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Baker surprised with honorary doctorate at ETSU graduation

May 5th, 2007 11:12 pm by SAM WATSON

JOHNSON CITY - Delivering the commencement address at a grandson's graduation was enough to entice former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr. to East Tennessee State University on Saturday, but the university capped Baker's visit by surprising him with an honorary doctorate.

ETSU President Paul Stanton awarded Baker the doctor of human letters during the first of the university's two commencement ceremonies at Memorial Center as Baker's 23-year-old grandson, Matthew, completed his undergraduate degree.

"It's a special, single honor," Baker said of the opportunity to speak at his grandson's commencement. "My ambition is not to embarrass my grandson.

"I intend to talk a little bit about the wonderful history of this region and of this school and of the prospects they (graduates) have before them and the confidence we have in them."

The younger Baker had transferred to ETSU after a year at Tusculum College, Greeneville, to take advantage of ETSU's computer science curriculum.

"This was his choice," his grandfather said, noting that he and other members of his family also had graduated from public universities in Tennessee. "After he shopped around on the Internet of all things and found the courses he wanted, he came here."

Matthew Baker said that choice turned into a positive stay at ETSU.

"It's been a wonderful experience," he said. "The faculty here is great. There are a lot of great students here, too."

The graduate told only a few friends about his connection to the famous commencement speaker.

"It's exciting. I just love my grandfather to death, and to have him here for me today is just great," the younger Baker said. "He's always just been my grandfather to me."

Matthew Baker received one of 1,337 degrees conferred in the two ceremonies on Saturday. They included 988 bachelor's degrees, 269 master's degrees, 50 medical degrees, nine educational specialist degrees and 21 doctorates.

Of 311 graduates who completed degrees with honors, 71 graduated summa cum laude, indicating grade point averages of 3.85 or greater. Five graduates, Erika M. Adams and Amanda Carrie Reynolds, both of Johnson City; John Michael Carver, Hendersonville; Charles Ryan Stiles, Gallatin; and Preston Lee Visser, Butler, earned perfect 4.0 GPAs.

Family members and friends by the thousands filed into Memorial Center to see their loved ones cross the stage. At least one graduate's family crossed an ocean to be there.

"It means a lot to me," said Mark Sharman, whose family flew in from London to see him complete his master's degree in liberal studies. "I actually skipped my undergrad graduation, and I always felt terrible for it."

Sharman, who planned to return to London today to ready for law school there in the fall, said East Tennessee's mountains attracted him to ETSU."I fancied a change really from the norm," Sharman said. "I'd been to America before in an exchange program and wanted to come back. People are very friendly."I just wanted something completely different than what I had already. It was fabulous. Had a great time. Met some great, great people."

Kingsport resident Carly Frasier, 23, also had good things to say about her experience at ETSU, particularly the bond she formed with fellow nursing students.

"Every semester we had clinicals, and we'd get to see different people depending on what facility we were at," she said. "So, we got to spend time with the entire class."

Despite having to leave those friends, she was pleased to finish her degree.

"It's a really good feeling," Frasier said. "At times, it felt like it would never end, and it was a lot of hard work, but I'm glad that I did it, and now, it's going to pay off for me."

That payoff could mean a move to New York, but she was leaning toward a career as an Air Force nurse."I'm pretty sure I'm going to do it, but I haven't signed just yet," Frasier said. "The military has great benefits, and I've always kind of been interested in it. I want to travel, and there's always a need to go on and get a master's degree, and the Air Force will pay for it if I want to do it."Ryan Ward, a Cookeville resident who came to ETSU for a master's degree in public health after completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, completed seven straight years of post-secondary education on Saturday."It feels great," Ward said. "I'm going to be released into the real world."

The keynote speaker for Saturday's second ETSU commencement ceremony was composer Kenton Coe, a Johnson City native who offered graduates "a little preaching."

"If you who are now headed out into the big world have the slightest chance, and I know not everyone does, make the effort, take the risk of getting yourself to some foreign place. New York or San Francisco will do," Coe said in prepared remarks. "When you come back, you will look at your home here with a new perspective and in a new light."

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