The way I see it: Favorite Rice commencement memories

Editor’s note: With a B.S., an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Rice, Keith Cooper ’78 has participated in Rice commencement twice as a student; but as a college marshal, a security marshal and chief marshal, Cooper has been involved in more than 30 commencement ceremonies. As he steps down as chief marshal for commencement after nine years of service and 10 ceremonies in that role, Rice News asked Cooper to share some of his favorite memories of Rice’s graduation.

First I should note that I married into a family that has gone on to earn a fair number of Rice degrees. My wife, Linda Torczon, and her siblings have eight among them; their spouses have seven; our two daughters, Christine and Carolyn, and our nephew Mitch take the count to 18. Thus, for me, Rice commencement is, and always will be, deeply tied to my extended family.

Keith Cooper in his grand marshal robe

Keith Cooper

I have been involved in almost every commencement since 1985, when I first served as a college marshal. (Linda and I were resident assistants at Brown College from August 1984 through June 1989.) Along the way, I have grown to know the incredible collection of people who actually throw commencement — a core group of about 40 people who are involved for three to seven months and a larger group of a couple hundred who pull together and actually make it work.

The crew of commencement people span the university, from the grounds crew to the police, housing and dining, much of Facilities Engineering and Planning, the university’s publications staff, telecommunications, parking, development (both university events and the several development officers who have long served as marshals), the bookstore, the ROTC unit and many others. The number of people I know across campus often surprises people, but the explanation is simple: commencement.

Below are some of my favorite commencement moments:

* Author Kurt Vonnegut’s 1998 commencement speech: In general, I am not a fan of commencement speakers. Vonnegut was, to my mind, the best speaker we have had in the 30-some commencements that I have attended. As a person, he was delightful. He was genuinely happy to be invited to give the address. (In the video, one of the crowd shots shows former President George and Barbara Bush in the crowd; their grandson, George Prescott Bush, son of Jeb Bush, graduated that year.)

* Both 2011 and 2014: As a parent, watching your child graduate from Rice is one of life’s peak experiences. It was, as Vonnegut pointed out when he spoke at Rice, a time to look at each other and say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

* The rain call in 2012: In 2011 we had to move the ceremony into the gym. It was a disaster, exacerbated by the fact that we had not executed the rain plan in more than 20 years. The next year it rained from noon Friday until about 6:45 a.m. Saturday. We had, if I recall correctly, something like 10 inches of rain in that time. At 6:30, Hannes Hofer (facilities project manager), Cyndi Wilson (deputy secretary to the board of trustees) and I stood in the quad looking at weather radar. We had several inches of standing water under the chairs in the student section. We made the call to go outside.

At about 7:15, one of the plumbers walked in through the Sallyport. He turned to both Hannes and me and asked, “Did you remove the covers from the storm drains?” Of course, we cover the drains so that people do not injure themselves or break their shoes. In the myriad details of that morning, Hannes and I had overlooked that one. We popped the covers off the drains, and the standing water drained in about 15 minutes. (Hannes has a picture of the whirlpool-like swirl at one of those drains.)

We had more muddy shoes that morning than you can imagine, but we had not one complaint about the weather.

Of course, the 2016 Bachelor’s Convocation also had a rain call that Hannes, Cyndi, Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson and I will long remember. The sky looked threatening when we had to make the decision at 5:30 p.m. and it did rain over the next couple of hours, but our faith in the forecast paid off and the rain stopped before the ceremony began at 7:30 p.m.

* The first Advanced Degrees Convocation: In 2014, when we reorganized commencement into ceremonies on Friday and Saturday, we added a ceremony for graduate degrees that are not a Doctor of Philosophy, a Doctor of Music or a degree awarded by the Jones Graduate School of Business. Since that is too long a title, it became the Advanced Degrees Convocation.

We spent six months thinking about the ceremony, about ways to make it distinct from the other ceremonies. We had no idea how many students or faculty would attend. It was, in essence, a giant surprise.

On the Friday of commencement, we lined up outside Tudor Fieldhouse. We had, if I recall, about 40 faculty and about 130 degree recipients. The ceremony took 31 minutes; the reception lasted 90 minutes. Libo Li, who received a Bachelor of Architecture degree, summarized it well: “What a great ceremony. It had the right ratio of ceremony to party.”

* The Doctoral Hooding Ceremony (almost any year): This ceremony is, quite simply, the best part of commencement. It is simple. It is personal. It is deeply meaningful. (It has limited seating.)

* The Centennial Keynote Address: Although this wasn’t part of commencement, it was an honor and a privilege to be inside the planning effort for this historic speech, which was supposed to take place in the Academic Quad like commencement. We started discussing it a couple of years in advance. Because the staging, sound equipment and chairs in the quad would interfere with the Centennial Spectacle (a light show in the quad), we could not set up the quad for Friday’s Centennial Keynote Address until after the Thursday night performance of the Spectacle. Between 10:30 and 11 p.m., an army of people descended on the quad. Hannes and I left around 4 a.m.; other people had come in to relieve us. We were back at about 6:30 in the morning for the rain call. Incidentally, the decision was straightforward: outdoors.

— Keith Cooper is the L. John and Ann H. Doerr Professor in Computational Engineering; professor of computer science and of electrical and computer engineering; associate dean for research for the George R. Brown School of Engineering; and co-director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology.



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