PORTLAND — U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe told University of Southern Maine graduates their lives can be strengthened if they do what she did, learn and grow from adversity.

Snowe was the keynote speaker Saturday when more than 1,000 graduated at the Cumberland County Civic Center. Of the graduates, 104 received degrees from USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College, said Judie O’Malley, USM’s Office of Public Affairs assistant director.

According to Snowe’s written speech, she talked about tragedies she has endured.

“Both of my parents, hardworking people — my father a Greek immigrant, my mother a first-generation American, died before I was 10 years old,” Snowe said.

She could have retreated into a “personal cocoon of despair,” she said. But early on she realized she had two choices: “either allow myself to become overwhelmed by tragedies, or learn something from them.”

At age 26, she had to call on that again when her first husband died. Peter Snowe was serving in the Maine House of Representatives, and she worked in former Congressman Bill Cohen’s office.

“One day while I was at work, I received the crushing news that my husband had been killed in a car accident,” Snowe said. “I was left to build a life for myself.” She could have withdrawn from the world. Instead she worked to “make a positive out of a terrible negative.”

She ran for office in a special election to fill her husband’s seat. That began her political career of 40 years, during which she became Maine’s senior senator. Snowe, 65, is retiring from politics, and not seeking re-election this year.

“So when I was sitting where you are, little could I know that a 40-year journey in elected office would commence just four years after my graduation, with a horrific event that could have been the end for me, rather than a beginning,” Snowe said.

It’s possible to grow from adversity, she said.

“That’s the approach I’ve employed throughout my years, and that I believe can work for you in your own journey,” Snowe told graduates.

Critical of a partisan Congress that lacks “a sensible center,” Snowe said landmark legislation — Social Security, civil and voting rights, and Medicare — would never have passed in the Congress that exists today. Those laws were passed by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities, she said.

Snowe urged graduates to work together to forge solutions, whether in government, community or family. Real solutions only happen when people work together instead of against each other, Snowe said.

USM administrators gave Snowe an honorary degree. The packed audience gave her two standing ovations.

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