Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 20, 1996

Planners Hope
Sunny Skies
Shine On
Class of 1996

Steve Libowitz
The Johns Hopkins commencement.

That annual rite of passage when students and their families and friends sit for hours, pondering--in large measure--the future. Most of the students will be looking for work. Many parents will be looking for a way to pay down their child's student loan debt.

Mary Ellen Robinson will be looking for rain.

Robinson is the director of Special Events, the closest thing the university has to an official partygiver. And there is no bigger party, year in and year out, than the outdoor gathering of thousands of graduates and their well-wishers, all sharing the momentous occasion.

It is Robinson's responsibility to make certain that Wednesday's two biggest events--the university commencement ceremony in the morning and the schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering undergraduate diploma ceremony in the afternoon-- proceed flawlessly.

Although each year's events are similar in form and structure, each presents Robinson with a unique set of challenges. Last year, Robinson and assistants Audrey Minter and David Uffer had to manage the complex, formal protocol attendant to the principal speaker, Thailand's popular Queen Sirikit and the nearly 60 people in her official entourage. This year principal speaker Sadako Ogata, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, presents far fewer logistical concerns. Even the participation of the undergraduate's principal speaker, former president George Bush, is relatively uncomplicated.

That leaves the rest of the sprawling event to coordinate, including the roles of a couple of rookie participants.

For the first time in six years, Morris W. Offit will not be greeting graduates from the stage. He yields the podium to new chairman Michael Bloomberg, a longtime board member who last year pledged $55 million to the Johns Hopkins Initiative.

The ceremonies also mark the first--and last--time interim president Daniel Nathans will preside over commencement. He will return to his research at the School of Medicine when recently elected president William R. Brody, who will be in attendance, takes office later this summer as Johns Hopkins' 13th president.

At the commencement ceremony at 9:30 a.m. on the upper quad of the Homewood campus, Bloomberg and Nathans will present honorary degrees to Ogata and three others: Sister Kathleen Feeley, longtime president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland; Norman Hackerman, president emeritus of Rice University; and William Julius Wilson, sociologist and author. Bush was awarded an honorary degree from Hopkins at the 1990 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the School of Medicine. This is the university-wide ceremony, at which all degrees are officially conferred and all doctoral candidates receive their diplomas, except those graduating with medical degrees.

Approximately 4,520 certificates and diplomas will be conferred, including 1,085 bachelor degrees, 2,895 master's degrees and 477 doctoral or medical degrees.

Each academic division will hold separate ceremonies either Tuesday or Wednesday at various locations on and off the Homewood campus, at which graduates will actually receive their diplomas and hear from speakers they have invited (see events schedule on page 8).

The largest of these ceremonies is the diploma ceremony for graduating seniors from the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering at 2:30 p.m. on the upper quad at Homewood.

Putting on two large ceremonies less than five hours apart is no small endeavor. Robinson likens it to producing a Broadway show. Not Rent. Phantom of the Opera.

And although her nine-page checklist--which begins with a mid-March letter to faculty inviting them to participate--covers every possible contingency, the one thing that would literally put a damper on the day is rain. Her expression falls as she recounts a ceremony before her 18 years of service to the Office of Special Events.

"Milton Eisenhower was president," she says. "In those days, the university ceremony was in the open on the lower quad in front of Shriver Hall. And right in the middle of it the rain started coming down hard. Dr. Eisenhower quickly conferred all the degrees en masse, and everyone just ran for cover.

"The next year we started renting the tent."

While many schools hold their commencement activities indoors in the athletic center or auditoriums, many others hold the events outside, in stadiums or, like Hopkins, on a big field. The 100 ft. x 240 ft. tent set up on Homewood's upper quad for the past dozen years or so, has not always been a popular choice for guests who are obliged to sit outside it with an often poor view of the proceedings on stage. But Robinson stands by that tent as the best alternative in a process of trade-offs.

"I think it's much warmer and friendlier than being in a big stadium," she says. "It gets the guests much closer to the action.

The action is what gives Robinson an admittedly fitful sleep the night before commencement. Three months of planning-- including reams of letters to faculty, speakers, guests, administrators and trustees and hours of meetings--are behind her. Have all the hundreds of tiny details been finalized? Will the flowers be in place? Will the guests enjoy the president's luncheon squeezed between the morning and afternoon ceremonies? Is it raining?

Robinson and her staff arrive on campus by 5 a.m. on commencement day. She stops by the tent to make sure it has been cleaned from the pre-commencement diploma ceremony held the night before. Audrey Minter greets her 65 student ushers, who arrive at 6 a.m. for breakfast and a meeting. By 7:30 a.m., all the official regalia for the trustees and honored guests are taken to the Garrett Room of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, where the hundred or so participants will robe and stand for formal pictures prior to the processional.

Just before 9 a.m. Robinson walks out to the tent to double-check that chairs have been properly labeled for faculty, official participants and their guests. She then returns to the Garrett Room, lines up everyone who will march to the front of the tent and waits for the Festival Brass Band to strike up the processional.

This year, Handel's festive marches from Belshazzar, Floridante, Ezio, Saint Cecilia's Day, Rinaldo and Scipione will accompany the processional. Walter Piston's Fanfare and Handel's March from Judas Maccabaeus have been selected for the president's procession.

The focus of everyone's attention, of course, is that rolled-up piece of sheepskin that, once in hand, holds such promise for the future. It is assistant registrar Pat Cody's job to make sure graduate and diploma successfully meet on stage. It is her task to order the diplomas, get them rolled, have red ribbons wrapped around them and organize them behind the stage by commencement day. In the same order as the graduates will be called.

Perhaps the trickiest part of her job comes on commencement day, when she and a workforce of 32 staff members and volunteers from other departments get the graduates to the proper robing rooms located in classrooms throughout the campus, line them up in correct order and lead them to the processional.

And for all its complexity, each year it all comes together, in large measure, Robinson says, thanks to her staff and to members of the grounds crew, the carpentry shop, housekeeping and security.

"We really work well together," she says. "They are terrific about going with the flow. We scream a bit as we go along, but when it's all over, we hug," she laughs.

When it's all over, she also immediately starts over, meeting the next day with her staff to review what went well and what they could do better next year. And finally, sometime in June, Robinson takes a break.

With all the myriad details attendant to such an enormous undertaking, Robinson has had very few bad moments over the years. The worst, she says, was also in her early years, when "an elderly gentleman suffered a stroke moments before the procession was to begin." The paramedics had to perform an emergency tracheotomy right here. We found out later that he had died at the hospital," she says, momentarily lost in the memory.

"That keeps the rain in perspective, doesn't it?"

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