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June 5, 2004

Stories of hope stand apart at UMass-Boston graduation

From: Boston Globe, MA - Jun 5, 2004

'Mystic River' author offers tip

By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff | June 5, 2004

William Alexander stood apart from the commencement day bustle outside the Bayside Exposition Center yesterday, surrounded by proud friends and family, as younger graduates of the University of Massachusetts at Boston hurried off to parties clutching orange roses and teddy bears.

The 57-year-old Boston man received his doctorate in psychology, one of 729 graduate students and 1,952 undergraduates to pick up degrees at UMass-Boston's 36th commencement. Alexander, who plans to use his degree to treat veterans and teach community college, had more to reflect on than most: Seventeen years ago, he said, he was a homeless crack addict in California.

"This is really momentous for me," he said, as a friend from a long-ago stint in drug rehab snapped pictures. "It was a long struggle, but it paid off."

"We're bursting at the seams," said his brother, Michael Alexander, who traveled from Chicago for the celebration.

On a day packed with dramatic success stories, graduates heard from their classmate Janet Marcous, who was born deaf and later lost her sight, and who designed her own major in deaf-blind studies at UMass. She urged graduates to become allies "of someone different than you," and attributed her success to her own supporters at the university.

"It's OK to be different here," she said, to thunderous applause.

Commencement speaker Dennis Lehane downplayed his own success as author of the bestselling novel "Mystic River." The Dorchester native whose book was made into an Academy Award-winning film by Clint Eastwood, left UMass Boston before graduating -- a fact he made no effort to hide.

"I dropped out of this school," Lehane reminded the enthusiastic crowd. "You all get that, right?"

His honorary degree from UMass yesterday "impressed my mother more than the whole Clint Eastwood movie thing," said Lehane, who recalled that his parents brought him to see the urban campus the weekend it opened.

Encouraging graduates to live with honor and empathy "day to day, minute by minute," he noted their dependence on others' goodwill, in the form of a publicly funded state college system.

"Public education is a form of public welfare," he said. "So the next time you think about demanding that someone pull himself up by his bootstraps, ask yourself if you did, without help from your parents and school."

Honorary degrees were also awarded to Edward Forry, founder of the Dorchester media company Boston Neighborhood News; cultural diversity expert Ronald Takaki; and Vivian Pinn, director of women's health research at the National Institutes of Health.

Presiding over the program was chancellor Jo Ann Gora, who announced last month that she will leave the school in August to become president of Ball State University. "Be proud of UMass-Boston, and make us proud of you," she told graduates.

She also left the school with a new legacy: commencement concluded with the first-ever singing of the school's new alma mater, "To UMass Boston," adopted this spring at Gora's request.

Jenna Russell can be reached at

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.