If a tree falls in Harvard Yard and the next morning is Commencement, what do you do?
If you are Wayne Carbone, manager of landscape services, you get yourself over to Cambridge as soon as possible, assemble a team of arborists and maintenance workers, and deal with it.
The tree in question, an American elm, 60 to 70 years old, growing between Widener Library and Boylston Hall, lost half of its bifurcated trunk in the storm that swept through eastern Massachusetts the night of June 9. Fortunately, the limb hit neither building, but fell along the walkway between them, taking out a bike rack and a few folding chairs.
Carbone and his team got to work about 10:30 p.m. Using a cherry picker, chain saws, and a chipper, they managed to dismantle the fallen tree and clean up the area by 2 a.m.
“The tree didn’t have Dutch elm disease, but it did have some decay, which is probably why the wind took it apart,” Carbone said. “It’s a good thing it happened when there was no one around rather than the next morning, or any other morning, for that matter. It was a pretty exciting night, but we got it taken care of and Commencement went off like it always does.”
Musical worlds collided at the corner of Tercentenary Theatre early Thursday morning as the fife and drum corps that led Kirkland House’s procession into the Yard met with Winthrop House’s New Orleans-style brass band. Despite the varied media, the message was clear: The fifes played “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” while the Big Easy ensemble grooved to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The students obligingly marched on.
Meanwhile, the bagpipers that led Mather House piped a familiar tune, returning “Fair Harvard” to its roots as a traditional Irish tune.
Your so-so life
At the Senior Class Chapel Service that preceded the Morning Exercises, the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, challenged the Harvard College soon-to-be graduates to seek peace and goodness in lives that would, for most of them, not be exalted. “Most of you will be called upon to live ordinary lives as well as possible, and that is no small mission,” he said. “Real life consists of doing ordinary, mundane things as well as you can do them.”
Gomes delivered equal measures of sobering realism and wry humor in what he called “the most efficient service you will ever attend.” He urged Harvard’s newest alumni to go easy on the older alums who would be gathered in Tercentenary Theatre, which he called “the theater of the absurd,” cautioning the members of the Class of ’04 that one day they would be on the receiving end of seniors’ snickers. “If you’re lucky, you can be an object of public derision,” he promised. He also reminded the students that Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William Fitzsimmons dubs every incoming Harvard class the very best and brightest; “that means that you’re now the dimmest, the bottom of the heap,” he said.
Drawing a line from the psalm read at the beginning of the service, Gomes implored the seniors to “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” Admitting he was “sick to death” of the Commencement week chorus of calls to greatness and virtue, he instead encouraged the students to seek fidelity, goodness, and wisdom.
“Doing what you can is all that worthwhile living is about,” he said. “So for God’s sake, and your own, get on with it.”
Where in the world?
Following the Chapel Service, Mather House senior tutor Brad Zakarin stood on the steps of the Memorial Church to corral wayward Matherites into order. He surrendered his own map designating gathering and processing routes of Harvard Yard to three befuddled, undoubtedly sleep-deprived students.
“All these kids are graduating summa, and they need a map!” he said with mock horror and genuine fondness.
In the information kiosk in the middle of the Old Yard, however, expectations were decidedly lower. Harvard Alumni Association’s Hoopes Wampler reported that this year, as every year, “Where’s Harvard Yard?” is one of the most popular questions.
School pride, part II
Missing from this year’s ceremonies were some of the props carried and waved by
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graduates from certain of the professional schools. The Law School’s inflatable sharks, a biting self-deprecating touch, were gone, as were the pipe-cleaner halos that topped so many Divinity School mortarboards in years past.
As degrees were conferred upon the Harvard School of Public Health, however, a slow chuckle spread through Tercentenary Theatre as the crowd realized those balloon-looking things the graduates waved were … condoms.
A bright idea
The Graduate School of Education also got in the spirit. Graduates had bright yellow foam light bulbs with HGSE emblazoned on them. It was a bright idea for those entrusted with helping others develop their own bright ideas.
What a caution!
Students from the Graduate School of Design drew a laugh from Winthrop House seniors as Winthrop lined the sides of Tercentenary Theatre’s main walkway for the entrance of the President, Fellows, and other dignitaries heading for Commencement’s main platform.
While waiting for the dignitaries to arrive, the Winthrop seniors spied the GSD students filing to their own seats in Tercentenary Theatre wearing a curious accessory, yellow plastic tape. After seeing the words emblazoned on the tape, a student laughed, realizing she’d seen it before at construction sites:
“It’s caution tape!”
He that hath clean hands
Asked what was his biggest Commencement thrill, one Harvard employee had this story to tell: “I was stationed in the Buttrick Room in the basement of Memorial Church, and I was watching the Morning Exercises on television. Well, after it was over, I walked down the hall to the men’s room. I was washing my hands at one of the basins and I looked up and guess who was washing his hands right next to me – Kofi Annan! I must have done a double take because he gave me a little nod as if to say, ‘Yeah, that’s right, it’s me. How’re you doin’?’ Then we both grabbed paper towels, dried off, and went our separate ways.”
Frank gets a shout-out
School pride nearly hijacked the message of Stephen E. Frank’s (HLS ’04) Graduate English Address, called “Leaving Footprints in Time.” Harvard Medical School students set the tone with a rowdy cheer as Frank referred to his grandmother’s entry to medical school at age 56. Graduate School of Education students applauded as he told the audience, “We’re graduating to a life of learning,” and students from the Harvard Divinity School let out an un-pious whoop when he recalled his grandmother’s spirit. His Law School classmates applauded several references to recent legal stands against injustice, and the School of Public Health took the spotlight when he mentioned the recent Goodridge v. the Department of Public Health case that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. Even students from the Graduate School of Design had their moment, cheering loudly as Frank decried “poorly designed immigration policies.”
Frank seemed to enjoy the attention, and perhaps he even expected it. After all, it was his second trip to the podium; he delivered the Senior English Address at his Harvard College Commencement in 1995.
Snippets from the student orators:
“There’s no experience in life that two liters of Diet Coke can’t get you through,” – Kathryn Rakoczy, Senior English Address
“…nunc gaudendum esse,” (“…now we must have fun!”) – Pankaj Agarwalla, Latin Salutatory
A wasp-y note
Before the conferring of honorary degrees, it is traditional to tell a bit about each recipient’s journey to the lofty position they now occupy. And so it was Thursday, when in awarding an honorary degree to Harvard’s own Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino Research Professor Emeritus, Provost Steven E. Hyman revealed that Wilson’s earliest memory is of being a toddler in a garden when he reached out to touch a velvet ant and got stung for his troubles.
“Some children might have taken that as a warning to stay away from insects. Instead, our guest grew up to become the world’s greatest authority on ants,” Hyman said of Wilson.
A quick Internet search for “velvet ant” reveals that perhaps Wilson missed his true calling: wasps. Velvet ants are actually a type of flightless wasp and can inflict a sting so painful they’re also called “cow killer” ants.
In his cups
John Degnan of the Harvard University Credit Union spent most of Commencement
handing out paper cups to people passing through the Holyoke Center plaza. The cups were printed with the Credit Union logo and could be filled free of charge at nearby Au Bon Pain.
The giveaway was designed to promote the Credit Union’s new office in the Holyoke Center arcade and to advertise the fact that now for the first time Harvard students and alumni can open accounts at the institution. Degnan estimated that he and his colleagues had given away about 500 cups over the course of the morning and expected to distribute quite a few more during the afternoon.
“Mostly people seem surprised,” he said. “A lot of them say, ‘Well, where’s the coffee?’ But I think it’s going over well. It’s been a productive morning.”
Where’s our Waldo?
At the lunchtime ceremonies at the Graduate School of Education, families and well-wishers craned necks and focused cameras waiting for their own graduates to process from Longfellow Hall. The cheering squad for HGSE master’s degree recipient Preston Cline stood, whooped, and snapped-to when someone who merely
looked like Cline crossed the platform. But who can blame them; all the grads dressed the same.
When the real Cline emerged and later reunited with his friends and relations, he told them he had spent much of the long-ish ceremony reflecting on his education at the HGSE.
“Getting into the Ed School felt like I was pulling off the impossible. And when I got here and worked with such amazing people, I felt that Harvard was teaching us how to pull off the impossible,” he said. “But by the time I got to graduation I realized that the whole point was, there’s no such thing as impossible. The only real limitations we have is within ourselves, and I think that’s what Harvard teaches you.”
GSE Dean Ellen Condliffe Lagemann delivered a similarly optimistic message to the grads, telling them that while education may not solve all the world’s ills, it can certainly help meet many challenges.
“In education, small victories matter. As they pile up, they begin to make a difference,” she said. “You can and will make an enormous difference, even if it is one small step at a time.”
Go to the front of the line
Philip Keene ’25 led the alumni parade as the most senior alumnus attending the Afternoon Exercises for the third year in a row. He had sworn last year would be his final year of participation, said son David, but he couldn’t keep himself away this year.
“He has three great loves: his family, the Red Sox, and Harvard,” said the younger Keene of his father. “One of them is sure to disappoint; hopefully, the other two don’t.” Born in Waban, Mass., and now living in Natick, Keene is 101 years old.
Lowell House commences Final instructions
At Lowell House’s lunchtime diploma-granting ceremony, the House’s seniors proved apt at following what may have been their final instructions in their official capacity as Harvard students.
As they mounted the steps in Lowell’s courtyard to receive their diploma, they passed a list of instructions written on a whiteboard:
Keep tassel to the left
Smile, head up
Shake master’s hands
Take diploma from senior tutor’s hands, stay posed for pictures.
Let the record show, they performed admirably.
And a rousing cheer
Lowell House Master Diana Eck kicked off the diploma ceremony with a heartfelt cheer, rousing the audience from their lunches with a congratulatory note: “Members of the Class of 2004: Yeaaaay!”
Klappermeisters come home
In addition to congratulating the Class of 2004, Eck took the opportunity of
Lowell House’s Commencement Lunch to welcome back the House’s bellringers – or Klappermeisters. The bellringers were just back from Russia in a trip led by Assistant Senior Tutor Luis Campos. The students were Carl Schoonover, Aara Edwards, and Yulia Ryzhik. While there, they apprenticed with the Klappermeister of St. Danilov Monastery. Lowell House’s bells originally hung in St. Danilov. They were bought from the Soviet Union’s government and donated to the House in 1930.
Many happy returns
Eck urged graduates to return often to Lowell House and its large courtyard in the years to come.
“This is a place that has gathered a community,” Eck said. “You will come back and drift into this courtyard … and hopefully maintain a sense of connection with this place and the community that came into being here.”
… Along the way
Lowell House Co-Master Dorothy Austin urged students who knew their path ahead – and those who didn’t – to be mindful of life’s twists and turns. Sometimes a road that seems right at its beginning seems a poor fit along the way.
“If you should find you are not on the right path, may you have the courage to change your mind,” Austin said, telling those who are not sure of their path forward to trust themselves and be confident in their talent and inquiring spirits.
– Compiled by roving reporters Beth Potier, Alvin Powell, and Ken Gewertz