For Edwin F. Hale Sr. -- a community college dropout from Highlandtown who now heads First Mariner Bank -- the honorary doctorate he received yesterday at Towson University was a gesture of respect by a pedigree-conscious world from which he has often felt estranged.
But for the business students Hale addressed, the bachelor's and master's degrees conferred were much more than symbolic -- representing years of classwork and, in many cases, tickets to jobs with firms like Hale's.
In his first university commencement speech, Hale assured the newly minted Towson grads that their diplomas, and the reputation of their public college, carried serious currency in the world of finance.
"I remember when this was Towson State Teachers College, a sleepy little place," Hale said from the podium at the school's basketball arena. "What it has become today, what you have become today, is nothing short of fantastic."
Yesterday's ceremony for the College of Business and Economics was the second of six commencement exercises scheduled at Towson's 142nd graduation this week, during which the university expected to hand out more than 2,500 degrees.
Today, the colleges of education and fine arts and communication will confer about 830 diplomas, officials said. Tomorrow, about 1,050 more degrees will be handed out to Towson students in science, math and liberal arts disciplines.
With 19,000 students, Towson has been identified by the University System of Maryland as the state's primary growth institution at a time of booming college enrollment. The school, established in 1866 to train teachers, now boasts business administration as its most popular undergraduate major.
One graduating business student, Mark Broadwater, 22, of Cockeysville, has a job lined up starting next month as a management associate with Provident Bank in Baltimore.
Broadwater credits the business school's emphasis on team-building for his successful job search. "When I started, I was little bit shy, but doing all that teamwork, you become more of an extrovert," Broadwater said.
As business school grads were trickling into the arena, some graduates from that morning's College of Health Professions ceremony were still outside the building, celebrating and being photographed by proud parents.
For the Ohameje family, their youngest daughter's graduation earlier in the day represented the culmination of a quest begun 14 years ago when they immigrated to Maryland from Nigeria.
With Blessing Ohameje's new nursing degree, all five of the family's children now have a college education, said father Geoffrey Ohameje, a compliance security worker at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
"She is more than a blessing," he said, while his daughter blushed nearby. "She's a very strong girl, and we're very proud."
Hale also brought his family along to celebrate his first post-secondary degree. Before the ceremony, in the "robing room" at the Towson Center arena, he introduced his three children and mother to university officials.
"I'm very proud," said a beaming Carol Hale, the banker's mother, who lives in Dundalk. "He doesn't have to get a honorary degree for me to be proud of him, but I'm so proud."
A mediocre student, Hale dropped out of Essex Community College at 19 in the mid-1960s. By age 20, he had married, fathered a child and joined the Air Force. When he returned to civilian life in 1968, he began building his empire in Canton, first with a small trucking business, then a shipping firm, then in banking and real estate.
He now owns one-fifth of First Mariner's stock, worth about $18 million, and the Baltimore Blast professional soccer team.
Despite his accomplishments, the Sparrows Point High School graduate says never completing college is one of his biggest regrets. "It's one of those empty spots in your life," he said in an interview. "Everyone's got something. That's mine."
Though he doubts he would have been as successful if he had followed a more traditional educational path, Hale told Towson students that had he been unlucky as an entrepreneur, "I would have had to stand in line behind a lot of people because I never got a degree."
Several years ago, Towson's business faculty persuaded a reluctant Hale to play the role of Donald Trump in a real-life campus version of the reality television show, The Apprentice.
Instead of hiring just one lucky Towson student who won the contest, he hired four. He has since continued to regularly hire recent graduates.
"The caliber of students from Towson, particularly from the College of Business and Economics, is very good for our business," he said yesterday before his speech.