Countdown to Commencement

Think planning a wedding is tough? Try pulling together a week-long celebration for 32,000

At times, Harvard's Commencement week may feel like a spontaneous, freewheeling festival. Don't be fooled. "The magic of it is that it looks as if it happens on its own," says University marshal Jacqueline A. O'Neill, whose office oversees Commencement. "The reality is that it's all planned in detail months in advance. Logistically, it's unbelievably complicated."

Even that assessment doesn't adequately sum up preparation for the celebration, which is not only the biggest annual event on campus, but among the Boston area's largest. The ceremony itself is orchestrated to the minute and many of the week's other activities are timed almost as tightly.

Synchronize Your Watches

Some things about Harvard Commencement never change. This year, in one sense, almost everything will.

All morning activities will begin 15 minutes earlier than in the past, from the opening of the Yard gates (set for 6:45 a.m.) to the beginning of the Commencement ceremony itself (at 9:45), says Commencement director Grace Scheibner. As a result, the morning exercises will end promptly at 11:30, rather than at 11:45.

That extra quarter-hour will be tacked onto the break between morning and afternoon schedules. That gives attendees more time to spend at luncheons and diploma-awarding ceremonies at their Houses and schools before returning to Tercentenary Theatre to line up for the alumni procession at 1:15 or to make the 2:30 opening of the Harvard Alumni Association's annual meeting. Following addresses by President Lawrence H. Summers and the HAA's guest speaker, the afternoon exercises will end at 4 p.m.

Coordinators say that it couldn't happen any other way. "We plan for as much as we humanly can," says Grace Scheibner, A.L.M. '90, who directs the Commencement morning exercises with a level of precision that any air-traffic controller might envy. "This is an auspicious occasion for many people and you want them to come away with good memories. You can't just wing it."

Creating good memories instead of chaos requires the efforts of specialists from all over campus: landscapers, construction crews, food-service chefs, police officers, reunion organizers, traffic coordinators, housekeepers, musicians, recycling crews, and on and on. It involves plenty of off-campus participants as well: area hotels and restaurants, linen services and florists, a cap-and-gown distributor, high-school and alumni volunteers, and many companies that rent tables, chairs, and tents.

Some activities have changed little over the years. "We have preserved the flavor of this day since the seventeenth century," says Scheibner, who is overseeing Commencement for the twelfth time. But this is no cookie-cutter undertaking, she adds: "There are too many variables. Each one is a unique event."

Besides the ever-evolving cast of graduates, guests, honorands, and speakers, each year's Commencement reflects changes both on and off campus. This year, there's a new master of ceremonies: O'Neill, making her debut as University Marshal (see "Meet the New Marshal"). There's a schedule adjustment to give attendees a little more breathing room between morning and afternoon activities. For the first time, the ceremonies will be projected onto large screens set halfway back on both sides of Tercentenary Theatre to afford maximum viewing for families and guests. And security has tightened each year since the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Even tiny tweaks, such as that morning-schedule change, send ripples through the ranks of Commencement-week planners. "Every little change affects something else," says Thomas Everett, who as Harvard's director of bands has participated in 34 Commencements. "The whole structure can start shaking if one bolt isn't tight."

For that reason, key players stay in close contact while planning next year's extravaganza, a process that starts literally while work crews are still cleaning up after the last one. Within days after the ceremony, many people responsible for the week's main components meet with Scheibner to debrief. Says Everett, "We'll ask, 'What surprises were there? What can we do better next year?'"

For Scheibner, who works full-time on Commencement, the pace of planning stays steady throughout the academic year. For most others, it ebbs and flows, rocketing into a blur of activity in May and June. "We don't have a day off from Mother's Day on," says Robert Gogan, supervisor of waste management, whose busy period begins as students depart their dorms in May and escalates through Commencement to the start of summer school in June. "We all work seven days. I've missed family weddings because they happened to fall on Memorial Day."

During Commencement week, Gogan and his crews will work nearly around the clock picking up trash and recyclables in the Yard and at reunion event sites. Echoing a sentiment common among key players, he describes Commencement itself as "a day of short tempers and impatience and stress," then adds, "But it's also a wonderful day because you see parents walking across campus with their kids, beaming. You have alums seeing people they haven't seen in 25 years."

The following timeline lists milestones of Commencement week from several key players' perspectives. The chronology isn't comprehensive; rather, it offers scattered snapshots of what's involved in pulling off this high-profile tradition.

Five Years (or More) in Advance

University administrators set the dates for Commencement several years ahead of time; currently, they're scheduled at least through 2010. Traditionally, Commencement falls on a Thursday in early June, 38 weeks after the start of the academic year—but a new University calendar could change that (see page 65).

Meanwhile, alumni attending their twentieth, thirtieth, and forty-fifth reunions are often already thinking ahead to their major reunions, five years hence. "At the end of one reunion, they often begin planning the next one," says Hoopes Wampler, Ed.M. '99, director of College alumni programs for the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA).


Sixteen to 24 Months in Advance

Up to two years before a major reunion, classes appoint an event chairperson who meets with the HAA, then enlists classmates to help with planning. By 16 months out, a cobbled-together committee has typically set a schedule, chosen symposium topics, and started seeking speakers, says Justin Micomonaco '01, HAA assistant director of classes and reunions. Especially energetic groups—such as the class of 1954, holding its fiftieth reunion this year—also start scheduling prereunion dinners, receptions, and other events nationwide in an effort to jump-start enthusiasm for the gathering.

This year, Wampler's seven-person staff will also support smaller reunions ranging from that of the class of '99, regrouping for the first time, to that of the class of '34, marking its seventieth anniversary. Echoing Scheibner, he says there's no typical reunion: "The class of '76 is totally different from the class of '77."


About One Year in Advance

After Commencement, Scheibner returns to her Wadsworth House office. Her workspace, with its serene floral décor and background of gentle classical music, gives little indication that it is a command center for what she herself describes as a military-style exercise. During the next few months, Scheibner will update an array of charts and maps, numbered and color-coded to indicate where seniors, graduate students, parents, alumni, faculty, dignitaries, and special guests will gather, march, and sit during the ceremony. She's already fielding requests to attend next year's event.

Meanwhile, prereunion events are typically in full swing in Cambridge and beyond. At this point, the class of '54, for instance, had scheduled a private art viewing at the Fogg Art Museum, a four-day mini-retreat at a classmate's Nevada hotel and casino, a dinner at the Harvard Club of New York, and gatherings in California, Illinois, Florida, and New Jersey.

Often, reunion organizers attend another class's major reunion to get advice and ideas for their own. In this case, several class of '54 planners were on hand when the class of '53 gathered to mark their fiftieth anniversary in 2003.

About Nine Months in Advance

Marie A. Trottier reports that she starts taking Commencement-related calls shortly after Labor Day. Trottier, the University's disability coordinator, oversees Commencement seating for guests with a variety of illnesses and physical conditions. "The section I have in the Yard has 350 seats, and I fill it every year," says Trottier, who is participating in Commencement for the sixteenth time.

At the HAA's headquarters on Mount Auburn Street, staffers are busy sending out the first of several information-stuffed mailings to all alumni from classes scheduled for reunions the following spring. Many classes also maintain HAA-hosted websites, regularly updating them with reunion news.

Reunion coordinators have been busy, too. By this point, the most efficient ones have locked in a host of on- and off-campus activities. For instance, the class of '54 had scheduled symposia and meals, museum and sightseeing tours, a Charles River cruise, a Boston Pops concert, a golf outing, and a dinner dance. With those activities booked, organizers could focus on finalizing symposium speakers and recruiting attendees. From then on, the HAA's Micomonaco says, the '54 group met every four to six weeks until Commencement week.


About Five Months in Advance

Crimson Catering director Madeline Meehan and her staff start cooking in January. Not for Commencement, of course, but to sell their services. During the next few months, they'll run a steady stream of food tastings, competing with outside caterers to win Commencement-week business from schools, reunion classes, and individuals. "We manage more than 200 events during that week," Meehan says. "It could be coffee for five or lunch for 5,000." But Crimson Catering isn't guaranteed a contract for any of them, so every year they start from scratch, wooing event coordinators with samplings of appetizers, entrées, and desserts.

At Wadsworth House, Scheibner is moving at full speed. She's contacting important guests, such as the Middlesex sheriff, who traditionally opens and closes the Commencement ceremony, to confirm their availability for the current year's event. She's completing invitation lists, sending Commencement instructions to schools and Houses, and preparing to take ticket orders. And this particular year, she's updating almost every document associated with Commencement to accommodate a schedule in which everything starts 15 minutes earlier.

About now, band director Everett, who typically changes only one Commencement march from year to year, assigns students to research the history of this year's possible selections. He started that practice a few years ago, after inadvertently choosing a little-known German processional that—according to complaints he later received from attendees—was somehow associated with the Nazis. The next year, he says, "we had half a dozen people research [the selections] for three months."


About Four Months in Advance

By this time, every reunion and Class Day planner knows Jason W. Luke '94. As manager of custodial services in the University's facilities maintenance operations group, Luke will help each rent tables, chairs, and tents for diploma ceremonies, receptions, meals, and parties. The numbers will fluctuate straight through the Sunday after Commencement, but Luke knows that he needs, campus-wide, roughly 100,000 chairs, 15,000 tables, and 200 tents of varying sizes. He's also logging lots of requests for temporary power and lighting, and he's responsible for all physical equipment in Tercentenary Theatre.

As if that weren't enough, he's cochairman for his own tenth reunion, scheduled for the end of Commencement week. As time permits, he's been meeting with classmates and the HAA to plan the event. "If things go well," he says, "I might be able to attend it." But he won't know for sure until the time comes.


About Three Months in Advance

At the Harvard Coop, Nancie Scheirer, usually the store's trade-book manager, switches hats, becoming cap-and-gown coordinator for the College and several of the graduate and professional schools (the others handle regalia rentals elsewhere). Starting in early April, she takes orders for the current year's event.

"It's a special order for each student," says Scheirer, who has handled cap-and-gown distribution for five years. "It's based on their height and weight," plus ordering the appropriate hoods and "crow's feet" for advanced-degree candidates, who typically wear the regalia of institutions where they received their earlier degrees.

Scheirer and up to a dozen staffers will take 4,500 orders in less than three weeks, "75 percent of them in the last three days," she sighs (the deadline for ordering is April 21). They'll spend the next couple of weeks double-checking all those handwritten orders before shipping them by overnight courier to a giant cap-and-gown rental company in the Midwest.

Scheibner, of course, is juggling dozens of administrative tasks. But as soon as the weather's warm enough, she'll go for a stroll. She'll tour Tercentenary Theatre with a grounds crew, checking to make sure any proposed spring clean-up, pruning, or planting won't cause problems at Commencement. For instance, because trees near the main platform support the University's custom-made "big-top" tent, landscapers must take care not to over-trim them, she says. "And if you have a new bush taking up two rows, you'll be shy 20 seats."

Meanwhile, an advisory committee of faculty members, Overseers, and members of the Harvard Corporation has usually chosen all or most of the current year's honorands, but—in accordance with tradition—their identities won't be revealed until Commencement day.


About Six to Eight Weeks in Advance

At this point, key players are trying to finish up the projects for which they're responsible, understanding that many things will change, possibly several times, before the big day.

Luke, for example, contracts for all those tables and chairs, knowing that one group will request far more than they need while another gets far too few. As a result, his staff will be zipping around campus throughout Commencement week, balancing supply and demand.

At the Coop, Scheirer orders dozens of extra caps and gowns to outfit senior-class procrastinators who don't think about their graduation garb until, literally, the very last minute. "We open at 7 on Commencement day," she says.

Caterer Madeline Meehan works with the University's central purchasing office to begin to buy food that can be frozen and stored until just before Commencement week. They'll also place early orders to reserve items she'd like fresh: bread, cheese, salad vegetables.

By now, class reunion organizers are finished with their planning. But the heavy lifting is just starting at the HAA, where teams of undergraduates are processing registrations and arranging for on-campus housing for hundreds of returning alumni.


About Three to Four Weeks in Advance

Harvard's late Commencement date creates a unique challenge for band director Everett. Inevitably, several undergraduate band members can't stick around for the ceremonies; they need to leave town right after final exams in mid May for vacations, internships, or summer studies elsewhere. So each spring, Everett hits the phones, enlisting local alumni and alumnae and friends until he's got just the right mix of musicians. For that reason, the whole band won't rehearse together until shortly before Commencement.

In mid May, Jason Luke moves from the facilities operations center on Blackstone Street, near the Charles River, to a temporary office in Sever Hall, flanking Tercentenary Theatre. That's where many of the pageant's props are stored, including platforms, audio and video equipment, backdrops, paint, and more. During the next several weeks, he and his crews will build stages and bandstands, oversee contractors raising the main platform's tent, run electrical cables, erect a perimeter fence, and put up more than 400 signs. They'll also start setting up reunion sites. "We have about 500 work orders taped to the wall in the office," he says. "As we do them, we cross them off"—and add the new ones that come in until the very last minute.

Around the same time, waste manager Gogan's staff sets out dozens of barrels and recycling bins near all Harvard housing, encouraging departing students to use them as they clean out their rooms. Crews swing through campus daily to empty the containers, carting away mountains of castoff clothes and couches. Later, staff and volunteers will sort through tons of materials to find reusable and recyclable items; for now, they're "just trying to make the place look decent," Gogan says. After Memorial Day weekend, when students have vacated their rooms, dorm crews sweep in to clean and prepare them to house 3,000 reunioners.

At the Coop, Nancie Scheirer has the pleasure of signing for more than 400 boxes of caps and gowns. She and her staff sort through them, checking to make sure that what they've received matches what they ordered. Are there mistakes? "Always," she says. Fortunately, there's time to exchange them before Commencement.


Down to the Wire: The Last Few Days

Everyone's busy. Scheibner is handling eleventh-hour requests from all corners. She's also nervously watching the weather (however, nothing short of a hurricane or tornado will keep Commencement from commencing). Everett's rehearsing his band. Scheirer's handing out regalia to customers who placed orders in April, and using all those spares to outfit panicky students who missed the earlier deadline. Meehan, her staff, and an army of temp workers are preparing food for dozens of functions: "On [Commencement day] alone, we will serve 10,000 luncheon meals," she says. HAA staffers are equally busy compiling hundreds of reunion registration packets, each containing nametags, event tickets, housing details, maps, and other information.

In the Yard, Luke's crews are setting up Tercentenary Theatre to Grace Scheibner's specifications; he and Gogan are also calculating exactly how they'll clean the area in the few hours between the morning and afternoon programs. That's no small task: they'll need to straighten 22,000 chairs, dispose of discarded coffee cups and newspapers, and pick up items some jubilant graduates toss into the air (past hauls have included the Divinity School's pipe-cleaner halos, the Dental School's foam-rubber sets of teeth, and the Design School's construction flags). Because reunions start the weekend before Commencement, recycling crews have already begun collecting hundreds of cans and bottles from dinners and receptions.

And even though the deadline for disability-section reservations was weeks earlier, Trotter is fielding last-minute calls for help. "A few years ago, a mom who flew all the way from Hawaii to see her child graduate broke her leg getting off the plane," she recalls. The parent was thrilled when Trotter's staff found her a handicapped-accessible seat.

Key players know their jobs won't end when the last dean hands out the last diploma. Most of them will work straight through the weekend with reunion events, regalia returns, and days and days of cleanup. And then they need to think about next year.

Meanwhile, despite her worries over the weather, Scheibner has no doubt that when the last pre-pageant hours tick away, Harvard will, once again, set the standard for Commencement. "We've been around the longest," says Scheibner. "We like to feel that we do it the best."

Anne Stuart is assistant editor of this magazine.


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