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Berkshire Eagle - Kerry Calls Students to Action

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Location: North Adams, MA

Berkshire Eagle - Kerry Calls Students to Action

By Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff

When U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., began his remarks to the MCLA 2008 graduating class and their guests yesterday, it was not with the voice the nation became familiar with during his 2004 run for the White House.

It seems the senator had a frog in his throat.

It quickly became apparent, however, that while his voice was ailing, his wit was not.

"I'm told that you were desperate to find a wealthy guy with a full head of hair who's all over TV and who desperately wanted to be president. But Donald Trump was not available," he said. "So here I am."

The senator was the keynote speaker in a ceremony that celebrated the awarding of 332 bachelor's degrees and 38 master's degrees. He was also one of four people that MCLA President Mary Grant presented with honorary degrees.

Kerry left the ceremony abruptly after his speech: Grant told the gathering that the senator had just learned that his colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, had been hospitalized after suffering an apparent seizure.

During the address, Kerry's humorous remarks tumbled out one after the other, keeping the hundreds of members of the audience gathered in the Amsler Campus Center Gymnasium laughing for several minutes.

He told the gathering that MCLA has an impressive legacy, and noted that the list of commencement speakers was also impressive, citing last year's speaker Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, and the year before was "my good friend Ted Kennedy. But I couldn't believe the big name the school got as its very first commencement speaker back in 1894 — John McCain."

And so it went for a few minutes. Just when it seemed he was getting down to business, he was setting up another punch line.

He praised the school for standing tall through more than a century, through the Industrial revolution and into the technological revolution.

Kerry noted the school's efforts to fight global warming and sustainability.

"And I think it's too bad George Bush and Dick Cheney can't take classes here and learn about those particular issues, but I spoke to the dean of admissions, who told me neither one had the grades to get in," he said.

Kerry graduated from Yale in 1966. "Back then there was an unpopular war, we had a president from Texas who had high disapproval ratings, Ted Kennedy was a U.S. senator, and the Rolling Stones were going on tour," he recalled. "Thank God so much has changed."

Toward the end of his remarks, Kerry made it clear to the graduates that what happens next for America is in their hands.

"We do live in a great country, we are blessed," he said. "But somehow, this great nation of ours is stuck in a state of avoidance, of inactivity. Some of the greatest challenges of our time are staring us in the face and nothing serious is happening on any of it."

He pointed to the spiraling cost of health care, global climate change, and an unfair tax code.

"In the 1980s in America, the top 1 percent of income earners took home 8 percent of America's income," Kerry said. "In the 1990s, the top 1 percent of America's income earners took home about 16 percent of America's income. Today, because of what he called the institutional unfairness that has been legislated and allowed to be put in place, the top 1 percent of America's income earners take home 23 percent of America's income."

"There are solutions, but not one of them is seriously on the table in Washington right now," he continued. "My friends, we have to make this great nation of ours fair again. We have to fight to hold the system accountable. Change doesn't happen by itself. You have to translate your sense of right and wrong into action."

He recalled that when he was demonstrating against the Vietnam War, many war supporters reacted with the saying, "My country, right or wrong."

"And I'd agree with that," he continued. "My country, right or wrong. When it's right, keep it right. When it's wrong, make it right. That's what I hope you'll do. Congratulations."

Also receiving honorary degrees were retired engineer Arlindo Jorge, who was presented with a Doctor of Humanities degree; Lola Jaffe, president of the board of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, who received a Doctor of Fine Arts degree; and MCLA alumnus and local educator Donald Pecor, who was presented with a Doctor of Pedagogy degree.

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