Michael Dwyer, Associated Press
CORRECTS SPELLING OF COLLEGE PRESIDENT TO REV. PHILIP BOROUGHS, S.J. - Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, right, hugs his mentor while a student at College of the Holy Cross, Rev. John E Brooks, center, as president of the college Rev. Philip Boroughs, S.J., left, looks on after Thomas was presented with an honorary degree from Holy Cross, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012, in Worcester, Mass.

WORCESTER, Mass. — Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas returned to his alma mater in Massachusetts on Thursday and paid tribute to a priest who mentored and recruited him to the College of the Holy Cross during the most tumultuous years in his life, saying the three years he spent at the school helped him shed years of disillusion and gave him the first brief glimpses of what it meant to be educated.

Former Holy Cross president Rev. John E. Brooks read a citation to Thomas as he received an honorary degree, recalling Thomas as a disenchanted transfer student who's never forgotten his school, even as he's become a dedicated justice.

Brooks recruited Thomas and 19 other black students to the Worcester school after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. Thomas had recently quit seminary and been booted out of his grandfather's home in Georgia. He said he'd never be where he is today without Brooks.

"It is here that I enjoyed the first brief glimpses of what it meant to be educated. It is here that I tried to exchange the cloak of animus and self-pity for that of hopefulness and charity," Thomas said at the ceremony. "...It is here that I took one long painful step to becoming a man."

He continued, "And it was here, directly in front of the chapel, on the morning of April 16, 1970, that I promised the Almighty God that if he took hate out of my heart I would never hate again. He did and I have not."

Thomas, the third longest-serving justice at the Supreme Court, also personally paid glowing tribute to Brooks, saying "I thank God you were born, I thank God you became a priest and that you came to Holy Cross.

"I know I speak for many when I say had there not been Fr. Brooks, we would not be where we are — I certainly wouldn't," Thomas said while looking at his mentor. "You are paternal, but never paternalistic. You saw each of us as a person, not a project."

Thomas also discussed the book "Fraternity" by Diane Brady, in which she follows five men, including Thomas, through college and their relationships with Brooks.

During the discussion, Thomas talked about the close bonds forged by the nine justices in the Supreme Court, saying that the most difficult part of the job — after serving on the bench for 20 years — is saying goodbye to retiring colleagues.