Campus & Community

Sights, sounds, stories of Commencement 2008

long read

From the beginning of Commencement Day, when graduates and their professors commenced sprouting out of the morning mist in full regalia, ’til the end of Afternoon Exercises, when all and sundry fell under the spell of J.K. Rowling’s verbal wizardry, four curious, stealthy, and alert writers from the Gazette prowled around the Yard and its environs, eyes and ears open for the most vivid, moving, and humorous moments of this most important of days. Some of their observations follow.


Mather House seniors were roused by the call of bagpipes at 5:45 a.m. on Commencement Day. In keeping with House tradition, a bagpiper strolled through the courtyard and circled the towers, playing tunes at full blast to wake the graduates.

“A lot of the students had left their windows open,” the bagpiper explained, “so I think it was hard for them to ignore the music.”

Once all were fully awake and fed, the bagpiper led the happy crowd up to the Memorial Church for the Senior Class Chapel Service. Presumably, the graduates were more pleased to listen to the Scottish pipes after a good meal and strong coffee.


Speaking of coffee, Commencement morning was a busy one for the Dunkin’ Donuts franchise on Bow Street. Lines stretched out the door at 8 a.m., as graduates, families, and faculty members fueled up for the day. According to the manager, the store sells about twice as much coffee on Commencement morning as it does on an average Thursday. Lattes were flying over the counter, as were honey-dipped doughnuts.

The manager’s special recommendation for sleepy visitors?

“A double espresso,” he said. “That should keep ’em up through the ceremony.”


Before the ceremonies began, the sheriff of Middlesex County rode into Harvard Yard on a white horse — named, appropriately, “Chief.”


Fred Abernathy, Gordon McKay Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Engineering, took up his post as he has done regularly for the past four years as Commencement caller in the Old Yard. Atop a small podium, the scholar, in a voice and style worthy of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, organized the Commencement procession for the Morning Exercises with a healthy dose of witty lines like, “My, but the faculty is colorful on a gray, overcast day” and “Students, it is customary for [you] to applaud when the faculty marches between your ranks. This is your chance to thank them for all those countless hours of lecture preparation.”

Abernathy also offered a stream of time-travel trivia aimed to take the reunion classes back to their Harvard days. Abernathy pointed out that in 1983, the year the 25th anniversary class graduated, Microsoft Word was first released, and in 1973, the year the 35th anniversary class graduated, the Science Center opened and the World Trade Center in New York was completed, claiming the title of the world’s tallest building

According to Abernathy, some of the alumni protested when they learned they would march directly into Tercentenary Theatre instead of marching the more circuitous route through the Old Yard and the ranks of graduating seniors that lined part of the way. Some quickly complained that they had flown thousands of miles just to participate in the traditional ritual and wanted to partake in the complete course. They were promptly allowed to do so.


One woman seeking a good place to watch the morning procession told it like it is. After being directed to a likely spot, she was asked whether she had a youngster graduating. “No,” she quipped, “I have an oldster.” Her husband was in the 50th reunion class.


The Harvard Shop, the student-run store on JFK Street that sells Harvard insignia merchandise, set up a tent in front of Boylston Hall and did a brisk business, selling out of white-and-crimson umbrellas on Wednesday, even selling the store manager’s personal umbrella by mistake. On Thursday, long-sleeve Harvard T-shirts and sweatshirts were the hottest-selling items for the cool, damp day. Members of the Commencement crowd bought the clothes and immediately pulled them on over their more formal attire in an effort to keep warm in the unseasonably cool temperatures.

But temperatures flared when some who were attending the ceremonies realized the legendary Tercentenary Theatre was actually an outdoor space between Widener Library and the Memorial Church, said Sam Harrison ’10, who manned the tent and frequently had to describe the theatre’s exact locale to the confused commencement attendees. “One woman said ‘You expect me to sit outside in the rain?’” said Harrison, who offered to sell her an umbrella.


Commencement Day is no picnic for the percussion players in the Harvard University Band. The bass drums and “quad” drums (a set of four smaller instruments) weigh about 40 pounds, and the musicians must carry them with special shoulder packs for a 45-minute march around the Yard and Tercentenary Theatre.

“It’s not really heavy when you first pick it up,” explained one member, “but after about five minutes you really start to feel the weight.”

Several reported that by the end of Commencement Day they usually have calluses and blisters — one band member even said his hands have bled.

With that comment, another percussionist held up her hands, encased in protective black leather gloves.

“I’m older and wiser,” she quipped, wiggling her fingers. “You live and learn.”


References to the imaginary world of witches and wizards created by Commencement speaker J.K. Rowling poked their heads up at odd moments during the day’s exercises. Perhaps the oddest was during the opening prayer, which intoned hopefully that the graduates would be kept from being “muggle-headed” and not overlook the wonders of the world around them. “Muggle” is a term Rowling coined in her books for those who have no magical powers.


Eager Ph.D. candidates interrupted President Drew Faust with cheers and whistles as she began to confer their degrees.

“I’m not doooone,” she admonished gently, with a smile. The crowd quieted down.

After finishing her sentence, Faust gave graduates the green light.

“Now!” she proclaimed, and hollers erupted throughout Tercentenary Theatre.


The comments at the conferring of honorary degrees are often noted for clever wordplay and sometimes inside jokes. The degree citation for child development and education pioneer James Comer’s honorary doctor of laws degree referred to an ongoing and age-old rivalry. Comer, who has spent his career at Yale and is the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry there, had to endure a bit of ribbing about his home institution before getting his sheepskin.

“He has achieved all this despite having spent his academic career in a remote southern Connecticut city, perhaps best known for its pizza,” Provost Steven E. Hyman said with appropriate solemnity.

President Drew Faust picked up where Hyman left off a moment later, praising Comer for “reshaping schools as ‘New Havens’ of learning.”


One of the day’s biggest ovations came for someone who wasn’t even in New England during the Commencement Exercises. After the last honorary degree was conferred, President Faust said that a degree was planned for U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who couldn’t attend because he was recuperating from surgery at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina to treat his recently diagnosed brain tumor. Faust said the degree will be conferred at another appropriate ceremony in the near future, thanked Kennedy for being a tireless friend of education, and asked for applause for him from the audience, which enthusiastically complied.


Though graduates celebrated the end of (or at least a pause from) homework and studying, not all Commencement attendees enjoyed a work-free afternoon.

In Boylston Hall, the younger siblings of one graduate — a senior and a sophomore in high school — were camped out with a laptop, paper, and schoolbooks, trying to finish their homework.

“We have exams next week,” they explained.

As families filed in and out of Boylston to escape the rain, the sophomore typed away on an outline of themes in George Orwell’s “1984.” Her brother was leafing through a treatise by Wittgenstein.

“We’ve been inside most of the morning,” he said. “It’s hard to see and kind of rainy, so we figured we might as well stay here and be productive.”


During Morning Exercises, graduates of the Harvard Kennedy School showed up with their bright blue and green inflatable globes of the world, which were bounced around pretty freely.

Law School graduates wielded gavels. Harvard Extension School graduates had inflatable models of an Aladdin-like oil lamp. (A burning lamp — the symbol of learning by night — is at the base of the School’s shield.) There were also a few sheaves of wheat among the same graduates — a reference to the two bushels of wheat on the Extension School shield. Two bushels of wheat was the fee for courses given originally by the Lowell Institute, the Extension School’s 19th century precursor.

Graduates from the Harvard Graduate School of Design wore yellow caution tape draped over their shoulders. Caution: construction under way. And you can’t have construction without design.

Seniors from the Dudley Co-op displayed the most creative dress of the day,

sporting a “garden” theme to reflect their commitment to shared cooking duties in the House and a love of high-quality food. One Co-op member adorned his mortarboard with green beans, lemon, garlic leaves, a grape, a blueberry, and raisins. Another beamed beneath a collection of empty egg cartons, while a third showed off a creative necklace of carrots and forks. One student held a stalk of not-quite-mature garlic.

When asked why she chose that particular vegetable, she replied simply, “Because it’s beautiful.”

The Dudley Co-op is growing garlic in the House garden, and according to co-op members the crop will be ready for consumption in about a month and a half.


During the conferring of degrees, the changes to Harvard’s top leadership during this year of transition were apparent.

Among those addressing students for the first time were the deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, of Medicine, of Design, of Harvard College, and of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, while Venkatesh Narayanamurti, both the founding and outgoing dean of the new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and longtime Harvard School of Public Health Dean Barry Bloom presented their degree candidates for the last time.


“You’re supposed to look interested.” The Rev. Peter Gomes to Harvard College seniors, standing in line as faculty members process by.

“Excuse me, where did you get this very elegant item?” One woman asking another attendee about her plastic poncho, complete with hood. The response: “This thing here? They were just giving ’em away!”


As they waited in the Old Yard for the Afternoon Exercises to begin, members of Harvard’s Class of 1958 reminisced about campus life 50 years ago. According to the group, Adams was far and above their favorite House on campus. Bob Myers, a former tuba player with the Crimson Band, clad, somewhat reluctantly, in a white painter’s hat with the words “The Great 58” printed on the front, explained why: It was the easiest House to sneak girls into, Myers said. “There were lots of doors and only one supervisor, and he practiced ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”


The Harvard University Band — “mayhem, music, and wit since 1919,” according to its Web site — trooped noisily up the walk in front of Holden Chapel on the afternoon of June 5. All the better to serenade the oldest alumni on hand for the Commencement Exercises.

The brass and wind sections blew mightily: flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, and two gruff tubas. The bell kit tinkled, cymbals crashed on time, snare drums snapped, and big bass drums boomed. Drum Major Greg Dyer ’09 — in the traditional tuxedo — got the best workout of the day, his right arm pumping the long baton to keep pace.

On cue, a few players periodically ducked out of line to jog and prance past the crowd, standing amused in the shade of tents.

The band finished up with a rousing version of “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,” a fight song that dates back about 90 years.


Jonathan Byrnes, outgoing Harvard Alumni Association president, introduced the first of the traditional songs of the Afternoon Exercises, “Gaudeamus Igitur,” by pointing out that it originated as a 13th century student drinking song. The days must have been more somber back then, because the song, sung in Latin, strips life to its bare essentials, according to the English translation:

“Let us rejoice while we are young; after our delightful youth, after grievous old age, the earth will hold us.”

Which way to the pub?


Despite the gray skies, one College senior sported a pair of snazzy white Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses for the Afternoon Exercises.

“The shades aren’t necessary, but I decided to be optimistic about the weather,” he said. “To be honest, I think they’ve helped me make a lot of friends today.”


During her address to the Harvard Alumni Association during the Afternoon Exercises, Harvard President Drew Faust delivered a serious speech, answering critics who decry the dollars raised by universities for their endowments. Faust made the point that excellence has a cost and that the University is not just a resource for the state or the country, but for the world.

Faust began her speech with a bit of a humorous touch, however, acknowledging that the capacity crowd that filled Tercentenary Theatre was more likely there to hear the next speaker on the agenda, author J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter novels are a worldwide phenomenon.

“Witches, wizards, and Muggles of all ages,” Faust began to hoots, laughter, and whistles, then added before moving on to more sober topics, “I know I’m the warm-up act.”


Two children’s librarians from the Cambridge Public Library were among the most excited of all the J.K. Rowling fans in attendance at Commencement.

“We told everyone that has walked in [the library] that we were going to see her,” one explained. “We are beyond excited.”

They said they planned to take lots of pictures and create a montage for display at the library.

When asked what they thought Rowling would talk about, the pair offered several different suggestions. One thing was clear, though: The famed author would not disappoint.

“Children’s authors know how to do it,” one of the librarians said. “She’ll keep our attention, and at the end we will come away having learned something.”


There was only one Harry Potter on hand, sitting far back in the deep rows of folding chairs: Alastair Beeson, age 10, of Manhattan, whose recycled Halloween costume — round glasses and Gryffindor robes — matched his straight-bang haircut.

He clutched a Sony digital camera (whose magic is the equal of Dumbledore) and waited for Rowling to walk past on her way to the stage. When told she wouldn’t be, Beeson employed a modern turn of phrase: “Bummer.”


Most of the thousands who passed through Harvard’s Tercentenary Theatre on Commencement Day probably never even noticed the small group perched atop one of the two cement blocks that flank the Widener steps. The men busily went about their task at a tiny table with headphones, a microphone, and a small mixing board as they produced a live broadcast of the Commencement activities for Harvard’s radio station, WHRB. Over the years, even the most inclement weather hasn’t stopped dedicated volunteers at the student-run station from producing the live feed from the same lofty outdoor location. The on-site Commencement simulcast has been hitting the airwaves since 1957.


If an unrepresentative 10-minute sampling of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences diploma ceremony Thursday afternoon in Sanders Theatre is any indication, there is a baby boom going on among Harvard doctoral candidates.

The ceremony reflected the reality that as one gets older, education has to vie for time with a student’s other obligations. A fair number of doctoral candidates who crossed the stage to shake hands with well-wishing deans and faculty mentors had to juggle diploma envelopes and round-headed babies to free a hand. A few made the long-awaited march with a mini-entourage, a baby in the arm and a little one or two at their side.

English and American Literatures and Language held the unofficial record with five children joining three newly minted Ph.D. parents, beating out similar hard-working parents in economics, classics, and chemistry and chemical biology.


Allan M. Brandt, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), learned some hard lessons about sleep during his first year of graduate study in 1974. He shared a few words on all-nighters for attendees of the GSAS degree ceremony in Sanders Theatre on Thursday.

With a deadline looming for a chapter of his master’s thesis, Brandt recalled, he had to stay up writing for three consecutive nights.

After the first night, Brandt felt “dreadful.”

“After the second successive night without sleep I thought I might die,” he continued. “But on the third morning, having at last produced a chapter, filled with grammatical and unusual spelling errors, I believed I had discovered [that] if you could stay up three nights in a row, you would never require sleep again.”

Brandt quipped that “humankind had previously failed to make this pathbreaking discovery, that three back-to-back all-nighters left one without the need to ever sleep again.”

“Imagine how fast I would complete my dissertation, with this new piece of unprecedented knowledge about circadian rhythms,” he said, pausing for effect. “NOT.”


“If my baton has any magic powers,” asked of Marshal Kristin O’Connor Ed.M., ’00, who was directing traffic and handing out programs before the afternoon ceremonies, by a number of excited 10-year-olds on hand to hear Commencement speaker and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. Marshals, who assist in guiding the crowds around campus during Commencement, traditionally carry the black batons that bear a striking resemblance to a magician’s wand as part of their ceremonial outfit.


The omnipresent, clear plastic poncho was a hit with both the young and the old.


“Faustie!” enthusiastically yelled in the Morning Exercises by an excited graduating senior, who accompanied it with an exuberant, “I love you!”


The bright, swirling aqua blue design painted on the graduation cap of graduating senior Erin Stephens-North that cleverly matched her blue-streaked hair. Runner-up: A pirate captain’s hat complete with skull, crossbones, and tassel worn by senior Hezzy Smith. “I didn’t really think it through,” Smith admitted of the hat he found as he was packing his things at Quincy House. “If I had, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Commentary by Corydon Ireland, Alvin Powell, Emily T. Simon, and Colleen Walsh