 2005, he was installed as bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, and in 2009, as archbishop of St. Louis, retiring in 2020. 

Throughout his tenure in St. Louis, he enjoyed a special relationship with Saint Louis University. He presided over SLU’s bicentennial Mass under the Gateway Arch in September 2017, and he spoke at numerous SLU events, including delivering benediction prayers at SLU’s 2010 commencement and at the October 2014 inauguration of SLU President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D. 

A passionate advocate for Catholic education, Carlson saw to completion a capital campaign started by his predecessor that raised $61 million for Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury, Missouri, where most St. Louis priests are educated. In 2015, Carlson established the Peace and Justice Commission in St. Louis to address racism following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. 

Carlson has received numerous awards, including the Joseph Cardinal Ritter Award, the Order of Saint Louis King Award, the Luminary Award for Criminal Justice and the 2017 National Catholic Educational Association’s Seton Award for his lifetime commitment, support and service to Catholic education.

The St. Louis Jesuits

The St. Louis Jesuits, Bob Dufford, S.J. (A&S ’67, Grad ’72, ’75), John Foley, S.J. (A&S ’68, Grad ’68, ’74),  Tim Manion (A&S ’76), Robert “Roc” O’Connor, S.J. (A&S ’73), and Dan Schutte (A&S ’72) and will receive honorary doctorates of music for offering hope, inspiring worship and raising voices. 

The five men began by composing songs for Mass in the chapel at Saint Louis University’s Fusz Memorial Hall more than 50 years ago. The group blended poetry, chant, classical music, Broadway show tunes, folk songs and rock ‘n’ roll to compose songs anyone could sing. The music drew a crowd. Tickets were issued for the Easter Triduum to avoid violating fire department regulations. Lay people began filling the pews. 

Eventually, the St. Louis Jesuits, as they became known, and the Fusz chapel choir, now College Church Choir, were invited to sing at St. Francis Xavier College Church. The St. Louis Jesuits’ first collection of liturgical music, Neither Silver Nor Gold (1974), contained nearly 60 songs and sold millions. Between 1975 and 1986, the St. Louis Jesuits recorded several more albums, including their most popular, Earthen Vessels. Liturgical pieces such as “This Alone,” “City of God,” “One Bread, One Body” and “Be Not Afraid,” became staples of contemporary worship. Their music appears in the missals and hymnals used in most of the nation’s 19,000 Catholic parishes and numerous Protestant churches. 

Music and songs composed by Schutte, Dufford, Foley, Manion and O’Connor, together with the late John Kavanaugh, S.J., have been translated into a dozen languages. Performers sang their music at President Ronald Reagan’s funeral and President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Though they do not tour, the St. Louis Jesuits have reunited several times for special events. They led the SLU family in song at the University’s bicentennial finale celebration at Chaifetz Arena in 2018, and they performed before a sold-out crowd at Powell Symphony Hall in 2019.

More Commencement Details 

Ethel Frese, D.P.T., professor of physical therapy and athletic training in SLU’s Doisy College of Health Sciences, will serve as the ceremony’s mace bearer.

The commencement ceremony also will feature remarks from University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., Matthew Baugh, S.J., a post-doctoral fellow in Catholic Studies at SLU, will offer an invocation, while the Rev. Tracy R. Watkins of the Central Baptist Church in St. Louis, will deliver the closing benediction. 

Commencement will be livestreamed on slu.edu and on Facebook for those unable to attend. 

Other Celebration Activities

In addition to the commencement ceremony, on Sunday the University will host the traditional Baccalaureate Mass in St. Francis Xavier College Church, followed by a brunch for graduates and families.

The weekend also includes a “Billiken Night at the Ballpark” event on Friday night for a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium. On Saturday night, there will be an outdoor “Honor the Day Concert” headlined by T-Pain, an award-winning rapper, singer, songwriter and producer.