Exit Strategy: The Big Day 2005 went, er, swimmingly

By Alicia Case '05

Of all the large and often mind-numbingly complex gatherings that take place on a college campus, none requires more concise planning than Commencement. Along with several staff assistants, a Commencement Committee, and workers from Dinning and Conference Services and Facilities Services, Director of Parent Programs and Community Relations Marilyn Bailey always delivers. That the two-and-a-half-hour ceremony consistently comes off without a hitch—even when uncontrollable acts of God like this year’s morning deluge send the crew scrambling for Plan B—is a testament to teamwork and a study in sweating the details. Here, the untold story:

Game plan
Commencement planning starts at the beginning of each academic year, this past year on September 4.

Work orders, please. Months in advance, Bailey stocks up on everything from programs to ponchos. This year she distributed 817 water bottles to graduates and faculty, 6,000 52-page Commencement Programs, and 4,000 plastic ponchos to keep everyone dry.

Outfitted. Starting in March, students order caps, gowns, graduation invitations, return address labels, name cards, thank you notes, souvenir tassels, and envelope seals directly from Royal T, a Northwest company specializing in “making graduation magical.”

Questions, questions. Though Bailey maintains a Web site for Commencement-weekend schedules, she still receives a steady stream of calls from parents and relatives with questions and concerns—some years five to 10 calls a day.

Liquid sunshine. Puget Sound graduates and guests have been rained on two years out of the past six. This year was one of them. So why not have the event inside? Associate Dean and University Registrar John Finney ’67 answers, “We used to hold Commencement in the fieldhouse, but the capacity is about one half the number of people who want to attend. Our graduates have made it clear that they’d rather be outside in the rain with all their friends and family, than inside the fieldhouse with just three or four.”

Finney and Bailey begin checking weather reports about a week in advance. “John and I used Weather Underground this year,” Bailey says. “Sometimes I don’t decide until 10 or 11 a.m. on the day of Commencement whether or not to put out the ponchos. This year I made the decision several days in advance because the forecasts were pretty definite and not changing from day to day.”

Facilities Services workers and 16 student ushers placed the 4,000 ponchos under the seats on Peyton Field. After the ceremony, they salvaged about 200.

Field prep
Seating. Several days prior to Commencement, Facilities Services sets up 3,160 connected folding chairs on the football field: 2,200 white chairs for guest seating; 960 brown chairs for grads and faculty.

Prep. According to James Vance, Facilities Services’ manager of custodial set-up and grounds, the grounds staff starts detailing the campus landscape for Commencement as early as March. This continues right up until the event. Vendors for stage and lighting, sound, chairs, and Sani-Cans are contacted in March as well.

Set up of Peyton Field starts the Thursday before Commencement. Everything is taken down by the Thursday after. In order to accomplish this without destroying the turf, a 100-foot plywood road is built out across the track and Peyton Field for service trucks. The road is built again for take-down. During this time a 40 kilowatt generator sits on lower Baker Field to power lighting as work continues after dark.

The fixers. With an event of this size, problems are bound to arise, right? On the contrary, Bailey says things usually run pretty smoothly. But if a problem does come up it gets fixed immediately by one of the very capable and committed facilities, dining, or security staff working the event.

Hats off. “Along with the Commencement ceremony, during the course of the year we set up for 46 other campus events,” Vance says. “While the Commencement tasks are underway, we are also dealing with student move-out. As Commencement cleanup is finishing, we jump right into repairing, cleaning, and detailing all the campus residence halls in preparation for summer conference use.” Vance reports that during Commencement weekend, staff put in more than 700 regular hours and more than 540 in overtime.

Line ‘em up
If it ain’t broke… According to Finney, the system of lining up graduates in Karlen Quad for the procession evolved over many years. Former Associate Dean Frank Peterson, who retired in 1989, devised the basic method still used to assemble graduates today.

Take a number. Graduates meet on Commencement Sunday at 1 p.m. in the quad. Each picks up a ticket with a number on it; the numbers are in the same order as Dean Bartanen’s reading list. Finney uses six “big, fat pieces of sidewalk chalk” to write numbers on the sidewalks, to help the graduates figure out where to stand. At 1:30 p.m., he makes an announcement through a loudspeaker in the window of his Jones 212 office that it is time for everyone to take their places. Graduates, following the chalk numbers, find their spots in line. When everyone is in place, Professor Kate Stirling, a faculty marshal, and Finney collect the leftover tickets and cross those names off of Dean Bartanen’s list, so that the names of absent graduates will not be read at the ceremony.

Pomp and circumstances
Synchronize your watches. At precisely 1:50 p.m., graduates begin their procession to Baker Stadium, marching between an honor guard of faculty and platform party dignitaries in front of the Todd/Phibbs residence hall.

Dress-up. Guard participants dress in full academic regalia. Finney says that many of the faculty own their own robes as “tools of the trade” for such occasions, while others rent from the same company that supplies gowns for the graduates. There’s also a small stash of donated regalia—acquired over time from retiring faculty—in the associate dean’s office.

Always on time. According to Finney, Puget Sound’s Commencement never starts late; the procession always arrives at Baker Stadium right at 2 p.m. or a couple of minutes early. Finney says, “This year we started at 1:58 p.m.”

Where’s my diploma? When graduates process across the stage, pick up their diploma covers, and shake hands with President Thomas, the diplomas are not actually inside the covers. Because final grades from Puget Sound professors are not due until May 25th, the diplomas are sent out later. Why so long? According to Finney, Puget Sound’s curriculum emphasizes writing. Grading written work takes time and faculty want to do it well.

The “Catcher.” One of the faculty marshals is stationed at the bottom of the steps to catch any graduate who trips while leaving the stage. For many years now this person has been Professor Douglas Goodman of the economics department. “Some students tend not to concentrate on descending the stairs, preferring instead to scan the audience for their friends and family,” says Finney. “During his career as ‘Catcher,’ Professor Goodman has prevented several students from injuring themselves.”

Qualifications. Four honorary degrees were presented at this year’s Commencement. Jeff Johnson, executive assistant to the president, manages this selection process. He explains that degree recipients must have demonstrated exceptional service—particularly within the spirit of the liberal arts. Oftentimes degree recipients are alumni or have ties to the Northwest. Choosing them takes four to five months.

And the nominees are… For about a month, students, faculty, and staff are asked to nominate honorary degree recipients. Then a committee of two students, two faculty members, two alumni, and two trustees begins the selection process. After the committee presents its suggested slate, the Faculty Senate gives its approval, followed by the Board of Trustees.

Dinner time. President Thomas contacts the honorands, and, after they accept, hosts an Honorand Dinner on the Saturday before Commencement. Johnson says, “At the dinner, recipients are invited to share what motivates their work. It’s a very moving event.”

This year’s honorary degree recipients were:

Doctor of Laws, Lieutenant General Steven W. Boutelle ’76, chief information officer/G-6 of the U.S. Army.

Doctor of Humane Letters, Robert E. Craves, co-founder, CEO, and president of the Washington Education Foundation, as well as one of the founding officers of Costco Wholesale Corporation.

Doctor of Laws, former Washington state Governor Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American governor in U.S. history.

And Doctor of Humane Letters, Lyle Quasim ’70, who founded, leads, and serves on the boards of numerous local community organizations, including American Leadership Forum, Black Collective, Emergency Food Network, Martin Luther King Jr. Homeless Shelter, and NAACP, to name a few.

Words to live by
The governor speaks. Governor Locke, the Commencement speaker, had this advice: “The purpose of education is not to help you lead more comfortable lives. It is to enable you to lead more useful and more meaningful lives. You must use the power of education to confront, understand, and alleviate suffering and conflict in our society.”

Next… Johnson says that the process for nominating and selecting a Commencement speaker often takes longer than the selection of honorary degree recipients. Normally the committee that selects future Commencement speakers contacts them a year in advance.

Are we done yet?
Not quite. After the ceremony, the Alumni Association provides hospitality tents for graduates and their friends and families. This year Bailey ordered 2,500 strawberries, 40 pounds of mixed nuts, and 90 gallons of punch. Phew.