#RespectYourElders: Irma Thomas, the “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” recently received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University.
Thomas (born 1941) got her start singing with a Baptist Church Choir and auditioned for her first record label at age 13. At 18, she released her first single, “Don’t Mess With My Man,” which reached number 22 on the U.S. Billboard R&B Chart.
Thomas is considered a legend in her native New Orleans. There and across the U.S., she topped charts with early releases like “Don’t Mess With My Man,” “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)” and “Ruler Of My Heart.” And in 2007, she earned her first Grammy Award for her album “After the Rain.”
Thomas balanced her singing career alongside her busy family life. By 19 years old, she had four children and a family to care for. With hard work and perseverance, she made time for education. In a recent interview with NPR, Thomas said it took her 15 years to earn an associate’s degree in business from Delgado Community College in New Orleans.
“I started at 45 and I didn’t graduate until I was 61 ’cause I was stopping and starting,” she said. “I was touring and I was doing homework on the plane or wherever I was, so it took me a while to get through it, but I didn’t stop. I wanted to graduate! And yes, it is a wonderful feeling.”
Delgado Community College has since named a program in her honor: the Irma Thomas Center for W.I.S.E. Women. W.I.S.E. stands for “women in search of excellence.”
Recently, Thomas earned an Honorary Doctorate of Letters and Science from Tulane University after singing “It’s Raining” at its 2018 commencement. Thomas told NPR that she values her degree even more than her Grammy.
“I feel you earn Grammys, but then you have to depend on your peers to vote for you, and when you go get your education, you’ve earned that,” Thomas said. “You don’t have to depend on nobody but you.”