Photo by Irving Johnson III
Photo by Irving Johnson III

When Xavier president Dr. Norman C. Francis retires in June,
his executive assistant Karen Watkins will also retire.
Coming from a Xavier family, she has spent her entire adult life
at the university. Watkins came as a student, graduating in 1968 with
a business degree, and eight of her younger brothers and sisters, and
numerous nephews, nieces, and cousins followed.

After graduation, Watkins worked with executive vice president
Anthony Rachel, but in 1972, Francis hand-picked Watkins to be his assistant—a position she has filled for the last 43 years. Working one-on-one with Francis for so many years gives Watkins tremendous insight into his
life and makes her part of the Francis legacy.

“Dr. Francis was and continues to be a mentor,” Watkins said. “I was
impressed with his ability to move among the nation’s elite as well as
be a force for positive change in our own local community. …Today, he is
still a man for all seasons.”

Over the course of Francis’ 47 years in leadership, he has served
six U.S. presidents and received 42 honorary degrees, Watkins said.
When Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, Xavier’s enrollment
was at a historic level—4,204 students—and classes had just
begun. Watkins said when levees broke, Xavier was inundated with
four feet of water and every building was flooded. Administrators, faculty,
staff and students were scattered across America.

“I will never forget nine days after Katrina when he asked to join
forces with a band of dedicated staff members in the small town of Grand
Coteau, La.,” Watkins said. “I agreed to meet him there and the rest is
For four decades, Watkins has been at the president’s side. She
said he has always maintained a nonstop schedule—local, national
and global—and a heavy workload, all of which she manages as his
sole executive assistant. Despite the challenges, Watkins said her
coworkers are like family and she wanted to remain part of the progress fostered under Francis’ leadership.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to work alongside a
visionary and man of deep faith,” Watkins said. “I will miss the
challenge to rise to every occasion and always giving 100 percent.”

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