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LeMoyne-Owen powers forward with night of elegance, commencement

The LeMoyne-Owen College Magicians celebrated their newly installed president with an elaborately appointed ball on Friday, (May 6) as part of a multi-day celebration, themed “Pure Imagination.”

Other major events included the COVID-delayed investiture on Thursday (May 5) of LOC President Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs and the 160-year-old college’s 152nd commencement ceremony Saturday (May 7).

Both proved memorable.

Friday evening’s 2022 Presidential Gala, “the Magic of Possibilities!,” was set in stylish surroundings at Downtown’s The Columns. About 500 formally attired alumni, friends and supporters gathered to officially welcome and celebrate Dr. Bennett-Fairs, who became president Jan. 5, 2021.

The affair opened with a presentation of Dr. Bennett-Fairs, reciting her own creation, a poem titled, “Pure Imagination.”

She remained concealed behind a curtain off-stage as her voice filled the expansive ballroom. When the recitation ended, Dr. Bennett-Fairs was met with thundering applause as she emerged in a sweeping, purple gown with a ruffled train.

The head “Magician” stood in the ballroom’s center as a Memphis Symphony Orchestra string quartet began a classically arranged “Pure Imagination,” from the 1971 movie, “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.”

Bennett-Fairs, a classically trained soprano, sang a classically inspired version of the movie soundtrack favorite.

She was again rewarded with a standing ovation, and the revelry got underway with the live stage performances of R&B crooner Freddie Jackson, singing his old songs, along with Midnight Star, with such hits as “Midas Touch” and “No Parking on the Dance Floor.”

On Saturday morning, nearly 4,000 filled the Orpheum Theatre’s main floor to witness the college’s annual commencement exercise.

LOC 2022 valedictorian Tierney Kuykendoll gives her address. (Photos: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

Besides gathering to celebrate the parade of beaming graduates receiving college degrees, the ceremony offered a number of big moments. It was the first, fully open, graduation program since 2019, before the onset of COVID-19.

Graduates were inspired by words of encouragement from the commencement speaker, three notables were presented with honorary doctorates and the announcement of a huge contribution to the city’s only HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) brought applause and cheers from a demonstratively enthusiastic crowd.

Dr. Bennett-Fairs introduced the keynote speaker, Lowe’s Corporation Executive Vice President of Supply Chain Donald Frieson.

Frieson offered advice, a few laughs and words of wisdom from a successful, corporate employee.

“No matter how much money you make, and no matter what material things you acquire,” said Frieson, “you must commit to always share your resources.

“As you go out into the world, be a leader who serves others. Give back every chance you get. Always look for new opportunities to help others. That is the kind of leader our world needs,” he said.

Honorary doctorates were conferred on three outstanding Memphians: Frieson, keynote speaker; Greater Memphis Chamber President and CEO Beverly Robertson and civil rights pioneer Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., who received the award in absentia.

Frieson was praised for his commitment to creating an environment of diversity and inclusion among supply chain hiring and employee relations.

Robertson was praised for raising $43 million as the National Civil Rights Museum’s president, and for taking the museum “from a small, local attraction to a world-class landmark and destination.”

Lawson was touted for his lifelong work in civil rights and recognized by Time for being listed as one of seven civil rights figures who paved the way for President Barack Obama’s historic election by Time Magazine.

Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs confers honorary degrees to Beverly Robertson and Donald Frieson, who also delivered the commencement address. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

Frieson surprised commencement attendees by announcing “a special contribution made by Lowe’s. According to Frieson, Lowe’s would present the school with $1 million to “fund scholarships and lend assistance to struggling students who want to attend college.”

An eruption of cheers and applause filled the theatre. Frieson closed with one, last piece of advice:

“The world does not care how many times you fall down. Just keep getting back up,” Frieson. “Get back up, no matter what happens, and keep chasing your dreams. You owe it to your family, your friends, and everyone who has believed in and invested into your future.”




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