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May 7, 2001

Cooking up Commencement

By Eric Rangus


The chairs, all 19,000 of them across campus, come from somewhere. The main stage, its blue-and-yellow canopy, the risers for the faculty, do not appear like magic.

To come together, it all requires the precision of a military operation and the labor of dozens of Emory employees—many of them volunteers. One of the main people responsible for setting it up and making it flow smoothly is Daniel Cook of Facilities Management (FM).

“Everybody looks at Commencement as being a one-day thing, but it’s a one-year commitment to a lot of people here,” Cook said. For instance, the FM contracts department has a backlog of Commencement-related paperwork Cook compared to the Atlanta phone book.

“For the team I work directly with, it’s at least two weeks of them getting ready for it,” Cook continued. “Then, once the College ceremony is over, we start tearing every chair down. It’s harder to get volunteers for that, because everyone wants to celebrate.”

Indeed, about 50–60 volunteers, mostly from FM, sign up for chair duty. They set up the Quad beginning Wednesday before Commencement, then set up chairs for individual school ceremonies over the weekend.

Then they report at 5 a.m. on Commencement Monday and—once the dew point hits—wipe down every chair, so that graduates and their families have a dry place to sit.

“It’s a team-building exercise, and it’s pretty good for morale because I’m getting a lot of people who are chained to the desk all the time out in the field,” Cook said. Volunteers also are rewarded with a catered barbecue lunch on setup day.

Not only is Cook in charge of Commencement setup, but he is also the ceremony’s chief safety marshal. The safety marshal program was introduced two years ago as a kind of middle ground between ushers and the Emory Police Department. Marshals are responsible for crowd control and pedestrian traffic, but they will also be extra faces visitors can turn to for questions.

“[When the program was started], I said it’s a great idea. The next thing I knew, they made me the chief safety marshal,” Cook laughed. “I will accept anyone who wants to be a volunteer; the more the merrier.”

Two weeks before Commencement, he had 42 marshals. His goal is to recruit 60–70. Volunteers will don blue blazers, white shirts, dark ties and fedoras and meet Monday morning in White Hall at 5 a.m., where they will be assigned their stations and undergo brief training.

“You really have to be a psychoanalyst, and you can’t physically intimidate anybody—although I’ve been physically intimidated many times,” he laughed.

A quick wit helps. For instance, if a parent refuses to sit down, perhaps saying something along the lines of “I paid $100,000 to this University, and I’ll stand wherever I please,” the suggested marshal response is, “Well, you’re blocking about $5 million-worth of other parents.”

Since he’s still looking for a few more volunteers, Cook said anyone interested in taking part can e-mail him at

“It makes you feel good to do something like this,” Cook said. “We’ve met a lot of really nice people over the years out here, everybody from Jimmy Carter to Henry Aaron to Bill Clinton to the Dalai Lama. We’ve done a little bit of everything.

“It’s a pretty nice show,” he continued. “You get to know a lot of these kids. You may not know them all by name, but you’ll see certain ones [graduate] and it makes you smile. Heck, that could be one of my kids coming off there.”

One day it could be. Cook’s son, Daniel Jr., will be a senior at Shiloh High School in Gwinnett County next year, and one of the reasons he lists for working at Emory is its courtesy scholarships. Daniel, who takes several AP classes would be a good candidate for acceptance, too. Cook and his wife Linda also have a 6-year-old daughter, Jessica.

Cook came to Emory eight years ago and has supervised Commencement setup ever since. Originally, he thought he’d be working to help Emory comply with Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations, but that has been only a small part of his responsibilities. And his title seems to change from month to month.

“Right now it’s supervisor of roads and hardscape maintenance,” Cook said. “Before that it was construction supervisor; before that it was construction foreman and before that I think it was labor crew leader.” The men he supervises, though, have remained consistent.

A native of the steel country of southwestern Pennsylvania, Cook lived the first half of his life in the Midwest. “When you came out of school, you went to some type of mill, foundry or mine, but there wasn’t a lot opportunity when I started looking [for a job].”

So, Cook moved around a bit: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. He worked construction, helped build power plants and did some trucking. All in all, he made quite a decent living, although the Rust Belt in the 1980s was hardly the most opportune place to live.

Cook moved to Georgia 15 years ago when his brother asked him to deliver some equipment from western Pennsylvania, where he was working. Cook stayed for two weeks and never left.

Prior to coming to Emory, he worked for several contractors and was hired at the University almost accidentally. Not looking seriously for another job, Cook sent out his resume to about 50 places, and Emory called back.

“I really wasn’t hunting for work; it’s just something you do to keep your name out there,” he said. He interviewed on campus a couple times, and six months later Emory offered him a job.

“You’ve got your Emory Eagle or your Emory crane, you can take your choice,” Cook said. “I think the main reason I came to Emory is because I love construction. It’s been in my family, and I’ve been doing it my whole life. A place like Emory University is like a small city. They always need a maintenance crew; they’re always building something new. We always have something to do here.”

And Cook’s work won’t end with Commencement. Just a couple weeks later, he has the Georgia Special Olympics, which he’s volunteered for since coming to Emory. Primarily he helps out with the stage for opening ceremonies. Several of his FM co-workers also participate. “We try to donate as much time as we can.” he said.


Back to Emory Report May 7, 2001