March 28, 1988 12:00 PM

“Just wonderful,” said maestro Leonard Bernstein. “A mammoth pop-soul Halloween party staged in an amusement park,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden. Rock frau Christie Brinkley bubbled, “It’s the best of Broadway, the best of rock and roll and the best of Disneyland all put onstage. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

Michael Jackson is accustomed to breathless reactions to his musical performances—in this case the three segments of his Bad tour staged at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

But even this lionizing paled next to the tributes accorded that same week to Jackson—who has had little in the way of formal education—as he received an honorary doctorate from Nashville’s Fisk University at the United Negro College Fund’s 44th Anniversary Dinner in Manhattan. Gratitude was certainly in order. One of the Garden concerts was a benefit for the Fund, and at the dinner, 2,000 friends and fans paid up to $1,000 each to join in honoring Jackson.

The four-hour dinner was, thankfully, not another overcooked example of the showbiz roast. The worst thing anybody said about Michael came from producer Quincy Jones, who revealed that he calls Jackson “Smelly” because MJ has a shrewd nose for business.

This was a sheer testimonial to the famous eccentric whose recent acts of generosity include a $600,000 contribution to the UNCF and the donation of all royalties from his hit single “Man in the Mirror” to Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, a California charity for children with cancer. The Wall Street Journal had editorialized that Jackson deserves wide praise for his philanthropy. But not even the Journal could have forecast the bull market of appreciation that showered upon Jackson as he sat on a dais with such friends and admirers as Liza Minnelli and Liz Taylor.

“Michael is the only true entertainer who’s happened in the last 20 years,” Minnelli said, adding that he is “probably the most interesting person I know. His curiosity is boundless—art, literature, all the good stuff.”

Taylor rose to declare that “I don’t think a better person has ever hit this planet.” She also lauded Jackson for “the things you have done that so few people know about, the things that you have done anonymously, alone, that not even the receiver knows about. That is true charity: asking nothing in return. At least it was all secret until I opened my big mouth.”

“I’ve never met a human being with more strict values,” said Jones. “You’re courteous, you’re kind and you never throw your weight around.” In passing, Jones also listed some of Jackson’s own idols: Michelangelo, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Steven Spielberg. Even President Reagan checked in, via videotape, to pay homage to the man he called “the new Doctor J.”

Perhaps the most touching testimonial was delivered by Curressia McFarland, 21, who said that if it hadn’t been for Jackson, who has sponsored 97 UNCF scholarships, she could not have gone to college. Now she’s a senior at Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss. When she noted she had a 3.9 grade point average, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. Jackson—who in a brief acceptance speech had said, “To want to learn, to have the capacity to learn and not to be able to learn is a tragedy”—gave McFarland three kisses.

After all the ceremony, Jackson’s manager, Frank DiLeo, offered his tribute. “I’m very proud of Mike,” he said. “I think tonight people saw that the kid has turned into a man.”

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