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The road to Commencement
Two days after the University’s 133rd Commencement on May 18, 2009, four dozen men and women from departments across the University and a number of outside firms met around a large rectangle of conference tables in the Murray Room to begin preparations for the 2010 Commencement, 369 days (and nearly 40 meetings, or sub-meetings) hence. Attendees compiled a list of key tactical issues, from bus choreography at the satellite parking areas to rain contingencies (2009 had been a raw and wet event). “Next time,” noted Mary Lou DeLong, University secretary, chair of the Commencement committee, and a veteran of 26 commencements, “we have to control the chairs”—a reference to furniture borrowed from the VIP suites on the day of the ceremony. Dining Services was rethinking how to handle the post–Baccalaureate Mass buffet on O’Neill Plaza after some 7,000 hungry people arrived within 50 minutes last year; and discussions were underway with the city of Newton to assure a day off for the municipal road crew scheduled to resurface Commonwealth Avenue on May 24, 2010.
The biggest change for Commencement 2010, however, was already more than a year in the planning, with the go-ahead coming from University President William P. Leahy, SJ, “even before Commencement 2009,” according to DeLong: It would entail a complete redesign of the physical frame of the University ceremony, specifically the dais on which festivities take place in Alumni Stadium, the subject of countless families’ photographs, where the University’s honorands and leaders convene.
The same wooden platform and awning arrangement had been erected annually for the past 15 years, and its shortcomings had long been apparent. The stage was cramped and dark at the rear, the sight lines were poor, and, most important, it couldn’t hold the faculty, whom senior administrators felt belonged on the stage but whose seats were on the field at either side. Dominated visually by a white awning, it lacked Boston College’s emblems and colors. There was a need for “something distinctive, on a larger scale,” says DeLong, “suitable to the size of the stadium and the significance of the day.”
Even so, the modest 15-year-old structure had itself been a sign of progress when introduced. It had superseded a flatbed trailer, which would be driven to the 40-yard line where its sides were folded down to create the stage. David Early, director of the University’s Bureau of Conferences, recalls a harrowing moment during one Boston College Commencement (he has seen 36, so far) when the hydraulics at one end of the trailer lost pressure, causing the platform to begin tilting. Quick shoring with blocks of wood by University workers averted a pileup of the rich and famous.
In 1877, the inaugural Commencement had taken place in Boston College Hall, the auditorium in the school’s first building, on Harrison Avenue in Boston’s South End. (Prior to 1877 there were “exhibitions” of students’ achievements but no formal commencements.) Events had run for three consecutive nights: The first evening, June 26, featured lectures on pneumatics (“the physical properties of the air we breath,” explained the program) and acoustics (“the sonorous wave”), capped by a demonstration of “Bell’s telephone.” The following night, members of the sophomore class presented the Latin drama Philedonus, or the Romance of a Rich Young Man. On the final night, as the Boston Daily Globe reported, students debated the question, “Which is the best form of government?” (Democracy won.) Governor Alexander H. Rice addressed the audience, then University President Robert Fulton, SJ, presented Bachelor of Arts degrees to 10 students.
The staging for the 2010 Commencement, an event that involved 3,500 degree recipients and some 18,000 guests, was designed by Keith Ake in the Office of Marketing Communications (also a designer for this magazine). It comprised a central platform for senior administrators, trustees, and honorands that is 40 feet wide and 28 feet deep, with a roof 33 feet above, flanked by two slightly larger stages to accommodate faculty. (Originally conceived as a single large structure, the plan quickly morphed into a triptych.) In all, the footprint was three times larger than the previous version. Constructed of webbed aluminum girders, the framework resembled a massive erector set before being wrapped in “DuPont Type 66 Bright Nylon Solarmax” maroon bunting.
Beginning on the Tuesday prior to the ceremony, the three modules were assembled, on-site, with finishing touches applied Saturday—except for one of the two University shields meant to hang on the stage backdrop. It was missing and had to be couriered from the fabricator in Tennessee to Ake’s home that night and installed Sunday morning.
Dressed in University-hued, maroon and gold mesh vinyl fabric (the material provides the appearance of a solid backdrop while allowing airflow, to avoid flapping), the entire structure was anchored by a long row of barrels containing 30,000 pounds of water. It stayed put through the ceremony.
Two days after the 134th Commencement, the 2010 committee met for a postmortem: One student had been reported missing, but campus police found him asleep in a friend’s room and ferried him to Alumni Stadium in time. Campus Police Captain Margaret Connolly reported several cranky exchanges during dorm move out, probably triggered by the 82-degree temperature. Michael Kann of Dining Services announced a count of 19,000 bottles of water distributed in Alumni Stadium and 1,200 gallons at the individual events on middle campus. A special cache of 15,000 rain ponchos purchased by DeLong was never called into action. Transportation had run smoothly, the ceremony in Alumni Stadium was but minutes off schedule, and the new stage had served. The ponchos went into storage.
Read more by Thomas Cooper