It has been a very moving and intense few days. We were delighted to be hosting Senator Edward Kennedy as this year’s Commencement speaker, and then deeply disturbed about his hospitalization and cancer diagnosis. Our hearts go out to the Kennedy family. Senator Kennedy, a Wesleyan honorary degree recipient, has great family ties to our school. His son, Ted Jr., graduated 25 years ago, and his stepdaughter Caroline is in this class of 2008. Senator Kennedy has been one of the great supporters of higher education during his many years of public service. His dedication to civil rights, to labor, to health care, and to a pragmatic and principled politics, has made him one of the most productive legislators in modern American history.
When news of Senator Kennedy’s medical condition became widely known, his family assured me that they would see to it that if he were unable to deliver the Commencement address they would suggest a suitable alternative. Among those asking the Senator what they could do to be helpful, was Barack Obama. “Ted and I talked about me filling in for him at Wesleyan University earlier this week. Considering what he’s done for me and for our country, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him. So I’m looking forward to standing in his place on Sunday even though I know I won’t be able to fill his shoes,” Senator Obama said.
Senator Obama’s speech to our graduates this Sunday is an act of friendship, and friendship is one of the defining features of our Commencement. The graduate students who have finished their degrees and the class of 2008 will be leaving Middletown on Sunday afternoon, but they will be taking with them relationships that will last a lifetime. As I meet with alumni across the country, a common thread in their description of why Wesleyan is important to them is that they developed relationships here which last a lifetime. The devotion to alma mater is also a devotion to the friendships forged in study, or in sports, in the arts, or in civic engagement.
We will see that devotion in these days leading up to commencement. Alumni from more than fifty years ago, and alumni from our most recent classes are coming back on campus for the weekend. My own class, 1978, will be celebrating our 30th reunion, and I look forward to seeing many friends as they re-discover their old homes, dorms and classrooms.
Senator Obama’s willingness to “stand in his friend’s place” on Sunday is not a campaign event but a poignant expression of friendship. There will be many other such expressions occurring all over campus as we welcome a new group of Wesleyan grads into the alumni family.
P.S. Please remember that Commencement is not a grand public occasion but the culmination of the Wesleyan experience for the graduates and their families.