ST. PETERSBURG — Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker received the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's highest honor Sunday night, awarded as the university christened more than 400 new graduates.
It granted Baker the Chancellor's Award for Civic Leadership for outstanding contributions to the community during his two terms as mayor beginning in 2001. During Baker's terms, he renovated the building where he accepted his award — the Mahaffey Theater — brought hotels to the city and relocated the Salvador Dalí Museum.
"The vibrant and engaging city we all know and love today is the direct result of the visionary leadership of Rick Baker," said USFSP regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska.
After leaving office, Baker became vice president for economic development for USF and president of the Edwards Group, which, among other projects, manages the Mahaffey.
Baker offered two thoughts to graduates:
"Keep learning your whole life," he said, dressed in a green graduation gown, "and never let anyone tell you that you can't do anything."
About 250 of the graduating students attended the ceremony. Inside the circular concert hall, March No. 1 — the graduation song — was piped in as everyone took their seats.
Then Judy Genshaft, president of the USF system, mentioned a couple of graduates who came to or returned to USF later in life so they could accomplish long-planned goals. One was a law enforcement officer and mother, who returned mid-career to earn her bachelor's degree.
The other was Sandi Phillips-Ford, who in her early 60s was one of the oldest graduates (the oldest was 70). Phillips-Ford began her studies at USF 45 years before. She graduated with her 24-year-old son, Alex Ford.
Phillips-Ford said when she was a junior in high school during the 1960s, the governor of Florida sent her a letter, declaring her in the top 3 percentile of students statewide. With a full-ride scholarship attached, she planned to attend college.
"Then I found out I was pregnant," she said.
At that time, if you were a young pregnant woman, you weren't allowed to attend high school, Phillips-Ford said. So she put off her plans of college.
In 1968, she enrolled at USF's Tampa campus when her son, Dean, was just 2.
"Then life got in the way," she said.
Dean graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1989, and Phillips-Ford planned to re-enroll. Then, once again, she became pregnant.
Over the years, the single mother has slowly taken a night class here and there, but finally completed requirements for her bachelor of science degree — which happened to be at the same school, and same semester as her second son, Alex, who graduated with a degree in English literature.
"We didn't really plan to graduate together at all," Phillips-Ford said.
The realization first hit them after Phillips-Ford spoke with her counselor this semester.
The degree was more symbolic than anything, she said, because she has had a job in accounting for decades. She and her son chose not to attend Sunday's ceremony.
Maybe she'll study for the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination so she can open her own office, she said. If for nothing else than to set a new goal.
"I feel like what else do you do if you're not working toward something," she said.
The graduates marched across stage. Parents and family cheered, hollered and clapped after each new name called.
At the end, Genshaft walked to the lectern and said, "please move your tassels to the left."