Campus & Community

Harvard awards Sen. Kennedy honorary degree

6 min read

Political dignitaries, family members, current and former colleagues, faculty, students, old friends, and admirers were all part of the capacity crowd that filled Harvard’s Sanders Theatre Dec. 1 to honor the life of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

In a festive and at times emotional ceremony that lasted just over an hour, Kennedy received an honorary degree from the University in recognition of a career spanning almost 50 years and distinguished by its devotion to public service. Rare at Harvard, special convocations of this sort have been convened for an elite group that includes George Washington, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Winston Churchill, and Nelson Mandela.

As he waited in a long, snaking line to enter the hall, David Grossman, a 1961 graduate of Harvard Law School, was moved to tears as he spoke about the importance of the event.

“I have enormous respect and affection for Sen. Kennedy; I felt it was important to be here,” he said, adding that Kennedy was “someone with passionate dedication to the needs of all Americans, someone in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt who, despite his class background, was able to look at the needs of everyone.”

Before the event, a slide show of photos that captured the life of the senator played on a large screen above the stage: poignant images, ranging from black-and-white shots of a young senator with his brothers to current pictures of Kennedy with members of Harvard’s faculty and President Drew Faust.

A number of national and local politicians were in the audience to pay tribute to the senior senator from Massachusetts, including Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who entered the hall quietly but was quickly recognized and welcomed with a standing ovation.

At the beginning of the ceremony, the crowd viewed grainy video footage of a snow-covered football field. The clip showed the only touchdown scored in the 1955 Harvard-Yale game by then-senior right end, Kennedy, wearing number 88. Despite his recent illness and the cool temperatures, the senator was on hand for the 125th playing of “The Game” at Harvard Stadium in November (which ended in a 10-0 win for the Crimson).

Kennedy has served in the U.S. Senate for 46 years and is its second most senior serving member. His long career has been distinguished by a tireless commitment to serving those in need. Immigration, education, health care, fighting poverty, civil rights, and the environment are just a few of the causes that he has championed. His reputation for working with members of the opposing party is legendary and has led to countless successes with a wide range of major legislation. His efforts have earned him the nickname “The Lion of the Senate.”

Diagnosed with brain cancer in May, Kennedy has continued to work throughout his treatment. He returned to the Senate shortly after surgery to cast a tie-breaking vote on a Medicare bill, and in August spoke at the Democratic Convention in Denver. Currently he is at work on a bipartisan, universal health care initiative, one he hopes Congress will pass early next year.

Music for the afternoon event included “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” and “Fair Harvard” by the Harvard University Band; the singing of “America the Beautiful” by James Onstad ’09; a performance of two preludes by George Gershwin, “Andante con moto e poco rubato” and “Allegro ben ritmato e deciso,” by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 and pianist Charlie Albright ’11; and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” by the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College.

After University Marshal Jackie O’Neill called the convocation to order, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, offered a prayer that began, “Let us now praise famous men, and let us remember to honor goodness as much as greatness.”

Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who worked as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 1979 and 1980 (which Kennedy then chaired), praised Kennedy for his long career in public service and his ability to forge relationships and bring people together.

“He has endlessly reached across the aisle,” said Breyer, “becoming a symbol of what Americans can do when they work together cooperatively in public life. That is the essence of the accomplishment that Harvard honors today with this degree, with this special convocation.”

Harvard President Drew Faust lauded Kennedy for his tireless efforts “on behalf of society’s most vulnerable members.

“The poor, the unemployed, the disabled, the elderly, the seriously ill, veterans wounded in battle, newcomers from foreign lands, men and women facing bias in employment, in housing, children deprived of the chance for a decent start in life. He has met them by the thousands. And he has made himself a part of their struggles and of their hopes for a better life.

“And no United States senator,” she added, “has committed more of his time and his wisdom to the advancement of American higher education. Thanks to him, students across the spectrum have the opportunity to pursue their ambitions.”

In a brief but passionate and moving speech, Kennedy thanked Harvard for the opportunity it gave him and for fostering his love of football, history, and public service. With his remarks, he also invoked President-elect Barack Obama, and the significance of the recent election.

“We elected a 44th president who, by virtue of his race, could have been legally owned by 16 presidents of the United States previously. We judged him, as Martin Luther King said, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character and the capacity of his leadership. For America, this is not just a culmination, but a new beginning.”

Kennedy’s talk offered a further moment of reflection as he remembered the words of his late brother President John F. Kennedy, who told him that the title “liberal” should be considered a proud one. He said, “If by a liberal, they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind … someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions … someone who cares about the welfare of the people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, their civil liberties … Someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicion that grips us. … If that is what they mean by a liberal … I am proud to be a liberal.”

In looking ahead, Kennedy offered a vision of hope for future generations.

“Since I was a boy, I have known the joy of sailing the waters off Cape Cod. And for all my years in public life, I have believed that America must sail towards the shores of liberty and justice for all. No, there is no end to that journey, only the next great voyage. We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make.”

The band played the senator off the stage with a reprise of “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” He left the theater with his wife Victoria at his side, flashing a wide and appreciative smile and giving a vigorous two thumbs up to the applauding crowd.