MEDFORD – In 1985, when Hank Azaria marched with his class at the Tufts University commencement, he received an empty box. It would take him another two years, and some pestering from his mother, to finish all the credits needed for his degree.
But on Sunday, Azaria appeared at the 160th commencement of Tufts University in a rather different position. He was the guest of honor, and in his commencement address, he treated the 3,601 graduates to the standard bits of life advice but with a twist – they were delivered as characters from “The Simpsons.”
“If a cop even thinks you’re going to throw up in their backseat they will immediately let you go,” Azaria, the Emmy Award-winning actor, said as one of the many characters he voices on “The Simpsons,” Chief Wiggum.
As Moe the Bartender, he took a gentle swipe at a cross-town rival.
“I didn’t have a fancy, high-falutin education,” Moe said. “I went to BU. I majored in not getting hit by cars on Commonwealth Avenue.”
In the voice of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the operator of the Springfield Kwik-E-Mart, Azaria told the Tufts students he shared much in common with them. “We both worship an elephant.”
He switched then to the salty voice of the Old Sea Captain, and told the graduates to remember “the sea is a cruel mistress, but Medford is worse, so you’ll be fine.”
And he ended in the droll, pompous voice of Comic Book Guy. “Life is like the ‘Star Wars’ movies,” he said. “Some of it is great. Some of it stinks. But you have no choice but to sit through all of it, much like this commencement address.”
Azaria’s speech was the centerpiece of the ceremony, which took place under cloudy skies and a threat of rain that never materialized.
In addition to Azaria, the school also awarded honorary degrees to Janet Echelman, the artist whose flowing aerial sculpture hung high above the Rose Kennedy Greenway recently; H. Jack Geiger, a physician and human rights advocate who created the community health center model in the U.S.; Martin Granoff, an entrepreneur and Tufts parent who endowed a music center and Hillel center at the school; Margot Stern Strom, the president emerita of Facing History and Ourselves; and Sonia Manzano, who has played Maria on the children’s television show “Sesame Street” for more than 40 years.
Despite the cloudy skies, the commencement ceremony was a festive, occasionally rowdy affair, with graduates of the various colleges trying to out-woo each other each time their school was mentioned.
It was also, as commencements are, draped in that bittersweet feeling of old chapters ending and new ones beginning, when the celebration of academic achievement comes with the unrelenting encroachment of the real world. Parents cried. Friends gathered together for selfies and vowed to stay friends forever. Student loans were mentioned.
And it was, as always, decidedly sweet, when spring is in bloom and new chapters await, “the happiest moment of the academic year,” as Tufts University President Anthony P. Monaco put it.
“It is time to say goodbye,” Monaco said. “And good luck.”