By Prof. Wayne Dawkins
John Charles Thomas, a retired state Supreme Court justice, spoke urgently Sunday, Sept. 29. In 14 electrifying minutes, this child of the Norfolk projects reminded hundreds of seniors clad in caps and gowns that Hampton University "is not a sit-down, be-quiet place. Hampton is proactive."
When President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, Thomas said university President William R. Harvey created a department to train aspiring traffic controllers. And despite no medical school, Harvey opened the world's largest proton therapy cancer treatment center off campus.
Leaders of competing schools must have said, "Why didn't we think of this?" said Thomas.
The 1972 graduate of University of Virginia and '75 graduate of U. Va. law school explained why he is deeply rooted to Hampton. Three dozen members of the Thomas-Sears-Walden families attended the school.
"I've been singing the alma mater since age 4," said the senior citizen.
Thomas praised the high level of scholarship on campus. He has taught at the campuses of great universities in Ireland and the Czech Republic, and at home spent time at U. Va., William and Mary, and Harvard, "but, I've seen no better place than Hampton."
Thomas spoke at the 71st convocation of the 146-year-old institution, the official opening of the academic year, and, dress rehearsal for seniors' May 2014 commencement.
Thomas spoke with the cadence and fire of a great preacher, plus the wordsmith economy of a poet, which happens to be his other talent. When he finished, Thomas received two standing ovations and was called back to recite another poem. The end of convocation felt like the close of a hit Broadway play.
Wayne Dawkins is an Associate Professor at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.