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Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
Email: mfarris@wwltv.com | Twitter: @megfarriswwl

NEW ORLEANS -- The 3,100 Xavier University students, along with faculty and staff, had no idea why they were called into an assembly Thursday.

And then they heard the news first. This would be the last school year for President Dr. Norman Francis.

'You just got to know when it's time to go,' Francis said from the podium.

After 46 years at the helm of Xavier University, Francis said this is his last year. The U.S. Army veteran and lawyer, who became the first black graduate of Loyola Law School, is the longest-tenured current leader of an American university.

The archbishop calls him a wonderful educator with great faith, a giant in Catholic education.

'Not only has he built the university, but he had to rebuild it after Katrina, and there are many, many stars in his crown, I believe, for the rebuilding,' said Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

On social media, one mother of a graduate said she'll never forget how he arranged to get people out of dorms and on buses in the flood waters.

'I really would like to have left before Katrina, and I could have and I still would have had a long legacy, but I couldn't leave. I couldn't leave. And I knew I couldn't leave, not just because who I was, but I knew Xavier wasn't ready to give up to a hurricane,' he told the media.

Francis wanted the students, faculty and staff to hear the news straight from his mouth. He called an assembly an hour before the announcement to the public. There were tears and a standing ovation that lasted a few minutes.

'I'm really happy for him. This man has worked very hard. He dedicated this whole life to this university,' said Xavier junior Jayla Smith.

'The change is going to be very, very different and I'm excited yet scared for next year,' said another junior Ashlee Hill.

He has great memories of being with the pope, but what has given him the most pride and joy is looking into the eyes to the 26,000 students who he has handed a diploma to.

'It's an amazing site and it's so fulfilling that you are at the day where somebody has spent all their lives getting there and there they are,' Francis said.

And the students feel the same.

'I am happy that I will be part of the class that receives a diploma from his hands,' said Xavier senior Anthony Lotten.

After Hurricane Katrina, Francis was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. It's America's highest civilian honor.

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