Soaked, but Spirited

Kicking up their heels: a “flash mob” started off the evening’s dancing with a choreographed routine to the tune of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
Students sang their hearts out despite the wet weather.
Harvard Yard had more standing water than solid ground, and partygoers gathered under the food tents to stay dry during downpours.
President Faust, deans, and members of the governing boards stood on the Widener steps to watch the procession of students parade by, each residential House or graduate school with its own theme.
Harvard Business School students carried centennial bells to recall their own school’s hundredth birthday in 2008.
Yo-Yo Ma performed the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 before joining President Faust in leading a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Kirkland House students spelled their loyalties out.
While most revelers fought to keep their feet dry, some embraced the mud.
Celebrants clamored for pieces of Joanne Chang’s red velvet cake.

Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. Perceiving one over eastern Massachusetts—and Tercentenary Theatre—on October 13, it filled the skies with water, lots of water. An encore the next day amounted to a deluge in late afternoon, with another right around 7:55 p.m.—just when the plans for Harvard’s 375th anniversary fete called for musical solemnities, video effects, and a celebratory cake-cutting to commence. And so a long list of activities was augmented by the unplanned: de facto mud-wrestling.

The Harvard Gazette account noted that “Harvard in 1636 fronted a cow yard” (in part of what is now the Old Yard). “Harvard on Oct. 14, 2011,” the report continued, “fronted a new cow yard—trampled and muddy.” And how. The Crimson of the following Monday showed students doing a contemporary cover of Woodstock: dancing (sans Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, et al.) slathered in mud up to their necks. They appeared to be having a lot of fun.

During a walk-through of the site and staging the Tuesday before, University marshal Jackie O’Neill, who arranged the whole shebang, confided that she had laid in a supply of disposable ponchos, and had ordered more. By Wednesday, the performers’ stages and guest-queueing areas in the Old Yard were being hurriedly tented. Thursday featured emergency meetings on rain contingencies. But the decision was made for the show to go wetly on.

This celebration, unlike the 350th gala in 1986, was conspicuously student-centric. The undergraduates’ undampened enthusiasm led Pforzheimer co-master Erika Christakis ’86, parading in alongside her charges, to say, “I think that Harvard students feel very self-conscious about expressing how proud they are; it’s something they have to keep to themselves a lot, so a day like this really lets them express that.” “That point bears repeating,” added her husband, co-master Nicholas Christakis. “This is one day when you can drop the ‘H-bomb’ liberally and have no consequences!”

One student vocalist even improvised some percussive accents by opening and closing his umbrella to snap the raindrops off in time with the music. Perhaps it was the crowd’s youth and gusto that enabled it to shrug off vast puddles and glop underfoot to relish the wonder of the unique occasion. When the giant, H-shaped, red-velvet birthday cake was finally available for eating shortly after 9 p.m., a mosh pit instantly developed on all four sides of the cake pavilion as hundreds pressed forward, eager for a bite of history. The wait was long and the crowd dense—but warm and congenial, even cooperative. One grinning undergraduate blurted out a confession amid the crush: “I’ve never worked so hard for a piece of cake in my life.”

Alongside the student entertainments, and music by Yo-Yo Ma ’76, D.Mus. ’91, and later, dancing, there was a “living statue”: a bronzed mime looking like a perfect replica of the John Harvard statue, complete with shiny toe and attended by two living “trees” gotten up in bark. On this night, echoing “Villanelle for an Anniversary”—the poem written by Seamus Heaney, Litt.D. ’98, for the 350th—John Harvard did indeed walk the Yard.

A purely Harvard trope has it that it never (or only rarely) rains on Commencement. But the record now shows that it regularly rains on birthday celebrations during Harvard’s fourth century—especially during periods of economic distress. At the 300th, in 1936, during the Great Depression, the exercises culminating in Tercentenary Theatre were pelted by torrential rainfall, leading Yale president James Rowland Angell to tweak his Crimson peer by passing on a quip from “one of your distinguished graduates, who was exhibiting a condition of complete saturation, [who remarked,] ‘This is evidently Conant’s method of soaking the rich.’” At the 375th, during the Great Recession, the rain very much repeated. Of course, gorgeous autumn weather immediately ensued.

A note to planners for the 400th: the 1986 ceremony, in the Stadium, was dry. It now has artificial turf (no mud) and can be covered with an inflated roof. Just saying….And for those who are circling 2036 on their calendars, when we may all sport wearable computers and use other technological marvels as yet unimagined: remember to equip yourselves with Gore-Tex. 

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