Passing the Baton

H. Holton Wood '40 and some of his handmade batons (opposite)
Photograph by Jim Harrison
The distinctive top hats and tails worn by male members of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) Committee for the Happy Observance of Commencement are an eye-catching part of that day’s tradition. Attendees are less likely to notice the members’ wooden batons, even though they are as ubiquitous at Commencement as robes and mortarboards. Few outside the Happy Committee know how much of a story lies behind these emblems of authority, or realize that a part of this Harvard tradition is threatened.

Hundreds of batons circulate on graduation day, according to Commencement director Grace Scheibner. There are Morning Exercises batons and Afternoon Exercises batons; keepsake batons and batons on loan; silver-tipped batons and wood-only batons. The morning batons are supplied by Scheibner’s office, which orders them from a distributor. But the Afternoon Exercises are overseen by the HAA, whose batons, for the last two decades, have acquired a far more personal touch.

Photograph by Stu Rosner

In the mid 1980s, as graduate-school enrollments rose, more people attended Commencement and higher baton prices threatened to keep the HAA from doling out the ornamental crowd-control devices to its ever-growing band of ceremonial aides. Then H. Holton “Holty” Wood ’40, who became chairman of the Happy Committee in 1983, volunteered to meet the 300-baton quota himself in his home workshop, at his own expense. Fellow committee member Warren “Renny” Little ’55 says admiringly that in the course of Wood’s tenure as baton craftsman, the hobby was raised to an art form: each year’s batch emerged distinctive from the last. Little recalls visiting Wood’s workshop and being overwhelmed by the sight of hundreds of freshly painted batons strung up to dry on laundry lines.

Wood supplemented the baton cache for almost 20 years, until deteriorating health forced him to resign as both chairman and baton-maker. He passed away in January. Barring the appearance of another volunteer woodworker, the tradition of hand-made batons may vanish altogether, lost in the complexities of Commencement.

~Emer Vaughn  

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