Pulling a harmonica out of his pocket and slipping on some dark sunglasses at the podium, University of Southern Maine commencement speaker David Shaw stole the show Saturday with a beat of his own invention – “Ode to Graduation” – complete with lyrics and sung to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” by graduating music major Carolyn Glaude.

“May your lives be full of beautiful music! Congratulations, everyone!” Shaw said when they finished the unexpected duet, as the crowd burst out in applause and hoots. Soprano Glaude, who had clearly been startled at being called back to the stage after earlier singing the national anthem, gave soaring tribute to the lyrics. “Joyful, joyful, graduation, it’s a celebration day. … Now you all have your diplomas, it’s a celebration day,” she sang.

Shaw, a 1976 USM graduate who founded Idexx Laboratories, urged the graduates to take risks, achieve great things and challenge the conventional wisdom.

“I think (this song) is a living example of how to challenge the conventional wisdom,” Shaw told the crowd.

“The world is deeply dependent on people who have the courage to offer new and thoughtful perspectives on important issues, who see what others have seen, but think what no one else has thought,” he said.

About 950 of the university’s 1,700 graduates were on hand for the university’s 134th commencement at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. As they walked in, a sea of black robes and caps, they grinned and waved at friends and family who packed the civic center to near-capacity. Some guests held signs and banners for their grads, while some graduates had decorated their mortarboards with glittery designs or messages like “Be You” and “RN.”

“It’s been such an important time for her,” Terry Newton said as he held a bouquet of flowers for his niece Trista Newton, who is graduating from the nursing program. “She can’t believe graduation is here.”

Several other Maine colleges held commencement this weekend, including the University of Maine in Orono, the University of Maine at Augusta, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Maine College of Art in Portland, and Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.

The commencement speaker at Saint Joseph’s College was Maine State Board of Education vice chairman Peter Geiger, editor of the Farmers’ Almanac, executive vice president of Geiger Inc. and a former trustee of the college. Geiger also serves on the board of Educate Maine, a business-backed education group.

The school awarded 564 degrees Saturday, with 202 graduates from campus, and 362 graduates from its online programs.

In his address, Geiger encouraged the graduates to volunteer.

“It’s a powerful experience,” Geiger said. “I have volunteered all my life. … As graduates of Saint Joseph’s College, you have the skills to live a full life and the foundation to exhibit compassion for others.”

At USM, graduating senior Anna Chiu told the graduates that her own experience of embracing her ethnic Chinese identity after downplaying it for years was a lesson for anyone, particularly graduates on the cusp of great change and pursuing their own identities.

Chiu, who received a bachelor of science degree in health science, plans to travel overseas before attending graduate school. After she graduated from Portland High School, she lived at an animal sanctuary for six months while traveling in Africa and was sports editor and a columnist for the Free Press during her time at USM. She plans to pursue a career in neuroscience.

“Everything you think now will probably be different in the years to come,” she said, urging her fellow graduates to remember their own preconceptions as they entered college. “Your life will be better spent owning the authenticity of your true colors rather than trying to fit in a casing (where) you don’t belong. Please remember that we will never be a finished product, we will always be a work in progress, and be proud of who you are.”

Shaw echoed that sentiment, saying he always thought of himself as “a failed writer” since he never achieved that goal. Shaw was CEO of Westbrook-based Idexx from 1983 to 2002, and then became a director or founding investor of more than a dozen public and private companies in health care, energy, technology and e-commerce. Shaw received a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Southern Maine in 1976.

“My career has taken many unexpected and wonderful twists and turns,” he said, referring to such things as his pursuit of outdoor adventures, recovering from viral encephalitis and receiving critical support from business mentors. “I am a survivor and beneficiary of many character-building challenges and experiences.”

The Saint Joseph’s valedictorian, Shannon Chisholm, said it is “both a joyful and sad day.”

“After today, we will all part ways and chase after new dreams and new goals. Our paths in life will lead us all in different directions,” Chisholm said. “But no matter where life takes us, Saint Joseph’s will be the place that keeps us connected. It is where we discovered ourselves, and it is the place our paths will branch out from.”

Best-selling author Tess Gerritsen and songwriter David Mallett were the scheduled speakers at commencement exercises Saturday at UMaine in Orono, The Associated Press reported.

On Sunday, Husson University will award 800 degrees at commencement ceremonies in Bangor.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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