Keeping Commencement Happy

"The exercises were much as usual. Some were tiresome, others I could not hear. The whole thing is a tax upon the patience of all excepting such as have relations present.... The glory of former days so far as it consisted of bustle, show and glare has departed, perhaps in truth there is no very great loss by the change." --Charles Francis Adams, Class of 1810, commenting on Commencement circa 1825

On Friday, September 23, 1642, nine "young men of good hope" received degrees at Harvard's first Commencement. Notables such as Governor Winthrop arrived by ferry or carriage. The valedictory oration, delivered by one of the many ministers present, closed by invoking the congratulations--not the blessings--of God, and President Dunster personally presented each with a "Booke of the Arts."

Today, some 25,000 will pack Harvard's hallowed Yard to march, to gawk, or to enter the "company of educated men and women." The ritual has long since hardened into a sturdy tradition. As Samuel Eliot Morison writes in his history of Harvard, Thomas Aquinas migh recognize today a lineal descent from the Commencement ceremonies he often attended in the 12th century--even then, they were marked by caps and gowns, Latin orations and general confusion.

To ensure a modicum of method amid the madness, the Associated Harvard Alumni (AHA), in characteristic University fashion, has a committee, which clings to its arcane title of the Committee on the Happy Observance of Commencement. Or, as those involved like to say, the "Happy Committee."

The festive spirit of Commencement has a longstanding heritage. Morison describes the development of Commencement from "a purely literary occasion" to a "sort of puritan midsummer's holiday." In 1681, when President Oakes perished shortly before Commencement, the authorities seeking a sober ceremony felt compelled to restrict students to a provision of one gallon of wine per man. Despite that one prohibitive graduation, the tradition of imbibement was propagated, climaxing in the "Plum cake scandal" of 1693, when kill-joy President Mather outlawed the tainted pastries, deeming the custom "dishonourable to the Colledge." Needless to say, in spite of various fines imposed by Mather, the tradition survives in one form or another.

Just what does the Happy Committee do? For starters, the 20 alumni who compose the group perform variegated duties, ranging from the chief marshal's luncheon (attended by honorary degree recipients and University bigwigs), seating and ushering, organizing the procession of alumni, escorting the older alumni in the march proper, and managing the "tree spread" (lunch for alumni in the 50th reunion class and older). The committee as a whole meets but once a year, because its members are so well-trained in their respective tasks.

But as Morris Gray '43, chairman of the Happy Committee, explains, "We basically stand around and look pretty."

For his part, Gray "calls" the parade in the afternoon, barking instructions to the alumni to expedite the procession into Tercentenary theater. The Happy Committee is in charge of the "aides," distinguished members of the 25th reunion class. Harvard aides and marshals are accorded the honor of donning black top hats, white four-in-hand ties and cutaway coats, while their Radcliffe equals sport white dresses with crimson sashes.

"That silly paraphernalia costs so much to rent now," M. Greely Summers '42, a member of the Happy Committee, says. "But if we didn't wear it, it would detract from the dignity and decor of the situation."

1860's Commencement dinner featured nine brands of champagne, and the feast itself included lobster, pheasant, beef, and innumerable delicacies. This seems a substantial improvement from Charles Francis Adams' day. His remarks on the post-ceremony meal: "The usual scramble for a bad dinner took place and the usual psalm, after which we left as rapidly as possible." The custom of the Commencement dinner has faded from the scene for unknown reasons.

Commencement in 1886 marked the University's 250th anniversary. Then-president Cleveland declined the offer of an honorary degree, claiming he wasn't properly qualified. Franklin D. Roosevelt '04, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy '40 all received honorary degrees before they acceded to the presidency. Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and President Carter have not garnered honoraries.

Gray stresses that the afternoon portion of what most people refer to as "Commencement" is really the annual meeting of the AHA. "After degrees are given in the morning, the University stops and the AHA takes over," Gray says, adding, "The morning Commencement ceremony is a serious, inspiring occasion. The tenor we aim for in the afternoon is a happy occasion."

The keynote speaker, and even "high officials of the University are essentially guests," Gray says. So in reality, the Committee on the Happy Observance of Harvard Commencement has little to do with Commencement itself, while the University has little to do with the afternoon ceremonies. But the Happy Committee maintains its name, Gray says, because of tradition.

As chairman of the Happy Committee, Gray makes one report a year--at the March meeting of the AHA. "We report that it's not going to rain on Commencement day," Gray explains.

In 1940, President Conant wanted to impress upon the Harvard community the urgency of the international situation; he invited then Secretary of State Cordell Hull to deliver the main address. Hull obliged, noting in his speech the rise of fascism in Europe and the highly unstable status quo in East Asia. He also warned the graduating seniors that they should be prepared to fight for American ideals in the near future. Hull's remarks were greeted with catcalls, David A. Aloian '49 executive director of the AHA, says. Apparently, the seniors had hoped for a happy Commencement.

Seven years later, another secretary of state spoke at Commencement. Gen. George C. Marshall found the occasion propitious enough to announce his celebrated Marshall Plan for the revitalization of Europe in the wake of wartime devastation.

Last year the alumni procession lasted 50 minutes, 20 minutes longer than scheduled. "The trouble spot was in front of Widener. People squeezed into one lane," Aloian, who serves on the Happy Committee, says. "This year, we'll aim for a crisper start to the parade, better movement, and wider lanes. We're going to try to keep the walkway wide--three abreast--to break the Widener bottleneck," he adds.

Aloian concedes that since the procession is led by the oldest mobile alumni, the Happy Committee can only speed up the parade to a limited extent. But the Happy Committee does prepare for unfortunate contingencies. As Gray says, "There's always a doctor who watches the head of the parade."

With the crowds at recent Commencements swelling to record numbers, the aides and marshalls under the jurisdiction of the Happy Committee have had to be more forcible in keeping the general public out of reserved seats. "The aides are not really trained in crowd control. But they try to do the most polite job possible," Aloian says.

The rhythm of Commencement in the spring of 1970 was broken by the appearance of a group of community activists seeking to disrupt the normally staid proceedings, to draw attention to Harvard's expansion in the Riverside area of Cambridge. Led by Saundra Graham--later elected a city councilor--the "counter-commencement" group was allowed to speak its piece after last minute behind-the-scene bargaining.

As rain poured down on observers two years ago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used the Commencement podium to launch a biting diatribe at the West's value structure. The voice of the interpreter blended with the Nobel Prize winner's producing a grating effect and making listening difficult. But his words rang out far beyond the confines of the Tercentenary theater; a rebuttal from Rosalynn Carter and mixed public and press reaction were not long in coming.

Against the historical backdrop, each Commencement seems fleeting. The caps and gowns and top hats and sashes, the remnants from the days of Thomas Aquinas, the pomp and splendor and complacency and controversy combine to create an image of both continuity and peculiarity. Captain George Walsh of the Harvard police, who has witnessed the last 30 Commencements, lends perspective to this intangible double-life: "Every one is just as great as the next, but every one is a little different from the last." And today will probably bear out Walsh's maxim; the legacies of the past will melt together with the particular character of 1980. With the help of the Happy Committee, of course.