CAMBRIDGE - Returning to his alma mater yesterday at what he called "a turning point in American history," Senator Edward M. Kennedy tenderly recalled his days at Harvard University as "fresh as youth and yesterday" as he accepted an honorary degree at a special ceremony.
"It was exactly 100 years ago this September that my father entered Harvard College as a freshman - to be followed in the next generation by Jack, Joe, Bobby, and then by me," said the Democratic senator. "At home and here at Harvard, which became a second home, I learned to prize history, to play football, and to believe in public service."
In heartfelt, nostalgic remarks, Kennedy called the degree "a rare privilege" and said he was deeply grateful.
Kennedy, a 1956 Harvard graduate, was originally to have received the degree at the university's commencement last spring but could not attend because he was recuperating from brain surgery for a malignant tumor.
But Kennedy, 76, said the timing of the ceremony was fitting, following a presidential election in which he said voters "reaffirmed the promise of America."
"I have seen throughout my life how we as a people can rise to a challenge, embrace change, and renew our destiny," Kennedy said to a spirited audience at Sanders Theatre on the Harvard campus. "So there is no other time when I would rather receive this honor than this year - at this turning point in American history."
"In Barack Obama," Kennedy added, "we will have a president who offers not just the audacity, but the possibility of hope for one America, strong and prosperous and free."
Kennedy joined an elite group that has received honorary degrees at special Harvard convocations, including George Washington, Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, Winston Churchill, and Nelson Mandela.
He quipped that he now had something in common with the nation's first president. "It is not, as I had once hoped, being president," he said to laughter. "It is instead this rare privilege."
Kennedy appeared strong and in good spirits, often standing without the benefit of a cane. He flashed his familiar thumbs-up sign as he received sustained applause from the crowd.
The degree recognized Kennedy's "lifelong commitment to public service and his tireless efforts as a champion for a range of social issues," the university said.
The convocation also featured remarks by Justice Stephen Breyer of the Supreme Court and a performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Vice President-elect Joe Biden attended the ceremony and received a standing ovation as he entered the theater.
Harvard's president, Drew Gilpin Faust, who presented Kennedy with the honorary degree, said the senator had "worked tirelessly on behalf of society's most vulnerable members."
"He has made himself part of their struggles and hope for a better life," Faust said. "He has made their dreams his own."
She added: "He is a national leader, but a local servant. He belongs to all of us."
Breyer, a former member of Kennedy's Senate staff, said Kennedy "will forever rank among the nation's greatest senators."
In his speech, Kennedy said he was confident the nation would rally for a common cause.
"We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make," he said.