“The Best Day of the Year”

The Commencement emcee on keeping the ceremonies festive while making the trains run on time

Jacqueline A. O’Neill
O’Neill radiates joy on the dais during the 2008 Commencement.

The ritual of Harvard’s Commencement exercises has remained virtually unchanged for more than a century. Perhaps nobody knows this as well as Jacqueline A. O’Neill, who has attended the annual event for more than 30 years and now, as University marshal, presides over the morning program. 

As Harvard’s chief protocol officer, O’Neill oversees care of the honorands (and all other important visitors to the campus throughout the year), and plays a central role as organizer and emcee of Commencement. “The art is to have it look festive and joyful while still making the trains run on time,” she reports. To that end, she arrives at work at 6:30 a.m. on the fateful day and confers with Commencement director Grace Scheibner before putting on her robes and heading over to Massachusetts Hall. There, the honorands—whose names, with the exception of the Commencement speaker’s, have not yet officially been made public—have gathered to don their own regalia and prepare for the ceremony. 

At precisely 8:45 a.m., O’Neill steps into place at the head of the procession of honorands, alongside University president Drew Faust, and walks, with appropriately measured tread, behind the sheriff of Middlesex County from the Old Yard into Tercentenary Theatre and on to the dais set up in front of Memorial Church. There she stands and awaits the sign from three faculty members charged with assuring that students, their families, and all others in attendance have entered the theater and are settled enough for the pageantry to begin. 

With a tilt of her baton, O’Neill signals Commencement electrician Robert Brown to ring the bell of Memorial Church, and then, stepping to the center of the stage, she utters that age-old request to the sheriff, “Pray, give us order.” “The sheriff, who in years past rode in on a white horse, proceeds with a giant staff and bangs it on the floor three times,” O’Neill explains, and declares the meeting “in order,” as scripted in the official Commencement instruction guide, The Form of Conferring Degrees. “I loved the bombast of the late sheriff, James DiPaola,” she adds. “It set the whole very serious and also tongue-in-cheek tone.”

With the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” (introduced to the program in 2002), followed by the opening prayer (to be given this year by Bernard Steinberg, director emeritus of Harvard Hillel), the annual rite that draws more than 30,000 people is off and running. “It is the only time of the year,” O’Neill notes, “that all of the Harvard family gathers together in one place, which is a very special thing.”


The rest of the day, she says, “I am off the hook.” This is not exactly true—she still has honorand duties and returns to the dais as a guest for the afternoon’s alumni exercises: the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association, during which President Faust and the Commencement guest speaker address the assembly. The final recession does not take place until around 4:30 p.m., at which point O’Neill takes a slow walk back to her office at Wadsworth House, “enjoying the chance to revel in the remains of the day, watching the proud graduates connect with their families, pose for pictures, and say goodbye to friends, and, if all has gone well, feeling grateful for participating in yet another Commencement, the best day of the year at Harvard.”


All the rest of the year, O’Neill’s role at the University is not entirely dissimilar from her Commencement Day efforts. She and her office coordinate upwards of 150 visits to Harvard annually by heads of state and other high-level international and American officials: most come from Asia and Europe, but an increasing number are African. “As Harvard becomes more global in its reach, we have seen an increase in the number of visitors from around the world,” she says. 

She is the tenth University marshal, a job that dates from 1896, when it was determined that someone needed to be in charge of arranging and directing the ceremonial aspects of University gatherings. Previously, O’Neill was chief of staff to then-president Lawrence H. Summers, who appointed her marshal in 2004. She has also served as a senior University communications and community-relations official and oversaw external relations for the Allston initiative. She now reports to President Faust.

Autumn brings the most guests; it’s not unusual for Harvard to see half a dozen heads of state within several weeks. “We make them all feel welcome and appreciated,” O’Neill says. “People leave here feeling about this place that it is a human institution, not just a big name.”

Guests invited to campus by the University or a Harvard division—a step involving its own protocol—are generally asked to give a free public talk, typically open to the Harvard community (if sometimes only by lottery, as happened when the Dalai Lama spoke at Memorial Church). “Under this system, students can stand up and ask a head of state a question—and they do,” she notes. All visitors also sign the official Harvard guest book. O’Neill hosts people when Faust is unable to, and oversees Harvard’s official presence at other institutions’ events, coordinating Faust’s off-campus forays or finding suitable delegates to stand in for her. “It takes weeks and months to organize visits and schedules,” O’Neill says, especially for guests requiring tight security. “Visits are very prescribed,” she adds: guests cannot just run off to see the glass flowers.

The marshal’s office also holds a wealth of information on Harvard and general issues of protocol, including proper use of academic regalia, the correct way to address a dignitary, flag etiquette, or appropriate gifts for international visitors (visit www.marshal.harvard.edu/gifts.html to see what’s on offer).

It is such protocols and rituals that O’Neill says many people find comforting—and that mark the communal life at the University. So when Commencement rolls around again this year, she will be ready to play her part in enacting the annual drama. “There isn’t anything else like it,” she asserts. “It’s the celebration of the promise of the future with a wonderful mix of tradition and ancient ceremonial meaning that launches the next generation. I never get tired of it.”

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

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