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Sunday, June 10, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At UW graduation, the best and brightest (and wettest) jeer congressman

Seattle Times staff reporter

The University of Washington on Saturday awarded degrees to more than 4,000 students in a chilly, soggy ceremony during which some of the students, their parents and friends jeered and heckled commencement speaker Rep. Norm Dicks.

About 10 minutes into a 15-minute speech, in which the congressman, a Democrat from Bremerton, talked about his own long career in politics and his current work on the environment, a student walked out in front of Dicks and motioned for him to hurry it along.

The crowd at the UW's 132nd commencement exercise at Husky Stadium endured about three hours of cold, steady drizzle. The students, many wearing university-issued ponchos, chatted excitedly on cellphones as they marched into the stadium. This is, after all, a class for whom "http" is as familiar as the ABCs.

Parents and friends huddled in the covered areas of the stadium or used umbrellas to try to stay dry.

UW President Mark Emmert recognized this as an act of devotion on the part of parents and friends — "coming out in the rain to cheer you on."

He told the graduates that they are no doubt different from who they were when they first entered the campus. And he guessed at their mixed emotions — joy at completing their last final exam; sadness in saying goodbye to friends and instructors; and excitement and uncertainty over starting new chapters in their lives.

He repeated the oft-given advice to graduates everywhere — to give back, make a difference and share what they've learned.

Dicks, too, urged students to give back, but by the end of his speech, some in the crowd were whistling, groaning and jeering.

Dicks had been selected as commencement speaker after the university scrambled at the last minute to find a replacement for an unnamed earlier speaker who had canceled over a scheduling conflict.

Dicks told students he was inspired by a young John F. Kennedy, who "challenged my generation with the words: 'Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.'

"Those were the clarion calls for young people throughout the nation in the early 1960s, inspiring many to consider public service."

First elected to Congress in 1976, Dicks serves on appropriations subcommittees in defense, the environment and the military. As his speech bored in on environmental concerns — cleanup of Puget Sound, global warming, the planet at risk — the crowd grew increasingly restless.

"The charge for your generation is to combine the technical knowledge you learned here ... as well as a sense of environmental stewardship to make the Puget Sound a national model," he told the students.

"... Your ideas and your determination will ultimately determine the environmental legacy you will leave to your kids and their kids."

From the back, Lance Charette, who flew from Indiana to watch his stepdaughter Laura Wright graduate with a degree in English, yelled something about this being a graduation, not a political gathering.

Later, he said he thought Dicks was campaigning, not inspiring young people.

His wife, Heidi Holliefield, said she intends to write Dicks a letter objecting to the politicization of the speech.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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