Among the hundreds of smiling sons and daughters, air horns blasts and proud parents at Southern University’s commencement ceremony on Friday, Barbara Johnson stood out as one of the day’s most celebrated graduates.
At 71 years old, Johnson gracefully accepted a standing ovation as Chancellor James Llorens singled her out, acknowledging the varied and sometimes painful paths some students take on their way to earning a degree.
Johnson graduated from Capitol High School in 1962, but did not immediately go to college. She got married, had a child and started working instead.
More than half a century later, while her classmates sat, Johnson stood alone in the back of Southern’s F.G. Clark Activity Center while parts of her life story were retold from the graduation stage.
More than 600 of her fellow graduates and 5,000 guests heard the story of her returning to college 20 years after graduating high school to accept an associate degree in law enforcement from Southern in 1986.
Then they heard about how her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend were murdered in 2001 — both the victims of a shooting.
The chancellor talked about the years Johnson felt sorry for herself before returning to school in 2007 to complete an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and then a master’s degree in the same field in 2010.
On Friday, Johnson was awarded her fourth post-secondary degree, a master’s in therapeutic recreation at the university she credited with helping her get her life back together after the death of her child.
Johnson’s story jibed with the message delivered by keynote speaker Bernette J. Johnson, chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The justice repeatedly told graduates not to wander through life passively, but rather, to create their own success.
She told them she expects them to be good citizens who give back to their communities and take part in civic life.
From her position as the state’s first black chief Supreme Court justice, she also encouraged the new graduates to use their degrees and their talents to make positive contributions to society.
She also spoke a lot about failure and how it creates resolve and strengthens character.
To be successful, she said, “it takes patience, commitment and failure.”