WALTHAM — Charlie Baker delivered his first commencement address since leaving public office Saturday morning at Bentley University, sharing lessons from his grandparents and parents in a speech that emphasized the value of personal relationships over professional achievements.
He opened his remarks on a lighthearted note with jokes about speeches at graduations of his own that he’d forgotten. Baker said he couldn’t remember who addressed his high school graduation and shared the names of the keynote speakers at his graduations from Harvard University and Northwestern University’s business school, but couldn’t recall what they said.
“So I’m starting from a place where I recognize the extremely high bar I have to climb over here today to say anything you might recall,” said Baker with a smile. The former two-term Massachusetts governor became president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association in March. During his tenure, polls found Baker to be popular — at times the country’s most popular governor.
His advice included clichés, Baker said, “However, that doesn’t make them wrong.”
Make good choices. Be a good listener. Consider life is a “team sport.” Find purpose.
Baker offered stories from his life to illustrate the advice.
There was the unlikely pairing of his grandparents, who chose each other even though they came from different socioeconomic backgrounds, Baker said, and were considered “an odd couple for their time.”
His mother, Elizabeth G. “Betty” Baker, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, inspired his advice about listening.
“You have two ears and one mouth for a reason,” Baker quoted his mother as saying.
He became emotional as he told graduates about how his father, now 94, cared for his mother as she declined. Their marriage, Baker said, gave their lives meaning and love.
“My dad always felt that he won the lottery when he met and married my mom,” Baker said. “And while he hated the Alzheimer’s disease that ruined the last 10 years of her life, he found joy in caring for her when she got sick because that gave him purpose.”
He didn’t address his tenure as governor and devoted most of his discussion about his political life to his unsuccessful campaign to oust then-governor Deval Patrick in 2010 and how the loss shaped him.
Baker said he’s drawn purpose from aspects of his life beyond the public sphere, like his marriage and children.
“Note that I didn’t mention politics,” he told graduates. “I found tremendous purpose in public service, but it pales compared to 35 years of marriage, three children, and the neighbors and friends who bucked us up in the years before I did anything in government and have been there to do the same throughout my time in office and beyond.”
Baker closed his remarks by reading from a letter he wrote to his daughter when she graduated from college. In the letter, Baker wrote that life is a series of choices and challenges.
“The choices you make can determine the kinds of challenges you face and the arsenal of support and guidance that will be there to see you through them,” he said. “Don’t fear challenges and disappointments. Growth is often about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and learning from difficult moments.”
After Baker’s remarks, the university awarded undergraduate degrees to 962 students gathered on the football field as family and friends watched from the stands.
At about 11 a.m. it began to rain, and spectators opened umbrellas, pulled on plastic ponchos, and some found shelter in the Dana Athletic Center, where the university broadcast the ceremony in a gymnasium.
Isabel Bueno, 21, held her degree over her head to shield herself from the rain. Her family traveled from Colombia for graduation.
Bueno said her degree in business economics marks a “new chapter in my life.”
“I’m excited for what comes next,” said Bueno, who hopes to find work in New York.
Her twin brother, Juan, also graduated this month — from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she said.
“It was a big celebration, a big accomplishment to be able to come here and study abroad,” she said. “I learned a lot of new tools for life.”
Moises Kopel, 22, wore a graduation stole featuring the flag of his native country, Panama. He is planning to return to Panama to work for UBS.
“I’m proud that I’m Panamanian, studied abroad, and I had the opportunity — thanks to my family and friends — of attending college here,” Kopel said.
Kyle Gilbert, of Flemington, N.J., was a director of the university’s Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Center as an undergraduate. The center organizes community service opportunities for students.
Gilbert said the center gave him the chance to mentor students at the Watertown Boys & Girls Club and at a middle school in Waltham. The university, he said, provided him with leadership opportunities.
“It made me so much more confident going into the future,” said Gilbert, who plans to work for MetLife in Whippany, N.J.
Christina Lee, who is from Taiwan, earned a degree in corporate finance and accounting. She said she appreciated the support her friends provided while she was studying in the United States and called graduation “a personal accomplishment.”
“It means a lot,” said Lee, who plans to work for EY in Boston.
Her roommate Sabrina Sam, of Braintree, earned a degree in finance. She said she plans to enter an analyst program at Liberty Mutual in Boston.
She summed up commencement this way: “It’s just a celebration of all the memories I made and hard work I put in.”