Don McLean graduated from Iona College in 1968. Thirty one years later they invited him back to receive an honorary doctorate. Here is the tribute paid by Iona College in conferring the award on Don:
Can music save your mortal soul? Don McLean asked that intriguing question thirty years ago in his landmark song “American Pie.” Setting out, simply and melodiously, to reveal the answer, he has since produced a lifetime of exquisite recordings that capture the struggles and dilemmas of our post-modern age. Providing solace as well as insight in our search for meaning and purpose, his more than 40 albums strike universal themes of loneliness and loss, love and longing, reality and illusion, death and rebirth. With a repertoire that incorporates the diverse styles of folk, rock, pop and bluegrass, this legendary artist has woven a collection distinctive in content, as well as composition, a tapestry celebrated by two generations for its sensitivity and lyricism and, above all, for the honesty of its voice.
That voice first took shape in New Rochelle, as the young songwriter grew up absorbing the pop and rock music of the 1950s and the folk tradition of groups like the Weavers. Soon after hi graduation from Iona College (Class of 1968, Bachelor of Business Administration), with the help of a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, he began reaching a wider public. From these visits to towns up and down the Hudson River, where he learned the art of performing from his friend and mentor Pete Seeger, to the Millennium Concert at the Lincoln Memorial, where he and that President Clinton together sang some of his most famous lyrics, Don McLean has shared his art, first and foremost, with live audiences. These concerts, like those given by troubadours of centuries past elevate, as well as entertain, inspire, as well as instruct, and sometimes have even been known to alter lives. More than popular tunes that come and go with the speed of top-ten lists, the songs of Don McLean – songs like “Vincent,” “Castles in the Air,” “And I Love You So,” and many others – have entered our cultural memory. Recorded by their creator, as well as by artists as diverse as Madonna and Perry Como, Elvis and Fred Astaire, they are part of our national heritage.
Most artists strive for years to achieve success, especially in the fiercely competitive music industry. Don McLean, catapulted to international stardom with the release of “American Pie,” strong to absorb that success, along with the demands that accompany instant fame. A realist, as well as a dreamer, he once told a reporter: “I thought I would last 30 seconds, and now it’s 30 years.”
For leading a life of integrity, guided by a determined refusal to compromise the nature and calibre of his art for using the language of song as a weapon against isolation and indifference; ant for leaving a lasting musical legacy that lifts the spirit and surely does touch the soul, Iona College, hereby confers on DON McLEAN the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.