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Loyola alum Dr. Norman Francis, J.D., named Gambit Weekly New Orleanian of the year

Loyola press release - January 10, 2008

From bestofneworleans.com
January 8, 2008
By Allen Johnson

Photo by Irving Johnson III, Xavier University Photographer

(New Orleans)—Years from now, historians will look back at post-Katrina New Orleans and note that the recovery from Hurricane Katrina didn’t really begin until the second full year after the storm, in 2007. It took a year of fits and starts “and a few misfires” before south Louisiana gained real traction in its long journey back from ruin.

And when the definitive story of Louisiana’s recovery is written, one person who likely will emerge as a quiet hero will be a soft-spoken university president who had to be talked into taking the reins of the state’s official recovery authority “because he had already lost his personal home to the storm, and his campus likewise was devastated by Katrina’s winds and floodwaters.

After several pleas from Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who wouldn’t take no for an answer, Dr. Norman Francis agreed to chair the Louisiana Recovery Authority. His presence at the helm of that panel gave it instant credibility, even as Blanco’s own capital receded into the backwaters of Louisiana politics.

With Francis in the leadership chair, the LRA helped south Louisiana, “particularly New Orleans” secure billions in badly needed federal recovery aid. The recovery process will take 10 years or more, but 2007 will be remembered as the year we realized it was going to happen after all.

Gambit Weekly has always had a single, simple criterion for choosing a New Orleanian of the Year: the winner must be someone who made a positive difference for New Orleans. In the case of Dr. Norman Francis, our 2007 winner has spent a lifetime meeting that standard. The Education of Dr. Norman Francis By Allen Johnson Jr. I do not like rooms without windows,” says Xavier University President Dr. Norman C. Francis, 76, the nation’s longest-serving college president, education adviser to every American president since John F. Kennedy and chairman of the state’s hurricane recovery authority.

Francis’ taste in room décor is a fitting metaphor for his decades of service to educational and civic causes. His admirers “and there are many” universally hail him as someone who always brings light into a room just by entering.

Francis, who in 2007 observed 50 years as an administrator at Xavier “40 of them as president” is one of New Orleans’ most prominent yet gracious figures. He has won numerous national, state and local commendations for his work in educational and civic affairs, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 2006. But he is best known in and around New Orleans for his broad smile, irrepressible optimism and personal integrity borne of genuine compassion and humility.

His personal and professional style set him apart from other influential leaders: He eschews public protest or criticism of others or even innocuous declarations of personal dislikes. In fact, he cautions people who come to work in key positions in New Orleans against criticizing anyone, because you never know whose relatives may be within earshot.

He has received dozens of honorary degrees, but he readily admits that his most valuable life lessons came from family members who never finished high school. “I got my Ph.D. sitting on the back steps of my house in Lafayette,” he recalls. “My uncle and my father said, ‘Your word is your bond.’ I can still hear them saying that.”

As he reflects on the events of his life and on the events that have redefined New Orleans in the past few years, Francis is seated at a huge circular table in the center of a meeting room in the Xavier student center. There are several high, vertical windows.

The room is filled with natural light.

Norman Francis’ commitment to New Orleans and to education has been palpable in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In 2007, as chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, he shepherded critical state approval of the city’s delayed recovery plan. He then guided the city’s request for hundreds of millions of dollars through bureaucratic channels at both the state and federal levels.

As a result, the city is poised to receive desperately needed rebuilding funds for schools, medical facilities, police and fire stations and other critical infrastructure.

On Dec. 15, 2006, President Bush awarded Francis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, noting his lifelong dedication to education. “Dr. Francis is known across Louisiana and throughout our country as a man of deep intellect, courage and compassion,” Bush said.

After Katrina flooded the Xavier campus on Aug. 29, 2005, the college president vowed to reopen the nation’s only predominantly black Roman Catholic university by January 2006, a pledge he kept despite losing his own home to the storm and being tapped to lead the statewide recovery effort.

“There is no one who represents New Orleans and its citizens better than Norman Francis,” one civic activist wrote of him. “He should be New Orleanian of the century.” LRA vice chair Walter Isaacson, a New Orleans native, former CEO of CNN and author of acclaimed biographies on Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, recently described Francis as “a living saint.” And former Mayor Marc Morial, now president of the National Urban League, wrote, “He gives inspiration and hope to the world that it is possible to emerge from the ashes of disaster.”

Francis knows about recovery firsthand. He and his wife Blanche, parents of six adult children, lost their Gentilly home to the storm. “We were right on the London Avenue Canal,” he recalls. “It was a two-story home. I don’t think about it often. My wife does. And I tell her ‘quit thinking about it.’”

Dressed casually in a long-sleeve yellow shirt, Francis drops a report on the table at which he sits for an interview. He stares at the document, then shakes his head in amazement. “For the first time in my lifetime, I have seen people across the state talking about effective, regional planning,” he says. Francis has some perspective on inter-parish cooperation “or lack thereof.” He served on the State Planning Commission from 1962 to 1964.

He laments decades of lost opportunities by Jefferson and Orleans parishes for joint planning efforts that would have strengthened both the city and the suburb. But he expresses hope for the future, noting 25,000 Louisianans weighed in on the post-Katrina planning process, including a proposal for a light rail system linking New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and Jefferson Parish to the Northshore.

The title of the LRA report sums up Francis’ hopes and frustrations: Transition Plan. Prepared for Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal, the 20-page document includes the “major accomplishments” of LRA, including the securing of $7 billion for hurricane protection and $11 billion for the Road Home grant program. Under Francis’ leadership, LRA also fought for money it did not control: funding for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for better levee protection, for FEMA projects and for the restoration of infrastructure in storm-battered parishes.

“When we went to Congress or to a private source, we spoke with one voice,” Francis says of the 33-member authority appointed by Blanco. He later adds, “We had to fight for everything we got.”

FEMA declared 37 Louisiana parishes disaster areas after the storms. The LRA determined that 95 percent of the storms’ damage occurred in eight of those parishes, including Orleans. The Authority also devised a spending formula to treat each storm-damaged parish “equitably” not “equally.”

“If you pour equal amounts of water into unequal glasses, the glasses remain unequal,” he says. “We wanted everybody to have full glasses.” Orleans Parish thus will receive 68 percent of the recovery funds controlled by the LRA.

Now that the money is finally coming, how long will it take New Orleans to recover from the nation’s worst natural disaster? “Eight to 10 years,” he says matter-of-factly.

Long overdue, the federal aid will include millions to stimulate first-time homeownership and mixed-income housing. “Now that you have a plan, you are going to have investors coming in,” he predicts. The money also will help the long-suffering public school system to improve, though Francis expects challenges to persist.

“But I also want to stick a pin in something,” he continues. Private schools and charter schools are “not going to be the answer” for local education post-Katrina. “I don’t believe you can have a charter-only system,” he says, adding that government has a major responsibility to public schools, which must “recover and strengthen.”

Going into 2008, Francis suggests that the long post-Katrina hangover of “shock and despair” is over. “We are resilient,” he says. “We are determined, and that’s the promise of the future. What we’re looking for is leadership at every level to work with us to improve the quality of life that we deserve.”

Crime is a major barrier to both recovery and racial progress, however. “It’s just uncomfortable to live in fear,” he says. “It really changes your view of people because you start wondering, who is going to do me harm? Some people say, ‘Black people are not concerned about crime.’ You’ve got to be kidding! In fact, it’s racist to say that,” he says, angrily. “Because I can tell you, when you see [news photos] of these families grieving at crime scenes, it’s genuine. They want it stopped.”

Crime is a “total community concern” that must be considered in concert with education reform and economic development, Francis says, sounding a familiar theme. All New Orleanians must work together to create “constructive alternatives” when traditional approaches fail. “You know the old saying, you know,” ‘You’ve got a hole in your side of the boat.’ Well, if I have a hole in my side of the boat, you’re in trouble, too.”

When Gov. Blanco convinced Francis to lead the LRA weeks after Katrina, it may have been the easiest decision she made in the wake of the storm. She recognized that Congress and the White House cast a doubtful eye on Louisiana because of its long history of public corruption. When she announced the formation of the LRA, Blanco also touted the integrity of her appointees, starting with Francis.

“Louisiana will never be the same,” a weary Blanco said on Oct. 17, 2005. “But that does not mean our people cannot emerge from this tragedy better and stronger.”

As the first African-American, layperson and male president of Xavier University, Francis already was one of Louisiana’s most respected public figures. His prestige extended to the corridors of power in Washington. He had served on presidential advisory panels large and small. He enjoyed bipartisan support among conservatives and liberals alike. President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the historic “Nation-At-Risk” commission on education in 1983, and Xavier graduate Alexis Herman, the first African-American U.S. Secretary of Labor, once introduced Francis to President Clinton as “my first president.” A devout Catholic, Francis hosted the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II.

Like Blanco, Francis is a native of Acadiana. He and his wife were staying with his sister in Grand Coteau, near Lafayette, when Blanco first called to ask him to chair the LRA. “I said, ‘Governor, I can’t do it,’” he recalls. “‘It’s impossible. It’s impossible for me to do it and do it as you would expect it to be done.’”

At the time, Francis was trying to rebuild Xavier, restore communications with several thousand students and faculty, and get his flooded home gutted out.

But the governor called back repeatedly. “She was insistent,” he says. “I felt she had gone through an experience that she never thought she’d ever face, and if I could help, I would. So I agreed.”

Francis initially remained in Grand Coteau, planning Xavier’s return. “I called a staff meeting from Grand Coteau on Sept. 9, 2005,” he says. “We made the decision that we were coming back Jan. 17 (2006).”

Most of the university’s 40 staffers had lost their homes, but “they put aside recovery of their homes to bring back Xavier,” Francis notes solemnly. Xavier reopened as planned, with compressed ‘Katrina semesters. Notably, 76 percent of Xavier’s 4,000 undergraduates returned post-Katrina, including 98 percent of the 365 students at the vaunted College of Pharmacy. The Class of 2006 graduated on time in August. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who had not yet declared for president, delivered the first post-Katrina commencement address.

Today, Xavier’s student population is approximately 2,900.

Francis was born in 1931 in Lafayette. He grew up during racial segregation amid a resurgence of lynchings in Louisiana including one just north of his hometown, in St. Landry Parish, when he was 2 years old. Louisiana saw three more confirmed lynchings by the time Francis was 13.

Francis’ father was a barber; his mother, a homemaker. Neither finished high school, but both were very religious. His father was strict. Francis and his four siblings all attended Catholic schools. Francis’ older brother, Joseph Abel Francis (now deceased), entered the priesthood and later became only the fourth black Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.

Today, Francis marvels at their upbringing. “My parents were the greatest psychologists in the world,” he says. “They raised us in a city, state and a nation where race was prevailing. ‘You can’t go here. You can’t go there. You can’t try on these clothes. You can’t try on this hat.’”

Even the Catholic Church practiced segregation then. Francis recalls that his parents kept their children “focused.”

In 1948, Francis moved to New Orleans to attend Xavier, a Catholic school for blacks founded by a wealthy white woman in Philadelphia. The faculty was desegregated. He took courses in black history “remarkable for the time” as well as poetry and Shakespeare. Coming from a segregated high school in Lafayette, Xavier was an epiphany. “I lived in a world here that didn’t see race and color as mattering,” he says of the university.

The world changed as soon he stepped off campus to take a city bus or streetcar, however. He lived in a Xavier dormitory for seven years, including three years after graduation. In 1953, Francis became the first black student admitted to Loyola University’s School of Law. “But under the law, I could not live on campus,” he recalls.

He earned his law degree in 1955, a day marred by insult. “I’ll never forget it until the day I die,” Francis says. “We were in line waiting to be sworn in as lawyers, in our law school class.” A man was passing out membership forms to the New Orleans Bar Association. “He went down the line and when he got to me, he skipped me. The guy behind me, who was white, said, ‘You missed him.’ The recruiter replied that blacks were barred from membership.” Francis recalls that his white colleague retorted, “Well, if he can’t join, I can’t join” and threw the membership form on the floor.

After law school, Francis spent two years in the U.S. Army with the Third Armored Division. Deployed in Germany during the Cold War, he turned down a commission as an officer to work for the Judge Advocate General Corps. However, he often drew guard duty or washed pots and pans in the Army kitchen. “I did everything a private did, although I was a lawyer,” he says.

He returned to New Orleans in 1957. President Eisenhower had just sent federal troops to desegregate public schools at Little Rock. He married Blanche, then went to work for the black law firm of Collins, Douglas and Elie, which represented the Congress of Racial Equality and other civil rights groups. Louisiana’s segregation laws still barred him from eating lunch with fellow law school alumni in local restaurants, however. His white classmates finally took him to Antoine’s after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1963.

Today, Francis says he looks at who people are and not what color their skin is. “The beauty of New Orleans is the fact we have such a diversity that makes us strong,” he says. “Surely, what makes us weak is the fact that we have had a history of not developing the total talent of so many of our minorities and African Americans.”

“That’s why education is so critical,” he says, adding some advice for those who would lead our city and state going forward: “Leadership first demands the ability and willingness to serve not to lead, but to serve. People expect leaders to be sensitive, understanding and sympathetic about where they are in life which means that leaders can’t expect people to do for them what they wouldn’t do for themselves.”

Almost 75 years after a black prisoner was lynched near his hometown, Francis has helped lead Louisiana back from two of its worst disasters. He has done it by heeding his own advice by serving. The man raised during a time of segregation’s code of “separate but equal” now proselytizes a recovery funding formula of “equitably, not equally.” Historians may well note that the black college president took charge of the recovery effort at the repeated urging of Louisiana’s first woman governor.

And when the history of Kathleen Blanco’s tenure is written, New Orleanians may look kindly toward her by saying, “Thank God she kept calling Norman Francis back.”