Mayor Martin J. Walsh captivated graduates at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston on Saturday morning with his personal story of overcoming cancer, alcoholism, and poor choices to triumph as a state representative and now the mayor of Boston.
In his first commencement address as mayor, Walsh seemed more passionate than he has in other speeches as he delivered a positive message to 196 graduates at the institute.
The mayor also marked another accomplishment at the event, when the college’s president, Anthony G. Benoit, presented Walsh with his first-ever honorary degree for commitment to civic responsibility, access to quality education, and workforce development.
“When I got out of the car this morning, I didn’t think I was a doctor,” Walsh said. “When I get back in the car, I’ll be a doctor.”
Walsh’s speech came on a bright, sunny weekend filled with pomp and circumstance. Graduates heard from a famous scientist, a human rights crusader, and popular new mayor on a day of historic milestones — the 60th anniversary the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. the Board of Education ruling and the 10th anniversary of same-sex marriage.
Suffolk University Law School graduates gave Abraham H. Foxman a standing ovation after his inspiring account of his transformation from growing up as a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied Poland to becoming a crusader against hatred and injustice as national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman had come under fire from some students who sought to block him from speaking at the university and accused him of opposing US recognition of the 1915 Armenian massacre as genocide and an effort to build an Islamic community center and mosque near the World Trade Center, which ultimately failed.
At the end of his 15-minute speech Saturday afternoon at Citi Performing Arts Center, Foxman acknowledged the Armenian genocide, and said he has always considered the estimated 1.5 million deaths to be genocide.
“Had there been people of courage in 1915 when the Armenian genocide was happening [and] had there been international intervention in massacres in Cambodia, Bosnia, and the genocide in Rwanda when they were happening, innocent lives would have been saved,” Foxman told the graduates.
“If the ADL now supports the pending Congressional resolution, this would truly be a courageous act against injustice,” said Anthony Barsamian, a 1990 Suffolk Law School graduate and member of the Armenian Assembly of America, in a statement.
In an interview, Foxman said he has long articulated the belief in public statements and on the league’s website.
“It’s nothing new,’’ Foxman said. “I’ve said it before. People don’t want to listen.”
In a statement on the site, Foxman wrote: “Because questions continue to be raised about the Anti-Defamation League’s position on the Armenian genocide, we want to make clear that as we said in August 2008, ADL recognizes the Armenian genocide.”
Foxman also said, in response to critics, that while he supports the right to build a mosque, he questions whether it was wise to consider building a large one near the World Trade Center, which he said some victims have called their cemetery.
Before launching into his speech, Foxman hit back at critics who tried to block him as a graduation speaker, saying he had a right to speak and lauding the university’s refusal “to be bullied or intimidated” by those who oppose his views.
Foxman later explained that he was addressing a troubling pattern of graduation speakers bowing out after facing criticism from faculty or students who dislike their positions.
Foxman cited Christine Lagarde, the first woman to head the International Monetary Fund, and Condoleeza Rice, former secretary of state. Largarde canceled her speech at Smith College after facing IMF protests, and Rice, under fire over the Iraq war, bowed out at Rutgers University.
“There is a phenomenon happening in this country that I think goes against everything that academia represents, which is freedom of speech and freedom of expression,’’ Foxman said. “But if somebody decides what opinion you will hear . . . that’s not freedom of speech. That’s intimidation.”
Suffolk, which had 467 graduates Saturday, awarded Foxman and four others honorary degrees, including US Senator Edward J. Markey, who received an honorary doctorate in public service.
In Lowell, at the University of Massachusetts campus, scientist Bill Nye struck a hopeful note for scientific achievement, urging graduates to seek out the joy of discovery and find solutions to today’s dramatic population and climate shifts.
“We are now deep in the most serious environmental crisis in human history,” Nye said at Tsongas Center. “I believe you all can avoid disaster.”
Nye said a challenging political atmosphere is hindering environmental progress, and he beseeched graduates to reject conspiracy theorists’ assertions about climate change.
At Franklin Institute of Technology, Walsh urged departing students to never lose sight of their dreams, even if they make bad decisions.
Walsh said he had big ambitions as a young man, but when it came to college he did the bare minimum. Poor grades initially kept him out of Suffolk University.
He eventually went to Quincy Junior College, then to Suffolk, but only lasted one semester, Walsh said. He quit school, made money, and drank too much, he said, letting down his family. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time — all the time,’’ Walsh said as the audience laughed.
He finally decided to get sober, but by then he had wasted many years, the mayor said.
“I thought my life was over,’’ Walsh said. “I didn’t realize my life was just beginning.”
When he decided to run for state representative of Dorchester, people doubted him, saying his competitors were more educated.
“I got in that race, and I won that election,’’ Walsh said. “I represented that district in Dorchester for 16 years.”
Last year he won the mayor’s office. At his swearing-in, Walsh said, he was overcome with emotion about his journey.
“I thought of the path that brought me to that stage in Boston College,” he said. “I thought about the challenges I overcame.’’
Jonathan Tejeva, a Lynn resident who received an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering technology, said he found the mayor’s speech inspiring.
“It was awesome,’’ he said. “It was my first time ever being involved in something like that and seeing a politician there, like the mayor.”