Stevie Wonder, the pop singer-composer who has collection more than two dozen gold records and Grammy awards, yesterday became Doctor Wonder at Howard University's commencement.
The citation accompanying Wonder's honorary doctor of humane letters degree called him a "living legend" who overcame blindness and expressed his "inner self" in music of "phenomenal popularity."
Yesterday was Wonder's 28th birthday. As Howard president James Cheek finished reading the citation, a tuba player stood up and began playing "Happy Birthday." Most of the audience of about 5,000 joined in singing "Happy Birthday, Dear Stevie."
At the outdoor commencement ceremony honorary degrees were also awarded to former U.S. transportation secretary William T. Coleman, Dr. R. Frank Jones, retired medical director of Freedmen's (now Howard University) Hospital, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, head of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Wonder, an unconventional choice, received the most enthusiastic ovation. He waved, smiled and bowed briefly, and then walked back quickly to his seat on the platform.
Yesterday's ceremony at Howard marked the start of the annual procession of spring graduations at area colleges.
Catholic University also held its commencement yesterday, awarding honorary degrees to British art historian Kenneth Clark and to Roy Wilkins, retired executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
American University and the University of the District of Columbia both have graduation ceremonies scheduled today.
Because of the windy weather and the threat of rain, Catholic University's graduation was held in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, instead of outdoors on the university campus. About 3,500 people crowded inside, but university officials estimated that about 1,000 others were turned away.
Clark, the commencement speaker, was author and host of the BBC television series "Civilization" several years ago. He said his studies have persuaded him that "all the great things which have happened in the (past) thousand years have been initiated by individuals." The notion that "great episodes in civilization . . . were the result of intellectual mass movements" may be "fashionable among historians," Clark declared, but how this doctrine came to be accepted by any Christian I cannot imagine."
The main speaker at Howard was Mary Berry, assistant secretary for education of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Berry said there has been "some progress for some of us (blacks) during the past decade, but she said "the battle for human dignity must still be fought."
"Racism, though sheathed in civilized tones, still permeates our society," she said. "Group identity and race solidarity are still urgent necessities for our people. Integration still remains a goal. But true integration cannot occur until all members of all groups are on a level of economic parity."
Berry urged the 1,800 graduates not to "retreat into a comfortable privatism."
"We should all protest violations of human rights wherever they occur," she declared, "in Salisbury (Rhodesia), Soweto (South Africa), the Soviet Union, Wilmington, N.C., or the streets of Washington, D.C."
Berry spoke as a substitute for HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano, Jr. who had seen scheduled to give Howard's commencement address, but was send to Italy by President Carter to attend memorial services for former Premier Aldo Moro, slain by kidnapers last week.
Berry said she had to cancel arrangements to receive an honorary degree at the University of Arkansas in order to pinch-hit for Califano.
Despite the exhortations in most of her speech, Berry ended by saying, "I know that life doesn't run on unceasing struggle . . . 'Even I like to have a little joy inside my tears.' That's one of Stevie's songs, you know."
The audience cheered.
Later, Wonder and Berry applauded loudly as college deans announced the different groups of students that were receiving degrees.
"It was good, very good," said Sheila Summers, who received a bachelors' degree. "Just imagine having Stevie Wonder in your class."
It was Wonder's second honorary doctorate degree even though he only graduated from high school. The first doctorate came from Shaw University in North Carolina two years ago.
Yesterday Cheek recalled that Wonder started singing professionally when he was only 12 years old, and was a major pop star while still a teen-ager. Later, he almost died in an automobile accident, but recovered to write and record music more thoughtful and more widely popular than before.
"Stevie Wonder, you are truly the delight and wonder of our age," Cheek said.