For Johnson, commencement's
the most wonderful time
Vincent Johnson wrote the book on commencement. Literally. The bookstore operations manager and Emory alumnus wrote a book on academic, diplomatic and social protocol that included extensive research on the origins of academic regalia. And there's no doubt-he knows his stuff. When an allied health student came to his basement office in late April to fetch her commencement gown, she reminded him as he looked for it that the discipline's colors are dark green. "No," he told her in his hurried, but warm manner, "dark green's forestry. You're green."
Few people would stop to notice the real difference, but Johnson knew even as a student of the late history professor George P. Cuttino-once the University's chief marshal-that he would learn all he could about academic protocol. "I told him one day, Dr. Cuttino, I want to write a book." Cuttino, who had a PhD from Cambridge University, invited Johnson to his home to talk.
Later, after Johnson had graduated and started working in the Admissions Office, Cuttino asked if he had finished his book. Johnson said he did. "What's it about, what did you find out?" the professor asked. "Well," Johnson told him, "it's about everything but a wedding or funeral.
"There's your title, right there," Johnson recalled the professor saying, "And that's what we called it." The book was published in 1989.
After he started researching, Johnson came upon photographs and old drawings of the original Oxford University and Cambridge commencement attire. "Which they still use," he said. "Their hoods are fur-lined and they're beautiful. There's a photograph somewhere in my file of Dr. Cuttino in his complete outfit. It's as scarlet red as that tam," he said, pointing to a fire-engine red velvet cap on his bookshelf, "with a white waistcoat and a big white bow tie and this huge cape." But as these traditions crossed the Atlantic, they fell victim to this country's puritanical streak. "The American standard's not quite as flashy, you might say," Johnson explained. For example, the "Princess Royal," the gown worn by the chancellor of Oxford, "looks like a black wedding dress," he said. "It's got a huge train, with braided gold up the front and down the sleeves. It's just beautiful."
The only living chief usher emeritus
Johnson's interests in commencement don't end with its sartorial splendor. He followed his mentor's lead and began working as a commencement usher in 1979, his freshman year at Oxford. He later was named chief usher and held that post until he left Emory in 1995. "As far as I know, I am the only chief usher emeritus," he said, laughing. It's a job that called on all of Johnson's skills as an organizer, diplomat-and dresser.
Johnson recalled how one year Emory graduates were wearing Duke hoods, mistakenly sent by the vendor. "They look identical," he said, "except that a Duke hood has a gold chevron instead of a white one." He grabbed a colleague standing close by to help remedy the situation. "She and I were running after students. One of us would grab them, snatch the hood off and the other would rehood them. Just snatch and grab," he said, laughing.
Last year, as he stood talking with Professor John Manning minutes before the ceremony, Johnson said the now-retired chief marshal turned to him and said, "It's time. Aren't you going to go with us?" So, Johnson and his successor and present chief usher, Virginia "Ginger" Cain, archivist for University Libraries, lead the procession. "The biggest reason we do that is we have to get the parents out of the aisle. I understand that this is their big day for their children and they want to get their photographs, but we start that procession at 8:30 sharp. There are eight bagpipe players, a drummer and a pipe major behind us. They don't stop. If we can't keep moving, we get run over with a bagpipe.'
Admissions officer becomes police officer
Johnson grew up in Covington in the shadow of Oxford, from which he graduated in 1981. "I wanted three things in my life," he said. "By the time I was 34 years old, I'd accomplished all three of them." He wanted to start his own business, which he did, then sold it to his partner. ("The fun part was in starting it," he said.) He wanted to endow a scholarship at Emory in honor of a staff member he declines to mention. "He doesn't know I've done it," Johnson said, then changed the subject. And last, but not least, the former admissions counselor dreamed of being a police officer. "I had an uncle who was a deputy sheriff for years in Newton County when I was growing up," he explained.
But the police academy was delayed awhile. His former boss, Admissions Director Dan Walls, plucked him out of the music department to work in Admissions shortly before his graduation. "I was in the first class to graduate from the accredited music department," Johnson explained. "Dan was very honest. He said, 'We know you're not going to make a career out of this, we would like a year or two." Johnson stayed 12 years. He left in '95 to attend the police academy for 14 weeks. He graduated, a certified police officer. His law enforcement interests lie in forensic police work and the certificates lining his office walls to prove it. Still, he turned down several law enforcement positions ("I didn't want to get shot for $8 an hour," he said.) and returned to Emory last fall when the bookstore position was created.
Once his colleagues learned of his expertise in academic regalia, they made him responsible for ordering and distributing commencement attire. Johnson, who logs between 500 and 700 calls a week from faculty and students around this time of year, seems to enjoy every minute of it.
"I'll probably be here three days straight up until commencement-straight through 24 hours a day" he said. "But that Monday morning, when I stand out there at 8:30 in the morning and the bagpipes start playing and it's a morning just like this morning-beautiful, the sun's out-and all these students are there with their parents, grandparents and they're so excited, I think, this is what it's all about, right here."