Campus & Community

Highlights from a memorable Commencement

long read

On June 4, administrators sighed with relief at the weather, speakers went over their notes, and graduates congregated in black-tasseled flocks alongside a rainbow of professors in their own caps and gowns. Meanwhile, the Harvard Gazette staff fanned out across the campus on Commencement day to pick a rainbow of their own — colorful accounts of the long, happy day. Read about the oldest graduates — and the youngest. Watch Divinity School angels take off, and see Medical School grads wearing surgical masks. Hear the bells peal and maestro Wynton Marsalis play “America the Beautiful.”

Sine qua non

Shortly before Morning Exercises (June 4), a young man in cap and gown squeezed into a Holyoke Center elevator. “Where’s the Financial Aid Office?” he asked. “You don’t need financial aid anymore,” a man joked. “You’re graduating.”

“Not if I don’t pay my bill,” the young man replied.

“That’s what we’re doing, too,” the older man said. “Our daughter didn’t pay a fee.”

The graduate, the man, and his wife exited on the ninth floor to complete the most ancient and solemn ritual of all.

Men in skirts

Members of the Stuart Highlanders, a pipe band from Wilmington, Mass., took a coffee break at the outdoor tables at Au Bon Pain dressed in white shirts, black vests, and tartan kilts before hitting the pavement for their second round of piping that Commencement afternoon. They were recharging from their early start, having woken residents of Cabot and Lowell houses with their bagpipes at 6:15 a.m. and then having marched them into the Yard to line up for Morning Exercises. In his 17 years on the job, Bob Cameron said the only major mishap he could recall was seeing a piper spill a cup of hot coffee on his kilt-exposed legs.

Bittersweet farewell

A few minutes before 7 a.m. on Commencement day, as graduating seniors from Leverett House marched up Plympton Street to the sounds of a jubilant tuba, a dozen people stood outside the House, beaming with pride as they watched the procession. They called out congratulations to the passing graduates. They snapped photographs. At least one cried.

But these weren’t the graduates’ proud parents or grandparents. Their tidy aprons and starched white uniforms identified them as staffers in the Leverett House dining center.

Everything’s coming up roses

… and daffodils … and daisies

Flowers could be seen everywhere on Commencement day, from the blooming bushes in the Yard to the bouquet-laden gift carts scattered throughout Harvard Square. Even the mail room at Lowell House was filled with arrangements — special deliveries adding cheer to an already festive day for the Class of 2009.

‘Hey! This guy’s good.’

As a soloist stood on the steps next to the Memorial Church and performed a rendition of “America the Beautiful” to open the morning Commencement Exercises, the crowd was noticeably impressed. “He’s good!” a member of the audience exclaimed in surprise, stirred by the trumpeter’s musicianship and ease before such a large gathering. He was good, and relaxed, and with good reason. The lone trumpeter was none other than jazz great Wynton Marsalis, who, it just so happens, was also receiving an honorary degree during the service.

‘A lot of practicing’

Raymond Fadel ’12, a trumpet player in the Harvard Marching Band, spoke about his experience joining the rest of the band members in a tribute to Wynton Marsalis: “It was fantastic and a great experience. [At] Commencement rehearsal, our director gave us a piece that was arranged by our student conductor as a fitting salute to his honorary degree.”

And although he would love to do a trumpet duet with Marsalis, Fadel admitted, “I would do a lot of practicing before considering.”

Forget Paris

One Commencement guest, a physics research intern from Paris, excused himself from his work on Thursday to catch part of the ceremony. “I wanted to attend this ceremony to get an idea about how [Americans] celebrate graduation. We don’t have this in [France], so this is interesting,” he said. “I’m going to take the afternoon off to enjoy the ceremonies and to discover new things about the American culture.”


On graduation day, Loker Commons was temporarily turned into a day care center as the young children of Ph.D. students prepared to graduate along with their parents — literally. One proud wife and mother explained, “My daughter will be getting her honorary Ph.D. today, at 13 months old. And she’s having fun, but I’m a little upset because my father has a Ph.D. and I didn’t get an honorary degree!”


If footwear has any cultural meaning, this year’s Harvard College graduates are taking a turn to the “Mild Side.” For men, the most common style was plain black leather dress shoes. They were even tied! For women, what prevailed below the ankles were plain flats and open-toed black heels, in even numbers. Within this conservative crowd, the odd-shod stood out. One observer spotted a few contrarian pairs of running shoes and flip-flops, along with one pair each of leopard slippers, pale blue Chuck Taylor high-tops, moon shoes, and — so 20th century! — tasseled loafers.

Appropriate accessory

As a marshal for the Divinity School, Elizabeth Leavitt sported a pair of white, feathered wings and a gold halo made out of pipe cleaner, for her class’s Morning Exercises.

Props? Or proper precaution?

Every Commencement, graduates of Harvard’s various Schools bring in props to wave as Harvard’s president confers their degrees: plastic globes for Harvard Kennedy School students or school workbooks for those from the Graduate School of Education, for example. This year, graduating students from Harvard Medical School sported surgical masks, making them look like … well, pandemic-shy residents of major cities around the world. With thousands of people crammed into Harvard Yard for Thursday’s ceremonies and swine flu out and about, it was unclear whether the newly minted docs were toting masks in the spirit of the day or out of an abundance of caution. Both perhaps?

All tuckered out

By 9:50 a.m., just as Morning Exercises were getting under way, two weary spectators had already decided it was nap time. They stretched out on the ledge of Widener Library across from Boylston Hall and snored peacefully through the booming, joyous introductions of University Marshal Jackie O’Neill. In place of a pillow, one of the sleepers had balanced a Frisbee over his eyes — hardly comfortable, but apparently adequate.

Room with a view

One clever family avoided the morning crowds by escaping to the second floor of Weld Hall, where they commandeered a corner bedroom suite overlooking Tercentenary Theatre. The view was perfect, offering clear sightlines to the procession, a good perspective on one of the enormous video screens, and just enough height to glimpse the stage beyond. Mom stood by the open window, camera trained on the crowd, while Dad relaxed on the extra-long twin mattress and leafed through a copy of the program.

The only problem with their otherwise ideal campout was that the room is a hospitality room, technically reserved for guests of the Extension School. This family was there to celebrate their daughter’s graduation from the College.

“I think we’re going to have to ask them to leave,” whispered one of the room attendants, an Extension alumna. Her tone was apologetic.

“But not until the ceremony’s over.”

Hometown girl makes good

The Harvard Gazette — by no means for the first time — was proud to be represented at Commencement by a newly minted A.L.M. This year it was photographer Stephanie Mitchell. Not only did she graduate in her concentration of studio arts, but Mitchell’s thesis, “The Ancient and Modern Art of Abbas Kiarostami,” was awarded the prestigious Annamae and Allan R. Crite Prize for “singular dedication to learning and the arts.” Mitchell’s proud fellow photographers (from the Gazette and elsewhere) swarmed around their friend like a hive of excited paparazzi, causing some bystanders to wonder aloud, “Is she a celebrity?!”

Hopelessly devoted

The parents of Lowell House senior Max Mishkin were thrilled to see their son, a tuba player and outgoing drillmaster with the Harvard Band, finally graduate. Jeremy and Barbara Mishkin drove up from Philadelphia to attend Thursday’s Commencement ceremonies, retracing a route they’d driven many times in the past four years.

The pair said they’d taken advantage of every opportunity to visit Harvard and watch Max play. Among other excursions, Barbara said she’d been to three Harvard-Yale games and watched past Commencements, at which the band played, on their Webcasts.

“We’re incredibly proud,” Barbara said. “To actually be here, it feels incredible; it’s a magical experience.”

Bamboo poles and natural talent

For those in the audience, the awarding of honorary degrees is at least as interesting for the tidbits they reveal about the lives of extraordinary individuals as they are for the honors they convey.

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, as a child pole-vaulted with store-bought bamboo poles, clearing 8 feet for his trouble. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who brought his trumpet along for renditions of “America the Beautiful” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” apparently never practiced as a child for fear the line around his lips made by the mouthpiece would scare off the girls.

And Anthony Fauci put in extraordinarily long hours as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman, who was introducing the honoraries, knows Fauci from Hyman’s service as director of the National Institute of Mental Health from 1996 to 2001. Fauci’s car, Hyman said, was always the first in the lot in the morning and the last there at night.

“We debated whether it had a battery,” Hyman deadpanned.

The ringmaster

The majestic peals of the Lowell House bells filled Harvard Square not once, not twice, but three times on Commencement day. Who was behind all the ring-a-ding? Ben Rapoport ’03, Lowell House tutor and M.D./Ph.D. candidate at the Harvard Medical School.

Rapoport has been a klappermeister, or bellringer, since 2000. He learned to ring the bells during his sophomore year and has continued throughout his tenure at Harvard. Thursday marked Rapoport’s seventh Commencement performance. By tradition, the bells are rung three times on Commencement day: when the Lowell seniors process out of the House courtyard, when they return, and when the final degree is conferred. From his perch in the tower, Rapoport can keep watch on the proceedings in the courtyard and time his peals perfectly.

Russian bells are not typically designed to accommodate Western tonalities, so it can be difficult to play tunes that make sense to local ears. The new Lowell House bells, installed last July after the original set was returned to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow, were cast to offer a compromise between Western and Russian tastes. If he chooses, therefore, Rapoport can play a recognizable tune. For Commencement day his go-to choice is the 1836 College hymn, “Fair Harvard.”

“Sometimes alumni bell ringers come back, and join me up in the tower,” Rapoport said. “It’s always wonderful to see them.”


In the fall of 1927, George Barner arrived at Harvard after two years at Grinnell College in his native Iowa. This year, the Class of 1929 graduate was back on campus for Commencement day, the oldest alumnus to take part in the ceremonies.

Barner, wearing a natty golf cap, ate lunch in the shade of a tent behind Stoughton Hall. Across the table from him, in a wide white hat and big sunglasses, was Frances Addelson ’30, the oldest Radcliffe graduate to attend.

Both are 100 years old. Barner, who retired from his law practice in 1969, lives in Kennebunk, Maine. He may give up driving his Lincoln this year. Addelson, a one-time social worker living in Brookline, Mass., founded a troupe of senior Shakespeare players at age 92. She reached the century mark in May.

At any Commencement, the oldest graduates gather in that same far shady corner of the Yard. It’s a Harvard time machine.

Addelson takes a listener back to Cambridge of the 1920s, when Radcliffe students were barred from Harvard Yard and from wearing bobby socks in Harvard Square. When Radcliffe girls went to Widener Library, she said, they studied in one cell-like room. The books were delivered.

Barner’s senior year was marked by debate over a proposed “house” system for undergraduates, who feared it would dash tradition and impose new authority. He studied French literature with Louis Allard, a scholar with 19th century roots. And Barner remembered the now-forgotten Pi Eta, a fellowship club whose homegrown stage productions — complete with undergraduates in drag — rivaled Hasty Pudding.

Both centenarians, who later marched at the head of the Alumni Parade through Harvard Yard, were a little taken back at the attention.

“I’m very much surprised. I lived a very modest life as a social worker,” said Addelson. “When I began my 100th year, all of a sudden everybody looked at me as a celebrity.”

Barner, who turns 101 in December, took the passing of years equally in stride. “It doesn’t impress me,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m that age.”

Addelson and Barner sat in the first row for the Afternoon Exercises. Early on, the assembled crowd heard some sad news: Albert H. Gordon ’23, M.B.A. ’25, LL.D. ’77, died May 1 at age 107. Until then, he had been the oldest living graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Business School.

No small picnic

Between Morning and Afternoon Exercises, Harvard put on what may have been the world’s largest picnic, feeding countless graduates, families, and alumni in venues across the University. At the head of the catering craziness was Ted A. Mayer, executive director for Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS). Armed with clipboards, spreadsheets, and cell phones, Mayer and his team successfully served more than 30,000 meals.

“The biggest challenge is coordination,” said Mayer. “Our whole department basically turns into a catering group.”

Planning for Commencement meals began nearly three months ago. Martin Breslin, director for culinary operations at HUDS, worked with alumni groups and House masters to design the perfect menu for each lunch.

“We have approximately 35 different menus today,” said Breslin, brandishing an intricate spreadsheet.

According to Mayer, this year’s menus are more modest, in keeping with the economic downturn.

“People have been more conservative with their menu approach,” Mayer said. “We have a lot more chicken, for example. It’s still a celebration, but groups are being more careful with their finances and holding less extravagant events. It mirrors the reality of what’s happened [in the economy].”

Though the menus vary, one constant at every location — whether a House courtyard or an alumni tent — is the famed Harvard “H” ice cream. The frozen treat consists of vanilla ice cream emblazoned with a crimson “H” in the center, surrounded by a ring of crimson sprinkles.

“The ice cream has been served for maybe 40 or 50 years,” Breslin said. “It’s a well-established tradition. … A lot of alums come back and look for it on Commencement day.”

Chalk it up to clever advertising

The chalked sign in front of Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, a Harvard Square institution that has been dishing up patties since 1960, drew customers to the sidewalk and gave hungry parents a laugh:

“Harvard Degree: $200K. Picture of Graduate with Mr. B: Priceless.”

Fifty years later

Standing near a flag in the Old Yard to mark the group of graduates from the Class of 1959, Michael Whiteman of Albany, N.Y., and formerly of Dunster House, reminisced about his days as a Harvard undergraduate. The diversity of today’s graduating class was a welcome change for the alumnus who described his own class from half a century ago as largely male and white. “It seems to me,” he added, “the students look much happier.” One of Whiteman’s enduring Harvard memories was thanks to his roommate. “He was behind in his organic chemistry lab, so he tried to catch up doing some experiments in our room,” he recalled. Unfortunately, his roommate’s attempt to heat toluene, a component of TNT, on a hot plate resulted in a small fire. “It singed all the paint off the walls,” Whiteman recalled.


The best unanimous titter went to the Chaplain for the Day who, during his opening prayer, wondered if the spirit of truth was “the one who has sustained these proud parents gathered here today in love and relief …” The second half of his comment sent a ripple of laughter through the thousands of parents gathered in Tercentenary Theatre, and, unsurprisingly, the thousands of their graduating children also in attendance.

‘Meaningful moments’

As graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) filed out of Longfellow Hall into a large white tent to receive their diplomas, members of the crowd fanned themselves with their programs and took refuge under large white and crimson umbrellas, as the sun, an infrequent guest at recent Commencements, beamed down on the gathering and temperatures rose.

“As educators, we know about giving our all to a difficult task,” said HGSE Dean Kathleen McCartney to the graduating class. “And we know that the meaningful moments matter. … Members of the Class of 2009, I am here today to make an easy prediction: As educators, you will touch the future, and your future will be filled with many, many meaningful moments.”