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Baker cites mother’s battle against Alzheimer’s in commencement speech

During his commencement address on Mother’s Day at the DCU Center in Worcester, Governor Charlie Baker told Nichols College graduates that his mother has “never complained” during her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Christine Peterson/Telegram & Gazette/AP

During his commencement address on Mother’s Day at the DCU Center in Worcester, Governor Charlie Baker told Nichols College graduates that his mother has “never complained” during her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

WORCESTER — In an emotional commencement address, Governor Charlie Baker urged Nichols College graduates Sunday morning to remain positive during times of adversity, citing his mother’s bravery while struggling with Alzheimer’s disease as an example of such grace.

“Be constructive, be positive, and try to focus on what works instead of what doesn’t,” Baker said during his 15-minute address at the DCU Center.

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The first-term Republican said he was not suggesting graduates should be “willfully blind to the challenges and hardships we all endure.”

However, he said, “the choice about how you deal with all of that belongs to you.”

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Baker, noting that the graduation fell on Mother’s Day, turned to his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, a devastating form of dementia that worsens over time, to illustrate the point.

He said she was first diagnosed with the condition about 10 years ago and now lives in a facility where she receives round-the-clock care.

As the symptoms began to take hold, Baker said, “mom never complained,” instead telling her family how much she appreciated them.

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Baker took a lengthy pause and fought back tears as he described his father’s initial response to the diagnosis.

“He always said, ‘she took care of us, and now we take care of her,’ ” Baker said, adding that his parents “showed me late in life that they could still play the hand [they were dealt] too, even when the cards are cruel and unrelenting.”

The governor, who has made news as one of the many establishment Republicans voicing opposition to Donald J. Trump, the party’s presumptive nominee for president, generally steered clear of current events during his speech.

But he did say at one point that “it’s pretty easy to let the stuff that doesn’t work weigh you down” and then listed “presidential politics” among a litany of things that can discourage people.

He also discussed a setback in his political career, when he lost a hard-fought gubernatorial election to the then-incumbent, Democrat Deval Patrick, in 2010. Baker recalled that soon after the defeat, a young man called him and asked if he would speak at a robotics conference in Boston.

“ ‘I want you to talk about why it’s OK to fail,’ ” Baker quoted the man as saying. “My first thought was, ‘you are so lucky you are not standing right in front of me.’ ”

After pausing for laughter from the crowd, Baker continued, “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a great idea. Because almost nothing that’s worth having in life is achieved without taking a chance on failure. It’s OK to fail.”

Nichols, based in Dudley, focuses on business education supported by a liberal arts curriculum. It conferred 325 bachelor’s degrees, 128 master’s degrees, and four associate’s degrees to students Sunday.

The procession of graduates began marching down the center of the auditorium around 10:20 a.m.

Clad in dark-colored caps and gowns, they beamed as thousands of family members and friends cheered from the stands and a brass band played “Pomp and Circumstance,” the traditional accompaniment to commencement processions.

Before Baker spoke, undergraduate valedictorian Jaime L. Miglionico, a psychology major, told her classmates that “it’s time to look at what’s before us.”

“We are going to remember the times that we were inspired,” she said of her and her classmates’ time on campus. “Each of us has something to offer this world.”

Sean Hoey, the senior class president who received a degree in international business and finance, urged his friends to future successes by channeling the rallying cry of Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots head coach known for telling his players to “do your job.” Hoey repeated the mantra several times during his speech, and Baker and other dignitaries on stage mouthed the phrase behind him.

“Take everything you have gained during your time at Nichols,” Hoey told his classmates, while assuring them that “you do . . . your . . . job, and you do it well.”

Baker returned to the theme during his address, repeating the phrase himself a number of times while also telling the Class of 2016 to take healthy risks.

“I would urge you to take chances, smart chances, and recognize that if you never get outside your comfort zone, you will never get to where you truly want to be.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
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