When people ask John Manning why he puts up with the inherent headaches involved in serving as chief marshal at commencement every year, he simply smiles and responds, "I'm a native of New Orleans and I just can't pass up a parade."
A professor in the physiology department and chief marshal of the University for a dozen years, Manning began marching with the faculty at commencement back in the early '60s. "I thought the parents deserved a show," said Manning, who is retiring in December after 38 years at Emory. "They've paid all this money to get these people through college, and they deserve a nice celebration. So I started marching with the faculty to be a part of that, and the next thing I knew George Cuttino tapped me to be a deputy marshal."
Manning credits his commencement mentor, the late George Cuttino, Candler Professor of Medieval History Emeritus and chief marshal for eight years, with initiating many of the rich and familiar commencement traditions Emory enjoys today. "Our commencement as it is today has been influenced mainly by George Cuttino," Manning said. "He designed the costumes, the beautiful Oxford gowns and the hoods with different colors." Cuttino also added bagpipes to the procession.
An adaptable tradition
If Cuttino's tenure as chief marshal is identified with a more palpable element of pomp and ritual, Manning's years have been marked by the need for flexibility and adaptability to accommodate Emory's era of most rapid growth and change.
The size of the College graduating classes increased steadily during the '80s, reaching a point a few years into Manning's term as chief marshal where the opening procession was taking 45 minutes. Former President James T. Laney asked Manning to find a way to cut that time down. At the time, graduates traditionally filed onto the quadrangle in four lines. "I decided that if we could get more than four lines coming in at a time, we could cut the time," Manning said. "So I put two lines on every corner of the quadrangle, for a total of eight lines."
The change has cut the 45-minute procession time down to 22 minutes last year.
To make the new procession plan work, Manning altered the seating arrangement so that the College graduates sat in the center of the quadrangle and the graduates of the other schools flanked the college on both sides, a formation that continues to be used. That change, Manning said, coincided nicely with the College's decision to move its diploma ceremony from the P.E. Center to the quadrangle to accommodate larger classes of graduates.
Moving the diploma ceremony also helped solve a long-standing commencement problem: graduates sitting together in groups of friends and drinking during the ceremony. "There was no way the faculty marshal system could police that," he said. Because the College graduates remain on the quadrangle after the central ceremony for the diploma ceremony, they have to line up in alphabetical order from the beginning. "That means all the cliques are broken up," said Manning. "Talk about bad news when I made that announcement. There were all kinds of steamy letters to the [Emory] Wheel. But we got past it, and it worked. It solved the problem."
Behind the scenes
On commencement day, Manning's primary and most visible duty is leading the commencement procession at the beginning of the central commencement ceremony. What many people don't realize, however, is the amount of work that goes into the job of chief marshal before the first chair is ever placed on the quadrangle.
After the Commencement Committee begins meeting in earnest, usually in December, Manning gives himself a March 15 deadline to contact the registrar's office to get an estimate of how many people by school are going to graduate. By the end of March, he schedules a meeting for late April for the faculty and student marshals. The faculty marshals are responsible for seating the graduates of their respective schools, and the student marshals represent their school's class when degrees are conferred.
The marshals are also responsible for placing signs at their school's seating area and signs that indicate where their school's graduates should line up.
Perhaps the duty that has brought Manning the most infamy is keeping the aisles clear to allow the procession to move freely. Parents and other family members routinely clog the aisles trying to snap photos or shoot videos of their graduates. "It's always been pointed out to me that it's only 1 percent of the people there who are doing that," Manning said. "But that 1 percent can be pretty obnoxious and insistent."
In spite of overzealous parents and irreverent students, Manning said he will miss commencement and hopes to come back for the ceremony when he can. His next big procession, however, will be from the door of his retirement home at Lake Hartwell out to catch a few fish.