COLUMBIA — Famed rock and country musician Darius Rucker became Dr. Gamecock Saturday as the University of South Carolina awarded degrees to graduates of its prestigious Honors College and its College of Arts and Sciences.
Rucker, a founding member of the homegrown S.C. band Hootie & the Blowfish and now a country music star, received an honorary doctor-of-music degree and a standing ovation at the conclusion of a upbeat commencement address. He implored graduates to follow their dreams and carve out room for service to others.
I want you to take time, take some real time, said Rucker, who spoke at the second of USCs three weekend graduation ceremonies. Find something that makes you want to give til it hurts.
That wont be hard for graduate Julia Wilson Rodes,whose triumphant struggle across the commencement platform to shake hands with USC president Harris Pastides capped a two-year rehabilitation from a motorcycle accident that left her partially paralyzed.
South Carolina just took me in, said Rodes, who transferred to USC from Smith College to complete her undergraduate degree in biology. Her husband, Army 1st Lt. Jared Rodes, was stationed at Fort Jackson and deployed to Afghanistan some of the time that she was completing her degree.
The cobblestones on the Horseshoe, I cant tell you how many times I fell, said Rodes, who was Miss Wheelchair South Carolina in 2011-2012.
But she said the upside to those spills came in introductions to hundreds of students, who made it their business to see that she got to class, shopped for groceries and even attended football games at Williams-Brice Stadium. They would take my hand and lead me. I didnt have a day when someone didnt help me.
Three months ago, Rodes worried she would have to use her wheelchair to ascend the short platform to the USC president and other dignitaries during Saturdays ceremonial graduation walk. But, with intensive therapy, the help of forearm crunches and an escort who stayed by her side, Rodes successfully navigated the path to her degree.
The couple now heads to Germany for Lt. Rodes military work. But Julia Rodes hopes to return to South Carolina to attend medical school at MUSC.
On this day, the couple, like hundreds of other newly minted alumni and their families, relished the pomp and circumstance of the moment, cheering their achievement as the last graduate walked across the platform, turning their tassels in unison and singing the USC alma mater together.
They laughed as Rucker described living in the Moore mens residence hall in the now-demolished Honeycombs, singing a Billy Joel song alone in a shower that he jokingly described as a big prison bathroom with six showerheads and no curtain.
Mark Bryan, another USC student, heard Rucker and suggested they get together to play music and start a band. The two, along with fellow USC students Jim Sonefeld and Dean Felber, launched Hootie & the Blowfish in 1986, rocketing to the top of the music charts.
Rucker told graduates to become people who are not afraid to chase their dreams, adding, All my dreams started to come true right here.
But Rucker also said he gets as much, if not more, gratification from singing in hospital wards and engaging in charity work as he does in gigs that have taken him from a MTV Unplugged concert on the Horseshoe to the White House (where he met another USC alumnus, then-presidential chief of staff Andrew Card).
Pastides acknowledged Ruckers enduring star power, saying, Darius, you are a rock star and a cool guy, but you are Dr. Gamecock now.
At the Saturday morning ceremony, the university also awarded an honorary doctorate to soon-to-retire Wofford College president Benjamin B. Dunlap, a Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar whose wide-ranging intellect and interests have taken him all over the world.
Families had their own stars Saturday, snapping dozens of photographs to mark the day.
Joy Salter, whose granddaughter Grace Salter of Columbia graduated, declared she had the perfect seat in Colonial Life Arena, near the front to watch Grace shake hands with Pastides.
Paul Greer III of Union gathered with at least 25 friends and family for rounds of picture-taking following the ceremony. He stayed in the center as friends moved in and out for various shots.
And Rend Draz of Greenville, who had decorated her mortarboard in red sequins that spelled out Forever to Thee, posed with her brother, also a USC graduate as her mother framed the pair on her tablet computer.
Saturdays second graduation ceremony, at 3 p.m., featured former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Philip Lader as commencement speaker.
Lader addressed graduates of the colleges of Education, Engineering and Computing, Social Work; and Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management; its School of Music; and its Fort Jackson, Interdisciplinary and Palmetto programs.