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MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — When Senator Edward M. Kennedy endorsed Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in January, Mr. Kennedy passed the torch of Democratic liberalism, saying it was “time again for a new generation of leadership.”
On Sunday, Mr. Obama embraced the legacy by standing in for Mr. Kennedy, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor last week, and delivering the commencement speech at Wesleyan University.
The symbolism of protégé and mentor permeated Mr. Obama’s address, which called graduates to public service, honored Mr. Kennedy and reflected the legacy of his family.
“It is rare in this country of ours that a person exists who has touched the lives of nearly every single American without any of us even realizing it,” Mr. Obama said, his voice rising. “And I have a feeling that Ted Kennedy is not done just yet. But surely, if one man can achieve so much and make such a difference in the lives of so many, then each of us can do our part.”
Mr. Kennedy has deep ties to Wesleyan — his stepdaughter graduated Sunday, and his son Edward Jr. celebrated his 25th reunion this weekend.
Mr. Obama implored the 737 undergraduates and 100 graduate students to change the country and the world through service to others, a theme Mr. Kennedy planned to focus on. Mr. Obama urged them to help rebuild New Orleans, volunteer at a local soup kitchen or help end the situation in Darfur, and to remember that change will come, though not immediately.
“It’s because you have an obligation to yourself, because our individual salvation depends on our collective salvation,” Mr. Obama said. “Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.”
Mr. Obama paralleled his life to the Kennedy family, telling graduates he was born the year John F. Kennedy “called a generation of Americans to ask their country what they could do” and went on to become a community organizer in Chicago because he was inspired by that call to service and by stories of the civil rights movement.
Mr. Obama also mentioned Robert F. Kennedy, whose assassination late in the Democratic presidential nomination process was referred to last week by Mr. Obama’s rival, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a reason for staying in the race.
Mr. Obama told graduates not to take the easy way out and flag in their dedication to helping others and enacting change.
“I hope you’ll remember, during this those times of doubt and frustration, that there is nothing naïve about your impulse to change the world,” Mr. Obama said. “Because all it takes is one act of service — one blow against injustice — to send forth that tiny ripple of hope that Robert Kennedy spoke of.”
John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College, said the speech showed that Mr. Obama was assuming the mantle of Edward Kennedy’s liberal legacy.
“This event is a symbolic passing of the torch of Democratic liberalism from Ted Kennedy to Barack Obama,” Professor Pitney said. “It’s a happy coincidence of being gallant and politically smart. He’s filling in for an ailing friend and at the same time doing a world of political good. Moments like that are rare.”
Representative Bill Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts, a good friend of Mr. Kennedy and a supporter of Mr. Obama, said Mr. Obama’s offer to deliver the address highlighted the bond between the two men.
“It clearly is a demonstration of profound respect, but it’s more than that,” Mr. Delahunt said. “There’s a personal connection there, and it’s symbolic of a new generation.”
In addition to the 10,000 official attendees, about 5,000 people gathered on a hillside on a sparkling spring afternoon to watch Mr. Obama’s speech, which was preceded by a conferring of honorary degrees and a performance by a Japanese student drum group.
Emily Gallivan, 21, said that she was happy with Mr. Obama, but that she appreciated Mr. Kennedy’s ties to the university.
“He has multiple connections to the school,” Ms. Gallivan said, “and it would have been nice to have him speak at his stepdaughter’s graduation.”
Andrew Marvin-Smith, 22, who is heading to China in a few weeks to teach English, said he thought Mr. Obama’s calls to go abroad were needed.
“America needs to pick itself up and get in touch with the rest of the world,” Mr. Marvin-Smith said.
Genevieve Angelson, 22, who affixed felt letters that read “Obama ’08” onto her red graduation gown, said Mr. Obama’s address was one of the most inspiring she had heard.
“It made me feel like we have never been asked to do anything, and the fact that he asked us was appropriately overdue,” Ms. Angelson said.
While Ms. Angelson said she was ecstatic to hear Mr. Obama speak, she was saddened as to why.
“I regret that something so wonderful for us came out of something so sad,” Ms. Angelson said.