By From the Lowell Sun
By Jennifer Myers
LOWELL -- Silence fell over the packed Tsongas Arena yesterday morning as nearly 2,000 graduates of University of Massachusetts Lowell's class of 2008 eagerly awaited their degrees.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, the commencement speaker, strode to the podium.
A lone voice echoed through the arena.
"Don't tase me, bro!"
Kerry looked up and chuckled at the reference to an incident last September when, during a speech at the University of Florida, a student who university police felt was asking the senator inappropriate questions was restrained through the use of a Taser.
"FDR is remembered for 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself,' President Kennedy for 'Don't ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,' and as this fellow reminds me I will be remembered for 'Don't tase me, bro,'" the state's junior senator laughed, before bestowing advice upon the graduates.
Kerry told them to party hard in celebration of their achievements, while remaining cognizant of the pitfalls of today's world.
"Shed your sanity and party like crazy, go for it, live large, let that inner self out -- do not post it on YouTube," he warned.
On a serious note, Kerry stated that this group of graduates is stepping into a unique time in United States history, the first generation setting out "into a truly globalized world where economies and cultures are clashing and co-mingling at the same time."
He added that the country is facing serious problems from Social Security and Medicare reform to the costs of fuel and education and the search for alternative-energy sources. Problems, Kerry said, which need innovative solutions from educated people.
"You cannot afford the luxury of turning your back on the public sector," he said, urging the graduates to use their talents and knowledge to make the region and the world a better place.
"The research that is conducted here and the knowledge you take with you when you leave are what will drive this economy in the years to come. These are the innovations that will create new jobs, new industries throughout the commonwealth and the country."
"You have a responsibility to write the next chapter of the American story," Kerry said.
The commencement marked the first since Marty Meehan became the university's chancellor. Meehan characterized his first year on the job as "inspiring, challenging and satisfying."
Meehan added that he is particularly inspired by several members of the class of 2008, like Barbara Warren, of Littleton.
Warren, the class co-valedictorian, is the mother of four children and stepmother to three. Fittingly, she earned a degree in psychology yesterday, managing to retain a perfect 4.0 grade-point average while juggling family responsibilities.
"Every one of you has a story to tell," Meehan said. "You aspired to advance yourself, you dreamed of acquiring knowledge that would allow you to contribute to society."
Student Government Association President Stephen Holstrom, of Gardner, urged graduates to never lose sight of their connection to the university.
"The university has given us not only the tools to succeed, but the skills to do great things, and we will do great things," said Holstrom, who earned a degree in political science yesterday. "We must remember with pride that we are from UMass Lowell."
This year's Distinguished Alumni Award was presented to Thomas O'Connor, president and CEO of DCP Mainstream LLP, a company in the natural gas business. He spent 20 years working for Duke Energy before joining the company last year.
O'Connor, a Lawrence native, created two endowment funds at the university and was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Biology Department in 2004.
Honorary degrees were awarded to Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande, co-founder and chairman of Sycamore Networks Inc.; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first African-American woman to attend the University of Georgia and award-winning journalist whose work in Africa for CNN and National Public Radio, brought human rights abuses to light; Gerald Martone (Class of 1979), director of Humanitarian Affairs at the International Rescue Committee; Edward O. Wilson of Lexington, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, scientist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author; and Mary Jo Leahey (Class of 1937), a well-known philanthropist who is the benefactor of and inspiration for the Mary Jo Leahey High School Summer Band Camp.