By Samuel O. Doku, PhD
The ambiance at Cramton Auditorium on Sunday was solemn and apprehensive when the 17th president of Howard University, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick took the podium to deliver the day’s sermon to an expectant but uneasy congregation.
However, when Dr. Frederick concluded his sermon, the congregation that included Mrs. Frederick and the couple’s daughter, Provost and Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Anthony Wutoh; former Provost, Dr. Carl Anderson and his wife; faculty, students, and staff as well as august visitors, there was relief and satisfaction on everyone’s face for a sermon brilliantly delivered.
The fascination about Dr. Frederick’s sermon that probably impressed everyone was his revelation that in spite of his busy schedule as president of arguably the nation’s leading Historically Black College or University (HBCU), he still practices medicine at Howard University Hospital as an oncologist. He performed his latest surgery on a pancreatic patient just a couple of weeks earlier and another patient ailing from an esophagus problem four weeks prior.
In a sermon filled with human interest stories, in a farrago with biblical verses, to affirm the thematic framework of the preaching, Dr. Frederick, with an impassioned zeal camouflaged by an appreciative modesty, drew an analogy with former famed Dean of Rankin Chapel, Dr. Howard Thurman and noted that although he was wearing the same robes Thurman once wore, he was neither tall nor big enough to fit into his shoes, but he appreciated the opportunity to lead his alma mater.
The fashion in which Howard University impacts everyone is enshrined in history. “Every great black leader in some shape or form is physically or emotionally connected to Howard,” he noted. Dr. Frederick words recall his predecessor, K. Patrick Swygert’s words in 2007 when then presidential candidate, Barack Obama, visited Howard. “Barack Obama will forever cherish this day because every great black leader passes through Howard University,” Swygert revealed.
One salient personality who has not forgotten the immortal words of Swygert is the FLOTUS, Mrs. Michelle Obama. She is a perennial visitor to Howard University.
Dr. Frederick infused his sermon with his personal experiences as student, surgeon, and president of his Alma mater.
He began with his own experience at Howard as an effervescent and bubbling 16-year old. Frederick was admitted into the University’s preeminent Pre-professional Program that prepares students to complete their undergraduate course work in two years and enroll in medical school.
“For me, Howard University will always be home, filled with love. We must strive to be excellent in whatever we do. What defines us is not where we stand in times of comfort but what we do in times of discomfort. My medical profession has taught me the value of humanity,” he said.
“Love” was the overriding theme in Dr. Frederick’s preaching, and he chose the fruit of the spirit outlined in 1 Corinthians 13 to inform his sermon. In a homiletic version of Whitney Houston’s love conquers all, he spoke of the greatness and uniqueness of Howard University in the lives of many blacks and other minorities and how sadly, many who should know better, under-appreciate the importance of the second oldest HBCU in the country after Cheney University. Cheney was founded in 1847, and Howard was founded two decades later in 1867.
He recited the recent proud achievements of Howard University as the number one ranked institution that sends blacks to medical school, and the University’s MBA program is ranked in the top 50 in the nation, the first time an HBCU broke the top 50.
Dr. Frederick revealed the wonderful human interest story of 101-year- old Jewish millionaire, Dr. David Falk, who spent just four hours at Howard University Hospital in the 1980s surveying the importance of Hospital for accreditation purposes and left with an enduring impression that culminated in the centenarian donating $1 million to the University’s nursing, medical, and law programs this year.
Actually, Dr. Frederick received a call and traveled to Palm Springs, FL on a fund-raising mission for the University, where he met and had fruitful discussions with Dr. Falk.
The Howard University President also credited Republican presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson with helping him make the right decision while a junior in medical school. “My mother has all of Dr. Carson’s books on her shelf. So, while I was a junior medical student and contemplating my field of specialization, I wrote to Dr. Carson in 1993. A few days later, I received a call from his office asking me to come to Baltimore to meet with him.
“Among the many pieces of advice he gave me, he told me to love the life that I have and always to think profoundly about issues. Put challenges you encounter in life behind the rear-view mirror and appropriate love, and you will become a great surgeon,” Carson told Frederick in 1993.
Over two decades on, love is still the defining matrix of Dr. Frederick’s life, although he unequivocally stated that he didn’t share Dr. Carson’s ideology and ideas.
Dr. Frederick called for civility in the affairs of humanity because civility connotes respect. In addition to Corinthians, the day’s preacher also cited Mark, Philippians, and Romans. He quoted Howard Thurman, who noted that individuals should not allow the stresses and difficulties of a particular day to frustrate and derail their attempts at peaceful resolutions through love, Jesus Christ’s most important injunction to humanity.
Dr. Frederick also shared with the congregation an inspiring message: “Moses was for the Red Sea, Abraham Lincoln was for the Emancipation of the slaves; Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman showed him the way; ‘and just as Mordecai Wyatt Johnson was for Howard University “in my opinion, so too is Wayne A.I. Frederick,'” added Trustee Vernon Jordan.
The similarity Attorney Jordan drew between Dr. Johnson and Dr. Frederick is in the arena of longevity. Dr. Johnson remains the longest serving Howard University president, whose reign stretched from 1926 to 1960. He also was the first African American president of Howard University. In that regard, Dr. Frederick is in good company.
The Dean of Howard University Rankin Chapel is Dr. Bernard Richardson.