May 9, 2013

Behind the scenes at Commencement

Connie Mabry
Lindsay France/University Photography
Connie Mabry addresses the Ithaca Rotary May 8.

After 25 years as Commencement director, Connie Mabry is prepared for almost anything that happens at Convocation, Commencement or any of the 80-some reception/diploma ceremonies that take place Memorial Day weekend.

Yet, at an Ithaca Rotary lunch meeting May 8, Mabry entertained her audience of more than 100 with facts, figures and tales of behind-the-scenes challenges that she could not plan for.

Take 2007, for instance, the year President Bill Clinton gave the Convocation address. Typically, an oversized check is presented at Convocation to Cornell’s president from the senior class fundraising campaign, Mabry said. Four minutes in advance of the check handoff, someone noticed that the check was not on stage. One of Cornell’s setup people began running, with his assistant, down the track to get it.

Seeing them, a senior director of facilities radioed to the setup person, “Bill! Do not run! The Secret Service will tackle you.” The setup person slowed down, retrieved the check, and returned to the stage just in time, Mabry said.

The logistics of coordinating the movements of thousands of people and tons of equipment also create their own challenges at Commencement, Mabry said. Approximately 6,000 students and faculty process from the Arts Quad to Schoellkopf Stadium, where around 35,000 family members, friends and guests are seated. “It’s a proud day for families from all over the world,” Mabry said.

The colleges holds their own events as well. More than 16,000 chairs, 400 tables, several stages and 30 tents are set up and taken down by Facilities Services staff. University police officers, and staff in environmental health and safety, dining and transportation help run the events, assisted by more than 400 staff volunteers. Twenty-five TCAT buses shuttle people to the stadium and across campus, Mabry said.

But “the biggest challenge every year is the weather,” she said. “Amazingly, since 1975 when the event was first moved from Barton Hall to the stadium, we’ve never had to go inside,” she said. Knock wood.

In fact, Mabry and the team of planners have a couple of weather-related superstitions. The week before Commencement they do not wash their cars. In addition, the facilities coordinator puts 75 umbrellas in her car to ward off rain clouds. “We aren’t too superstitious,” Mabry quipped.

Mabry invited Rotary members to volunteer for Commencement (and to not wash their cars before the event), and she remarked that they, their businesses, friends and neighbors all play an important role in Commencement by welcoming the many visitors that the weekend draws to the area.