Each year, thousands of family members, friends and loved ones gather on Wheeler Mall and in Jarman Auditorium to celebrate the culmination of years of struggle, sacrifice and accomplishment by Longwood graduating seniors and graduate students. The weekend is appropriately ceremonious—it marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next—and is full of pomp and circumstance to mark the occasion.
Behind the scenes are an army of people who often work long hours in the sun to create a perfect day for families to celebrate. Their contributions often are unnoticed, but are critical to the success of graduation day. Preparation for commencement weekend begins months ahead of time, but the 48 hours before the ceremonies are when much of the magic happens as Wheeler Mall transforms from a place to toss frisbees into a place to process onstage.
Here’s a glimpse into what happened behind the scenes in those 48 hours before the 2019 commencement.
Thursday, May 16
Mike Frank puts down the first of 7,200 chairs that will fill the length of Wheeler Mall. It’s the 29th graduation for the trades technician, and, like most years, he stands on the sidewalk holding a piece of paper that charts where each of the white folding chairs will go.
“Hey,” he calls out to Chris Nedervelt of Party Perfect, who supplied the chairs. “I think we’ll be able to do two feet all the way back this year.”
That’s two feet between the back of one row and the front of the next. In previous years, when construction squeezed Wheeler Mall and the audience into a smaller space, they had to put the rows a foot and a half apart.
But there’s still a problem to solve.
This year, the plan is for graduates to process up both sides of Wheeler Mall, then join together halfway up the mall and walk together to their seats. But keeping the path clear as parents, siblings and loved ones try to get photos and cheer on their graduates is presenting some logistical problems.
Frank turns his attention to Dave Love, director of landscaping and grounds, who has just walked up with Tremaine Higginbotham, another veteran trades technician.
“Of course we have a plan,” says Love. “Our plan is to be flexible.”
The poles that hold up the canopy for faculty, staff, administrators and commencement speakers are kept in the dark basement of Stevens Hall—near the Wheeler Hall patio, where they are needed once a year.
Lee Taylor could find them blindfolded. He’s pulled them out of that basement, through the mechanical room, for 33 years. Same poles every year.
Of course, a few things have changed: The poles are now numbered and color-coded so installation goes more quickly.
“It’s a lot easier now than it used to be,” said Taylor, a trades technician. “A while back the canopy was still up here but the podium was down in the grass where there’s brick now. One year it got so wet down there that people’s shoes were sinking in the ground, so we had to quickly build a platform for students to walk across.” He laughs. “I was out there on my hands and knees in the rain stapling down indoor/outdoor carpet. Thank goodness we don’t have to do that anymore.”
The chairs in the student section are finished. It’s only 74 degrees, but Chris Nedervelt wipes some sweat off his brow as he surveys the neat rows they’ve gotten situated and the empty space behind them that will be full of chairs by nightfall. There’s a long way to go.
“Hey,” he says, “at least it’s not hot. Last year it was brutally hot when we set up, and then we started getting everything up in the middle of a downpour. So, as things go, we got lucky this year!”
There’s still a long way to go. Nedervelt reckons he might be able to leave campus by 7 tonight.
If he stays lucky.
“I need a student!” Brenda Ferguson Meredith calls out from the Jarman Hall stage about halfway through the graduate commencement ceremony rehearsal. Meredith is responsible for planning and executing commencement exercises at Longwood and needs someone to practice posing for the camera after receiving their degree packets.
Timing is everything when it comes to a smooth flow of students across the stage. “I will be the traffic officer,” Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Larissa Smith Fergeson says, only half-jokingly.
Almost everything runs like clockwork during the rehearsal. There was a brief debate over the placement of the mace, the ceremonial object carried by chief faculty marshal Dr. Craig Challender, who leads the procession of faculty on ceremonial occasions. Challender is retiring this year, so the commencement exercises will be his last time carrying the mace.
There are a few moist eyes when the deans on the podium practice conferring degrees. “Ms. Betty,” the beloved welcoming face at Dorrill Dining Hall, walks on stage. She normally doesn’t have a role in commencement, other than sharing the joy of graduating seniors as they eat their last meals in D-Hall.
But this year, she finds her daughter, Melissa Pelletier, onstage. Melissa is receiving her third degree from Longwood, and this time is being hooded by her mother. When Ms. Betty places the hood around her daughter’s neck, they embrace tightly, prompting cheers and a round of applause from everyone in Jarman Auditorium.
An impromptu meeting between Dave Love, Brenda Ferguson Meredith and Ben Myers is interrupted when the Beatles’ “Oh Darling” blasts through the speakers at a tremendous volume.
It’s a sound check. Ricky Lapkin’s crew—specifically the sound guys led by Jon Sachs (who doesn’t look much like the character with the same name on “The Sopranos”) are almost finished with their setup.
Believe me when I tell you
I’ll never do you no harm
When they talk to each other, it’s a different language. “Come down on the bottom cabinets in Delay Area 2, would you?” shouts Sachs over Paul McCartney.
Jon walks to a set of double speakers and adjusts knobs on the back. “We’re about 98 percent done with the setup now,” he says. “Tomorrow morning when the president and other speakers run through the ceremony, we’ll do some minor adjustments based on the tone of their voices, but all the physical setup is finished.”
When you told me you didn’t need me anymore
Well you know I nearly broke down and cried
Planning for this moment began eight months ago with University Events and Ceremonies staff, who outlined problems with sound at last year’s ceremony. Lapkin, no stranger to setting up audiovisual equipment for graduations—he does dozens of high schools and universities around the state—was happy to step in.
“I’m here to solve problems,” he said. “You tell me what you need, and we’ll get it done.”
“Oh Darlin’” fades out, and the noises of chairs being opened once again fills the air.
I’d like to be under the sea
In an Octopus’s garden in the shade
Friday, May 17
“All right, here we go,” says Lee Taylor as he and Gerald Blevins step onto the roof of Wheeler Hall and begin to lower ropes that will hoist the giant flags and banners that provide the backdrop for commencement. “Hey Gerald, you want the short pole or the long pole?”
It’s an impressive view from the top of the building, and, in the clear, cool morning air you can see for miles in all directions. The only sounds are the birds chirping and the clanking of bike-rack fencing being placed for crowd control on the sidewalks below.
And John Ellison from the carpentry shop calling out directions as the men pull up the heavy flags.
“Lee, your side needs to go more toward Chichester,” he calls up.
“Thought so,” says Lee.
The guys grab the cables with their poles and adjust accordingly. The flag hanging went smooth this year—there was no wind or rain to contend with, unlike last year. By 8:38 a.m., they are finished. Ellison flashes the double thumbs up from down below, and Taylor and Blevins head back to the down to Wheeler Mall, the first task in a long day complete.
“This is a nice moment to enjoy,” says President W. Taylor Reveley IV, as he hands the stack of diplomas over to Student Government Association President Josh Darst to distribute. “Are we ready to give out some diplomas?”
An annual senior week tradition at Longwood is the diploma-signing ceremony—where SGA members have their diplomas personally signed by the president and rector of the university’s Board of Visitors.
Students line up in the President’s Office, where Reveley and Longwood Board of Visitors Rector Marianne Radcliff ’92 sign each diploma as students bring them in. “You’re official!” Reveley tells Chyanne Correa, a sociology major who minored in communication sciences and disorders.
“Thank you for taking care of her all these years,” says one parent who is at the ceremony with her daughter.
When Darst comes through to get his diploma signed, he takes in the moment with a grin and sums up his time at Longwood about as succinctly as he possibly could: “It’s been a ride.”
“This is very fun for us,” Radcliff says, joking with students. “But you still have to come tomorrow.”
The nursing pinning ceremony ends with Queen. After the students and their families process out of Jarman Auditorium to the sound of We Are The Champions, a flurry of activity begins on stage.
I consider it a challenge before the whole human race
And I ain’t gonna lose
A junior marshal—one member of an unsung group of students who wear whatever hat they need to at the time and are responsible for much of the success of commencement preparation—pulls back the curtain on the stage to reveal a mass of chairs ready to be placed.
Ashley Cravens, event manager, comes out from behind the curtains and talks to the marshals arranging the furniture. “My concern right now is that these chairs are all set and ready to go as quickly as possible. Who is putting the waters under each chair?”
It’s details like this that make these ceremonies run smoothly—and it takes someone with an eye for detail to be able to step back and look at what is happening. Programs on every chair? Check. Waters available? Check. Every power cord securely taped down so no one trips? Check.
For much of commencement, that person has been Cravens. She’s handled every work order and has a preternatural understanding of what is supposed to be happening at each minute.
Perfume came naturally from Paris (naturally)
For cars she couldn’t care less
Fastidious and precise
The flurry of energy wraps up quickly. Mallory Minniear, conference specialist, checks the mics for audiovisual technicians John Holloway and Ed Morris in the back at the controls.
“Mic check. One, two. Check. One, two.”
Two thumbs up, and they are ready for parents, grandparents, friends and loved ones of graduate students to take their seats.
Saturday, May 18
Dr. Jake Milne, associate professor of sociology, walks across the tarped floor of Willett Hall as students start to pour into the gym. Many of them don’t have their caps and gowns on yet.
“Good morning,” he exclaims, in a voice some might argue is too chipper for this early in the morning. “As you come in, please make your way to your seat. If you have a difficult name to pronounce, please see Dr. Swanson under the UNC Asheville sign!”
As the students walk in, a dozen staff members are on hand to help with last-minute prep. Hoods that need pinning or straightening, tassels that need untangling, cords that need to be arranged.
Milne fires up the soon-to-be graduates with a roaring cheer to kick off their final assembly in Willett Hall. Milne then gives out instructions and goes over last-minute details that will make their “1.5 seconds of fame walking across that stage” run smoothly.
Some graduates are making last minute adjustments to their regalia—and most importantly their footwear. This year, with no threat of rain, heels are an option for women—but there are plenty of flip-flops, sandals and sneakers to go around.
One dad runs in. “Here you go, honey,” he says, holding a pair of white platform heels for his daughter, who was wearing flip-flops under her robe.
For some, the thought of sitting down in front of the podium is a welcome relief.
“I already have a blister,” complains one graduate as they begin lining up for the slow march down Brock Commons to Wheeler Mall for commencement.
As “Pomp and Circumstance” plays in the distance, Javion Peterson ’21 hands out fist bumps and words of encouragement as a long line of graduates makes the turn onto Wheeler Mall.
Peterson, an Aramark employee, had been there earlier to hand out programs and let guests know about the food options available in the Upchurch University Center. He decided to stay and be a one-man cheering squad for the graduates as they made their way toward their seats.
“You guys look great! ... Lancers for life! … I love you guys! … Citizen leaders right here! … You are stellar, awesome, amazing human beings! … Once a Lancer, always a Lancer!” he says, a grin across his face.
And after the last person passed and the ceremony was about to begin, Peterson beamed with pride.
“That was awesome!”