Yale Honors Stevie Wonder, John Kerry, John Lewis At Commencement

It was a question hanging over commencement ceremonies Monday: Would Stevie Wonder perform?

The musician, who was one of eight people — including Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis and former Secretary of State John Kerry receiving honorary degrees Monday — didn't sing or play a keyboard but the Yale University concert band did play his song, "I Wish," while Wonder smiled wide and held his award high.

"You have always sung to us in the 'Key of Life,' while working to help the poor, sick and marginalized," Yale President Peter Salovey said to Wonder just before presenting the honorary degree. "Whether you were 'Living for the City' or speaking up for 'Misrepresented People,' you brought us to 'Higher Ground,' with your incisive protest songs."

Wonder, who was born Stevland Morris, came accompanied by his son, Kwame. He did tell reporters shortly before the commencement began that he had played some music inside Yale's Sterling Memorial Library before the ceremony started.

A Yale spokeswoman said that Wonder brought his own instrument into the library and played a couple of songs, including "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life."

About 17,500 people gathered on Old Campus at Yale Monday under skies that threatened rain but only dribbled a bit during the ceremonies and without interruption from the 1,100 people marching on New Haven streets to protest Yale's refusal to negotiate with a newly formed union for graduate students who teach. The university conferred 3,618 degrees, including 1,332 bachelor's degrees.

The ceremony was interrupted briefly when an unidentified man charged the stage during the invocation, grabbed the microphone and said, "I love Yale as much as anyone who hasn't gone here possibly could." Before he could say any more, Yale police officers dragged him off stage.

A union spokeswoman said later that she didn't think the man had anything to do with the protest.

A Yale spokesman said later that Yale police arrested the man, Matthew Cherackal, 35, of 36 Ridgeview Rd., Portland. He was charged with breach of peace in the second degree, interfering with a police officer and trespassing in the first degree. The New Haven Police Department released him on a promise to appear in court.

The graduates in their caps and gowns and the protesters supporting Local 33 UNITE HERE wearing orange T-shirts and carrying orange balloons mostly avoided each other.

But at the corner of Elm and College streets, the protesters, barricaded in by more than a dozen police motorcycles, stood and shouted "Congratulations" to a long line of graduates as they filed into Old Campus.

Aaron Greenberg, chairman of Local 33, said the demonstration was a chance "to honor our colleagues and students," while also "holding Yale accountable."

At other points along their march, the protesters called for Yale to bargain with them, shouting, "We're certified! Negotiate."

Yale has appealed the National Labor Relations Board's January decision in favor of the union, citing Local 33's organizing methods.

Yale graduates and their families appeared to be mostly unfazed by the protest going on nearby.

Megan McHale, who earned a bachelor's degree in political science, said the day felt like "the end of an era."

"It's been an incredible few years," said McHale, who is headed off to a consulting job.

Andy Hill, a psychology major, said "It's really an exciting time for all of us, definitely thinking back. I have all good memories."

Hill, who is from Missouri, is going to work for Facebook in Austin, Texas.

But one Yale student, Blake Rowlinson, did express some annoyance with the protest before commencement ceremonies began.

"I'm frustrated because none of us students have any say in what's going on and it's really not fair to the thousands of family members who travel from all over the world. It's not really fair to all of them," Rowlinson said. "So far it hasn't really bothered us, but knowing that they are there has been a bit of a frustration. It's a little bit disrespectful to everyone."

Others getting awards included U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, who was an instrumental force in the civil rights movement.

As he awarded Lewis a doctor of laws degree, Salovey said, "From Freedom Rider to statesman, you have championed civil rights and public service for six decades. You have faced beatings, violence and intimidation with steadfast nonviolence."

Lewis told a reporter before the ceremony that he was delighted to be at Yale, which he called "a special place, a wonderful place. ... Many of the young people, after leaving here, came south and worked in the civil rights movement and made a major contribution.

Kerry, the former secretary of state, was awarded a second Yale degree on Monday, his first being his undergraduate degree in 1966.

"Ever since your Yale College days, you have worked to fulfill your rights and responsibilities toward your fellow citizens," Salovey told Kerry as he awarded him a doctor of laws degree.

Before commencement, as he talked to reporters, Kerry said he felt "very honored and very grateful."

Asked what the thought about President Donald Trump's first trip abroad and the prospects for peace in the Middle East, Kerry declined to comment but did say, "Everybody remains always hopeful."

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