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UMass put them on the road back

By Used with permission from the Eagle Tribune Online.

By Mark E. Vogler
Staff Writer

LOWELL -- Michael Connolly suffered a major career setback in December 2001 when he lost his job after 22 years with the same electronics company. Then 44, the North Andover man had a wife and three children counting on him as he launched a desperate job search.

Robert C. Calkins recalled the doctors telling him he had "a less than 5 percent chance" of ever walking again when he as an 18-year-old he was run over by a car in June 1995. With his neck broken in three places, the Byfield teen's future seemed bleak before it even started.

But despite the pouring rain yesterday, Connolly and Calkins both had sunshine on their face and bright visions of their future when they walked out of the Tsongas Arena. They were among the 1,500 students receiving bachelors', masters' and doctoral degrees at the UMass Lowell commencement.

"It gave me an excuse and a reason to get out of a dying company and move on," said Connolly, who earned his master's of business administration after graduating with honors and being named his department's outstanding graduate student.

"I viewed it more as an opportunity -- a great opportunity. Had I found a new job right away, I never would have had this chance. It just turned into a real positive experience."

Caulkins, now 25, said he made the most of his education, too, after proving the doctors wrong.

"I'm not only walking, but running," said Caulkins, who received a bachelor's degree in business administration.

"This is a time of jubilation and joy for me. I graduate with a 3.8 cum and got my life back together."

The late John Ogonowski of Dracut drew the longest and loudest applauds yesterday -- a thunderous standing ovation -- when his wife Peggy went up to receive his honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree. Ogonowski was captain of American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the first World Trade Center tower on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I'm proud to remember him, of course, as an alumnus of this school," said commencement speaker James Carroll, a Boston Globe columnist and best-selling book author who also received an honorary degree.

"He embodies the thing that makes human beings noble in the face of death."

Ogonowski graduated from Lowell Technological Institute (now UMass, Lowell), in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering.

"While he excelled in the air, the love for the land kept him grounded," said Congressman Martin T. Meehan (D-Lowell), who introduced Ogonowski.

Meehan noted that he was a fourth generation farmer. "His personal mission was to create farm opportunities for immigrants and to preserve open space," he said.

Ogonowski worked with the former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Gus Schumacher to secure 150 acres of farmland on Marsh Hill Road in Dracut, through the Agriculture Preservation Restriction Program. He was also one of the first "mentor farmers" in a program to allow Southeast Asian immigrants from the area to receive training in farming.

In his commencement speech, Carroll likened Ogonowski's final thoughts to the last words of one-time presidential hopeful Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated 35 years ago.

"Is everybody safe? ... Is everybody safe," Carroll said.

"It's a question that an airline captain asks, and we know that Capt John Ogonwoski died with a heart filled with concern for his passengers and all of us ... Is everybody safe?"

But, Carroll, who has been critical in some of his columns of the Bush administration's war in Iraq, also challenged the graduates to question "is everybody safe from us? It is a question that history obligates me to lift up here."

At one point during his speech, Carroll drew a mixed reactions of applause and boos when he asked "Where are the weapons of mass destruction?"

"Why are we cutting taxes when teachers and librarians are being laid off?," he asked, referring to the President's recent tax cut."

"Make your life choices with an eye on more than the bottom line," Carroll urged the graduates.