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NORMAL — Emmy-award-winning actor Sean Hayes triggered a lot of laughter with his remarks upon receiving an honorary Ph.D. from his alma mater, Illinois State University during the Founders Day Convocation on Thursday.

Saying, “You know I’m dropping ‘honorary’ as soon as I leave,” Hayes whispered, “I never graduated.” He also thanked a long list of people “and, finally, Avanti’s.”

But then the star of “Will & Grace” on television, “The Three Stooges” movie and “Promises, Promises” on Broadway, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award, became serious.

Illinois State University “meant the world to me,” he said. “In many ways, it made me the man I am today.”

Moving from the Chicago suburbs to Normal was a “culture shock,” Hayes said, but “getting away from my comfort zone” let him grow and develop his own philosophy.

“I was allowed to be gay and out at the same time,” he said, describing the university as “a safe and nurturing place to be.”

Handing him his honorary degree, ISU President Al Bowman told Hayes, “Your body of work has earned this diploma and I’m very proud to give it to you today.”

As for why he had never finished his degree requirements, Hayes explained after the ceremony that he was two or three classes short and had intended to go to summer school, but he had landed a job as music director at Pheasant Run musical theater in St. Charles and “I was anxious to start on life.”

Hayes was a piano performance major who minored in theater and voice in the late 1980s and early 1990s at ISU, but he found himself spending a lot of time with theater students.

An honorary degree also was given, posthumously, to J. Michael Adams, a 1969 graduate who served as president of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey from July 1999 until his death in June 2012.

The university had intended to confer the honorary degree last year, but Adams was too sick to attend. He taped an acceptance, but then asked ISU to wait a year in hopes he would be well enough to receive it in person.

Instead, his widow, Susan, accepted the degree and the taped message was played.

In it, Adams said that until he went to ISU, he thought his world ended at the horizon.

“Over the next four years, my world became much larger,” he said. “The people at ISU gave me the world.”

Adams, who led Fairleigh Dickinson to become the first university in the world to earn “special consultative status” with the United Nations, said, “Our primary role in the universe is to prepare the next generation.”

In addition to two honorary degrees, numerous awards were given to faculty, staff and alumni at the convocation.

Among the honorees was Roberta Trites, professor of English, who was designated “distinguished professor.” Considered the most prestigious honor that can be earned by an ISU faculty member, it recognizes outstanding teachers and scholars.

Trites has been at ISU since 1991 and is internationally known in the field of critical analysis of children’s literature.

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