What does it take to succeed as a marshal at the UW’s commencement ceremonies for 20 years or more?
A cool head, good sense of direction, a comfortable relationship with the color purple, and — probably most important — a desire to make every commencement a special day for the graduating students and their families.
The marshals, who number about 140 every year, are like super-ushers. They help everyone and everything stay on time and in the right line on the students’ biggest day of the year. With the marshals there to help, the 4,400 UW’s graduates and their 38,000 or so observers can enjoy the ceremony and all the pomp, no matter the circumstances.
Sara Griggs, director of the Office of Commencement Services — to say she’s busy just now is the understatement of the academic year — took a moment to sing the praises of all commencement marshals, but especially those who have loyally returned each year for two decades or more.
“To me, the wonderful thing about the marshals doing something like this for 20 years is it is truly a sign of their personal commitment to students,” Griggs said. “And you know, they receive nothing except the smiles and handshakes of the graduates. It definitely is a labor of love.”
And though most UW commencements have been happily free of gaffes and glitches, these faculty and staff members didn’t get to be 20-year-plus veteran commencement marshals without having a few stories to tell — of scenery malfunctions, impromptu romantic moments, tangled stage directions — and oh yes, flying diploma cards.
“I enjoy it, I like the pomp,” said Jan Carline, a professor of medical education and commencement marshal for 23 years. “In my earlier days I was going to be a pastor, and part of it was the sense of getting up in the pulpit and having on your robes and speaking. … All the pomp and circumstance is sort of fun — especially when we went to the purple robes.” (Carline joked that when purple robes were introduced several years back, one faculty member regarded himself and said, “I look like an aubergine” — French for eggplant.)
Carline, who works the stage as a marshal, said one year the weather nearly stole the show. “It was cloudy and looked like we were going to have a bad electrical storm. The wind had come up about an hour before they put the columns on the stage,” he said. Wind gusts made the tops of the columns sway dangerously. “It was, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening!’” Carline said with a laugh. Fortunately, staffers managed to secure the scenery before it took flight.
It was decided another year, Carline said, to remove wind-breaks that had been in front of the stack of diploma cards (real diplomas are not used in commencement). Result: “We were chasing the diploma cards across the stage,” he said, adding, “It can be very windy.”
Ron Moore, associate professor of philosophy and longtime lead among the marshals as University Marshal, recalled an unscripted moment toward the end of one commencement that, thankfully for all involved, came to a happy ending.
Moore wrote in an e-mail, “…at a UW commencement some five or six years ago, I was wrapping up the ceremony (about at the point where I ask the audience to rise for the Alma Mater), and a student elbowed me away from the microphone. ‘Oh-oh, here we go!’ I thought. But he simply used the moment to say, ‘Cindy, will you marry me?’ And somewhere deep in the mass of mortarboards came the shouted reply ‘Yes!’ Then everyone clapped and cheered, and we went on with the show. A nice moment.” And something of a relief, presumably, for the graduating Romeo.
It’s also important for the marshals — and indeed everyone else — to remember that whatever they do has the chance of being seen by upwards of 40,000 people. Fortunately, stage fright is not a big problem among these experienced marshals. “They are actually very composed,” Griggs said, “and partially, that’s because the ones that are in key positions have done it for so many years and have a great deal of certainty about how they are going to handle the situation.”
Still, the combination of that many people and a live microphone can make for odd moments. Moore said when he was encouraging the audience to sing the UW Alma Mater, he revealed a certain dislike for the song when he told the many thousands gathered that “The words — such as they are — are to be found in the program.” Moore added that he still thinks those lyrics are far from brilliant (“To her we sing who keeps the ward/O’er all her sons from sea to sea/Our Alma Mater, Washington/A health! a health! we give to thee!”) and has suggested another song be created. “So far, no soap,” he said.
Norman Johnston, professor emeritus of architecture, is the virtual Cal Ripken of commencement marshals, having missed only three since he started as a marshal in 1961. In an e-mail, Johnston shared a memory of navigational confusion in one commencement, compounded by the vast numbers of people involved. “Instead of directing the undergraduates to their row and seat I inadvertently led them, only recognizing my fumble while marching with them down their row,” Johnston wrote.
“What to do; sit with the students or make a march to the stage all by myself along the outer edge of the seated candidates. I chose the latter, trusting that the enormity of the spectacle would camouflage my ceremonial solo (which of course is what happened).” And so, he wrote with humor, “As an isolated figure in full regalia and with dignified grace, the orchestra vigorously playing, I advanced forward to somewhat prematurely take my place on the stage, and in due course the ceremonies were opened.”
Tim Standal, a professor in the College of Education and commencement marshal for 25 years, remembered a young married couple who began a cross-country trip right after the ceremony — on a tandem bicycle — and an outstanding graduate student from Bosnia earning a masters in engineering who couldn’t speak English just five years earlier. “I thought that was pretty impressive,” he added.
Standal summed up the emotions of a commencement marshal well, saying, “I always think of graduation as a pageant we put on for the people who pay the bills. And I think we put on a pretty good pageant, actually. It is all at once traditional and joyful and maybe just a little bit nostalgic.”
Such a description would likely suit Sara Griggs, director of all things commencement, just fine. She is as proud of the pageant as she is of the marshals who help make it happen. Through all the pomp and circumstance of commencement, their first thought, she said, is always how best to help the students.
And though 130 years is time enough for many unplanned things to happen — from silly to sentimental — the UW commencement marshals have helped the huge ceremony stay on course. As Jan Carline put it, “Nobody’s ever fallen off the stage yet, although we are concerned about it.”