For more than 50 years Pearl Bailey has had labels by the bucket: actress, comedian, blues singer, diplomat, Tony Award winner, mother, wife, cook extraordinaire, lecturer, author, ardent Republican and friend to presidents and kings.
On Sunday she will add another -- college graduate. Bailey, 67, has earned a bachelor of arts degree in theology after seven hard years at Georgetown University.
Just now, with a blue Hoyas hat perched on top of a black flowered kerchief, she sits outside on the steps near a stone memorial to Michael Foley, a history professor she admired. She fumbles for words to explain why she decided to become a Georgetown student. She has been its most famous undergraduate, along with Patrick Ewing.
"I have always loved learning. I have been reading since I was 3 years old, studying, all that. But that wasn't the why either. I had wanted to be a teacher all my life. But that isn't it either. Spiritually, I did it because it is God's will that we do, we have a choice to do or undo. People ask why, with a name on the marquee . . . or if they think you got any money . . . why would you with all the fame that is there? I can't answer -- there is no reason."
She waves to passing faculty and students, calling many by name, kissing a few, such as one of her theology professors, the Rev. James Redington.
"Hey, Pearl, do I get a dance at the ball?" asks Redington.
Then Ewing walks by.
"Well, I'll be durned. Come here, sugar," she says. "How's things going? Now about the money."
They laugh, and she points him in the direction of her husband of 33 years, drummer Louis Bellson.
Student life wasn't easy. Bailey was watched. At the Georgetown commencement in 1978, where she received an honorary degree, she announced she wanted to earn a degree. It sounded like polite talk to most.
"Nobody encouraged me, not even my husband. I decided I wanted to go to school and I took off," she says.
When she enrolled a few months later, the students didn't know whether to categorize her as student, celebrity, competitor, mother figure or pal.
Now she quietly discusses a student's seminar on "The Bishops' Pastoral Letter." Everyone is greeted like family -- "Wingate, how you doing, honey? Where's that girl?"
She spots a friend from ethics class who invited the class to his house.
"I have never seen a house in that condition," she says. She ended up cleaning the kitchen for two hours. Some of the faculty were drawn into her circle of friendship. Rabbi Harold White, a chaplain and instructor, went with Bailey to a banquet of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in New York when she sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." On another occasion he went to California to be part of a television special on her life.
"She was enthusiastic and industrious. And here she learned to be a good listener," says White.
Now the trauma and joys of courses like "The Path of Love in Hinduism," "20th-Century Jewish Thought," "Islamic Teaching," "Jesus the Jew," "Renaissance Art," French and Greek are all behind her.
No more going to Russia to perform for 10 days on a school break and coming right back to exams.
The toughest challenge was the papers.
"The worst. Oh, Lord, I wrote five books, successful, they are in the library. That first paper -- I did a terrible thing. I thought. I expressed what I heard because that is the way I learned in school. You heard, you went home and did some homework, you didn't regurgitate, you thought. Not that they don't think now, but you can regurgitate and get an A. But I wanted to express what I heard in class. All the research and all, I left part of that out. I was expressing what I learned from life on these matters. That made the paper good and not good. It took me a while. That was my worst period."
But it was worthwhile, Bailey says proudly, pointing out that she got only two Cs and made the dean's list two or three times.
Her apartment here wasn't her first residence in Washington.
After living in Newport News for three years as a girl, she moved to Washington. Her father, J.J. Bailey, a construction worker, was a deacon and lay preacher in a Pentecostal church. When she got to Georgetown, she learned that Coach John Thompson's mother had been her father's nurse once at D.C. General Hospital. Until Georgetown, she had only a high school degree, which she had earned in Philadelphia.
When she was 15 she won an amateur contest and soon became a multitalented meteor in a glorious era of entertainment in the 1940s and 1950s. Her name has been up in lights at the Howard, the Apollo, the Village Vanguard, the Blue Angel, the Talk of the Town. In 1946 she starred on Broadway in "St. Louis Woman" and returned several times before her triumph in the all-black version of "Hello, Dolly!" in the late 1960s. Her movies include "Carmen Jones," "St. Louis Blues," "Porgy and Bess," "All the Fine Young Cannibals" and "The Landlord." Her television credits span from soaps to dramas to comedies to specials.
The time at Georgetown, she says, hasn't reduced her draw as a star.
"People didn't forget me. I earned a living. I did give up a lot in bookings because I couldn't miss but so many classes. The world might forget but they didn't. And I earned my way."
On her agenda is a major advertising campaign for direct-deposit banking. She has signed to do an "Afterschool Special" for ABC called "Cindy Eller: A Modern Fairy Tale," which starts shooting June 17.
Meanwhile, she has gotten seven honorary degrees. On June 9 she receives one from Governors State University in Illinois. Two Sundays ago it was Syracuse University, where she told the students that she deferred to the faculty when she wanted to get a formal education, but: "I have an informal education and they are not going to mess with me, either."
Earning her Georgetown degree has already given her the title of her sixth book -- "Go for It, Honey."
She'll be going down the aisle for her diploma on Sunday.
"Boy, am I gonna walk," she says to a classmate. "I'm telling you, nobody is gonna walk that aisle like me."