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AOL exec offers instant messages for a productive life

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By STEPHANIE COYNE Sun Correspondent

LOWELL -- AOL's vice chairman had some financial advice for UMass Lowell graduates yesterday.

And it made their parents very happy.

"It's OK to live at home while you save money, but -- pay rent, then move out," Theodore J. Leonsis said as the standing room only crowd at the Paul E. Tsongas Arena erupted in cheers and laughter.

"Learn to balance a checkbook and never loan money to friends -- they'll never pay you back," he said. "Your parents are a lot smarter than you think."

UMass awarded an honorary degree to Leonsis, a Lowell native, who delivered the commencement address. He said to make it in today's world, count time, not pennies.

"Passion matters -- don't put things off. A great movement starts with one person, one idea," he said. "Make a list of what you want to accomplish in life and volunteer your time. There are millions of causes that need your help. Do something other than think of yourself."

A 1973 graduate of Lowell High School, Leonsis co-founded Redgate Communications in 1987. Seven years later, America Online, Inc. bought the company in a stock exchange valued at $33 million.

The local boy made very good -- he bought the Washington Capitals NHL team last year, and is the youngest alumnus ever to donate $1 million to Georgetown University -- urged the graduates to "listen to other voices" and embrace diversity.

"There is more salsa sold than ketchup," he said. "Think global. There are no cultures any more. The universal languages have become C++ and HTML."

Lowell resident Lawrence E. Rolwes, the class valedictorian, also praised diversity.

"Take a look around you at your fellow students," said Rolwes, 23, a civil engineering major who earned his bachelor's degree with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.

"Some people face language barriers, perhaps work full or part-time, and they struggled to get here today," he said. "Despite the diversity, the common thread we share is attending UMass. We came for a single purpose -- education -- and we gained an education in life."

The diversity was evident just looking at the crowd. Gregory Griffith of Methuen surprised his parents, Deb and Scott, by making himself easier to spot in the crowd.

Deb Griffith told her son to get a haircut and a new shirt for graduation. He did cut his hair -- into a 4-inch, fuschia mohawk.

"What did he do?" his mother said as she saw him in the crowd.

"I tried to dye it red last night but it came out bright pink," said Griffith, 24.

"He's toned down a lot since his adolescence," his father said.

Griffith earned his bachelor's degree in physics and plans to enroll in graduate school in the fall. He said he would shave off the mohawk before he returned to work at Scientific Solutions in Chelmsford today.

The other recipients of the 1,200 bachelor's, 514 master's, and 55 doctoral degrees awarded were more sedate, but just as happy.

David Stewart, 23, earned his bachelor's degree in criminal justice and now plans to attend New England School of Law in Boston. He lived the first two years on campus and the last three living at home in Wilmington, while working part-time at Sears in the Burlington Mall.

"We are proud. He is the last of our three children to go through college," said his parents, Bobby and Lydia Stewart.

Denise Roach, 50, of Lexington, a first- and second-grade teacher at Ditson Elementary School in Billerica for the past 29 years, was awarded her master's degree in education administration after three years of night classes.

"I went to school 30 years ago for my teaching degree, and I now have a better understanding of the new educational theory," she said.

Lowell's Treena Landers graduated cum laude with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and psychology. The 30-year-old mother of one was also the vice president of the art history club. Landers works at UMass in the undergraduate admissions office and hopes to become an elementary teacher in Lowell schools.

Jeff Nichols, 23, of Tewksbury, transferred from Middlesex Community College in 1999. Yesterday he received his bachelor of science in business administration with a 3.76 grade point average. Nichols was also a member of the honor society of business. He works at Putnam Investments in Andover where he will begin work full time.

"The big diversity of people in Lowell helped me make a lot of friends with people from various places around the world," he said.