Higher education icon Dr. Norman Francis prepares for retirement

The venerable president of Xavier University of New Orleans announced Thursday that he will retire next year.

In announcing his retirement, Dr. Norman Francis took to the podium as a giant in higher education. But his persona would never give his stature away.

"I know that the time has come to take the brightly burning torch turned over to me by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and pass it on to new leadership," said Dr. Francis.

At 83, incredibly sharp Dr. Francis said he will retire in June 2015 after the current school term.

It was in 1948 that Dr. Francis came to Xavier as a freshman, and for nearly 47 years he served his undergraduate alma mater as university president.

"As an institution we have grown stronger in every way, in enrollment, programs of study, campus facilities, endowment," said Dr. Francis.

His achievements are as vast as an ocean and the nation has taken note.

In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Freedom. In 2010, Dr. Francis hosted the nation's first African-American president at Xavier.

Dr. Francis, who was Xavier's first layman president, said he accepted the Xavier presidency on the very day that Dr. Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated.

Dr. Francis did not shun the civil rights movement. He negotiated with Canal Street stores after protests by African Americans, and he also opened Xavier's doors to civil rights freedom riders.

"To see those group of people, I stood on those steps, coming out of those cars bloodied, it was quite a sight," he said Thursday of the Freedom Riders.

As Dr. Francis looks to leave Xavier, the university is among the top universities in a number of areas.

"Today, Xavier is first in the nation in the number of African Americans earning bachelor's degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, and physical sciences and we've held this position at the top for the past decade," said Michael Rue, Chairman of the Xavier University Board of Trustees.

And Xavier remains the number one undergraduate school in terms of African Americans who earn medical degrees.

"Xavier is positioned to soar into a brighter future," Dr. Francis said to the news media.

And while he said the time had come to step down, he also hinted at what may have weighed heavily on his decision - his wife of more than five decades.

"My wife is doing as well as anybody who has Alzheimer's, it is difficult and it's difficult because there's no cure," he said without hesitation before news cameras.

Students were informed during a convocation that was closed to the media nearly an hour before Dr. Francis addressed the news media.

"I was pretty shocked, yeah, because he's got a building named after him that everyone always goes into, and he's always talking to students and helping people out. I was pretty shocked," said Quoy Luong, a pharmacy student.

"He's done a wonderful job so far and I'm glad he feels comfortable stepping down," said Emmanuella Onwubuia, another student.

And, with so many years at the helm the university and in the local community, there are myriad memories Dr. Francis can recall easily, like his time with Pope John Paul II.

"'I think of a lot of things, you know being with the Pope," he said.

But spending time with the Pope cannot trump the reward for students who successfully matriculated at Xavier, Dr. Francis said.

"Watching with a diploma in my hand and watching as that next student whose standing on the top of that step, and to look at their faces," he said.

And because he will not retire until after the end of the current year, he will get to witness one more graduation and the rewards that come with them.

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