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.