Distinguished Student Earns Surprise Commencement Ceremony

April 21, 2008

By Jo-Ann Johnston
SLU Staff Writer

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE – Almost no one in the room understood quite what was taking place one recent Friday afternoon in the NCO club when Kenny Gonzalez, director of Saint Leo University’s MacDill Air Force Base, picked up the microphone and began speaking.

Distinguished Student Earns Surprise Commencement Ceremony "Ladies and gentlemen," Gonzalez told the casual crowd, "there is an important occasion to mark today, and a memorable story important for all to share." Gonzalez then began telling the story of a young man who was born into a large family in the Philippines in 1927, the son of a Philippina mother and an American soldier-father. This young man endured the loss of his soldier-father, and then incredible hardship during the Japanese occupation of World War II.

Thomas French wanted an education though, and returned to high school when he was able. He completed three years of higher education after that with the intention of becomingan attorney. He had to abandon those plans when he discovered that to be allowed to practice law, he would have to make a mighty sacrifice. Because of his parentage, French enjoyed both Philippine and American citizenship. But his professor said in order to practice law in his homeland, he would have to give up his American citizenship.

"I’ll never do that," he responded. He left school without the degree he had wanted, and in 1952, enlisted in the United States Air Force.

Thomas French spent 27 years in the Air Force serving his country in a variety of ways, at many different locations, achieving the rank of senior master sergeant. He worked in hospital administration as first sergeant supervising more than 600 air force personnel for years, creating the business and management routines needed for patient admission and care. He helped design new clinic facilities and wrote some of the hospital regulations still in effect today. Along the way, he married and began raising a family, always instilling in his three children the value of an education and the importance of discipline.

"Even though his word was law," recalls his daughter Angelia French, "he always corrected us with kindness, gentleness, and compassion."

French had to leave his family back in the States in 1968 for a tour of Vietnam – not to work in hospital administration, but on combat support missions to help locate enemy forces.

The French family lived in the Tampa area for awhile when French was assigned to duty at MacDill. When he retired in 1979, the family returned to Florida.

Master Sergeant French was as intellectually curious as ever, still prodding his children to do well in school. Several of his buddies began taking classes from Saint Leo at MacDill AFB, and French joined them. At long last, he was getting the education that had been deferred for so long. Sometimes his wife Pat came along to the base with him for classes, or for other social activities. The Frenchs were starting to become a Saint Leo family

He was a dedicated student who always wanted to be fully prepared for his classes, recalled his daughter Angelia. At the time, she didn’t truly understand how much effort he must be expending on reading, writing papers, preparing for tests.

"I really didn’t appreciate it until I got older," she said in a recent interview.

First her dad earned his associate’s degree. Then he continued with studies to earn a bachelor’s degree in human resource administration.

Only a few weeks into his final semester in 1991, when he had just one class left, Thomas French suffered a debilitating stroke. He couldn’t speak or walk. The determination he had tapped to get through school now had to be redirected to a new purpose. He had to spend hours each day learning again how to move, how to eat, how to walk. Rehabilitation took years, and displaced Sgt. French’s goal of earning a four-year degree.

As time passed, the couple’s youngest daughter returned as a working adult to Saint Leo. Angelia French already had earned an associate’s degree, and after some years in the workforce resumed work part-time on a bachelor’s in business administration.

As she approached her own graduation in the summer of 2007, she was also wondering about her father’s birthday present, a man about to be 80, a man she considers a hero.

One day, it occurred to her to ask her mom: "How come we never pursued Dad’s diploma?"

She thought he wouldn’t get a typical diploma, but wondered if the university would grant her father an honorary degree, given his years of service to his country, and given Saint Leo’s commitment to educating members of the military. She began writing letters and making phone calls, and eventually the request found its way to university Registrar Karen Hatfield.

Hatfield looked into his record. An honorary degree was certainly possible, but there was more to be considered, she decided. French had completed course work in the Air Forcethat met the standards of the university at the time (1987) for transfer credit. He apparently hadn’t known this was possible, but in fact had already completed enough college-level work to earn his degree when he suffered the stroke.

Hatfield ordered a new diploma, reflecting French’s accomplishment in earning a bachelor’s degree in human resources administration. Kenny Gonzalez, current director of the MacDill Center, was selected to preside over a surprise ceremony to be attended by family and friends at the NCO Club on the base, on March 14. Gonzalez considered the assignment a privilege. "Here is a man who gave so much to the service of his country.  What an incredibly humbling honor for Saint Leo University, and true manifestation of our values, to see that Mr. French achieved his lifelong dream of getting a degree."

Gonzalez took up the microphone, and began telling the life story of this remarkable, 80-year-old Saint Leo graduate. Master Sergeant French, who still has limited speech, was caught off guard. Then, as Gonzalez delved into more biographical details, French realized it this was his life being discussed. "You could see it in his eyes," recalled his daughter. Gonzalez presented the diploma to the retired senior master sergeant, who held the document high for his friends in the club to see as all applauded. "He’s very proud," his daughter said.

As an added surprise, at the request of wife and mother Pat French, Gonzalez re-presented to Angelia her own diploma, which had been on display at the parent’s home.

It turned into a family graduation. Father Thomas credits daughter for his late-life commencement. And Angelia credits both her parents for encouraging her to follow her father’s example. The diplomas are on display in the French home, outside Tampa.