May 3, 2004

The marshal plan         

By Eric Rangus

Once the Class of 2004 march onto the Quadrangle to the sounds of bagpipes and settle into their seats, after thousands of parents have finished jockeying for position to get just the right camera angle, after the faculty and administrators and guests in their robed finery have climbed onto the main stage, Emory’s 159th Commencement will open the same way it has since 1996.

With three raps of a staff and a call to order from Ray DuVarney.

Now in his ninth year as chief marshal of the University, DuVarney, associate professor and chair of physics, is responsible for organizing the academic procession that leads into the Commencement ceremony. He plans seating arrangements, begins the formal program and leads the platform party off the stage at the ceremony’s conclusion.

“Whenever there is an academic ceremony, it’s often led by the chief marshal,” said DuVarney, who joined Emory’s faculty in 1968, the same year he earned his doctorate from Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “It’s like a pageant. Everybody is in costume.”

DuVarney keeps his cap and gown on a clothing rack in his office. Next to it is the marshal’s wooden staff, topped with the University seal and adorned with blue and gold ribbons, signifying Emory’s school colors.

Most recently, DuVarney donned that tunic and hat to open the weeklong festivities for President Jim Wagner’s inauguration. At Oxford College he lit the inaugural torch using—rather appropriately for a physics professor—Jacob’s Ladder, a two-antennaed device that generates heat and sparks to light a candle, which then lit a lantern and finally the torch.

“I thought about using the sun and a lens, focusing it down and lighting something on fire,” DuVarney said. “But we thought the electric effect was a lot more reliable.”

DuVarney’s responsibilities at Commencement are a lot more low tech. Around 25 years ago, then-Emory College marshal Peter Dowell asked DuVarney to be an assistant marshal at graduation. In 1989, when Dowell was promoted to senior associate dean of academic affairs, he stepped down as college marshal. DuVarney stepped in.

He held the post until 1996, when then-chief marshal John Manning retired. DuVarney climbed one more rung on the ladder and has been the University’s chief marshal ever since.

Changes in the Commencement ceremony are rare, but one of them, instituted when DuVarney was college marshal, has been significant. Graduates once marched onto the Quad in a single line, and the procession took 40 minutes. Now, graduates enter in multiple lines by school, which cut the procession time in half.

“The procession is only as short as the longest line, so we have to try and get all the students balanced,” DuVarney said. “Every year we have reviews and think about moving downtown or indoors somewhere, but we always come to the same conclusion: The Quadrangle and the campus are just too beautiful. It’s the best venue for everyone.”

DuVarney works behind the scenes on Commencement activities for months, and when graduation weekend arrives, his responsibilities stretch beyond the main ceremony itself.

On Sunday, DuVarney, in full regalia, leads the procession for Baccalaureate in Glenn Auditorium and helps marshal at the Emory College honors ceremony that afternoon. In between he changes clothes and hustles over to the Lullwater House to entertain parents and students during the president’s open house.

DuVarney and Bud Puckett, head of physics’ machine shop, play music of an alternative sort—Puckett on the four-string banjo, DuVarney on washtub bass.

“I think we just call ourselves the ‘Physics Department Band,’” said DuVarney, who in 1968 built the bass that sits on the floor of his office. The band’s repertoire ranges from bluegrass to show tunes to pop standards. Their music has been a staple of the presidential open house for years. DuVarney and Puckett average about a gig every other month.

For the uninitiated, DuVarney’s instrument consists of a broom handle centered and screwed into the top of an upturned metal washtub. A string runs from the washtub’s edge to the top of the broom handle, and plucking it makes a sound comparable to a double bass.

Music is a hobby for DuVarney, but he is serious about it. DuVarney’s son plays in a bluegrass band in Tennessee, and when that band was invited to open for acoustic music legend Doc Watson, Ray was invited to sit in with his washtub bass. DuVarney had to decline because he was at a work function, and he calls the missed opportunity one of the major disappointments in his life.

After his musical and marshaling responsibilities are complete on Sunday, DuVarney goes home for a quick nap. It’s fast because he has to be on campus at 4 a.m. on Commencement Monday to prepare for the ceremony.

Spring is DuVarney’s busiest time of year for many reasons. Not only does he have Commencement to think about but also departmental issues, exams and the like.

DuVarney has been chair of physics since 1996 (he was acting chair from 1987–90) and since joining the faculty he has seen tremendous departmental growth. The faculty has nearly doubled in size since he came to campus, and the new facilities in the Math & Science Center have dramatically boosted Emory’s reputation.

“This year we have conducted two searches for new faculty, and I would say that we had the best candidates we’ve ever had for any search,” DuVarney said. “The strongest people inside the United States, even outside the country, applied for positions here.”

DuVarney’s research interests focus on astronomical instrumentation, and he has several venues through which to explore it. In 1981, DuVarney founded Scimeasure Analytics Systems, a consulting and software business. Four years later, he was joined by Charlie Bleau, a former physics graduate student. Gradually, the business (along with a spinoff company, OsteoMetrics) moved into imaging systems with a specialization in adaptive optics.

“Adaptive optics is a way of eliminating the earth’s atmosphere from distorting the image seen through an earth-based telescope,” DuVarney said, adding that space-based telescopes such as the Hubble do not have to contend with these atmospheric distortions.

“The atmosphere is hot air; it wiggles, and light images get distorted,” he continued. “Adaptive optics are part of an imaging system, which contains a mirror that can bend.
As the wave front gets distorted, the cameras we make measure that distortion, and then the information is used to bend a correcting mirror that removes the distortion. The mirror bends in a way that is opposite to what the atmosphere is doing. When you bring the light to focus, you get an image as though the atmosphere is not there.”

Cameras built by Scimeasure are in telescopes at California’s Keck Observatory, among others, but not at Emory’s new astronomy facility. The telescope here, while adequate for Emory’s needs, is too small (24 inches) to be helped much by DuVarney’s camera, which is useful for bigger telescopes—the five-, eight- and 10-meter variety.

Scimeasure (Bleau is general manager, while DuVarney acts in a consulting role) recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the next generation of astronomical camera. Currently the best cameras run on three electrons of distortion or noise, he said. The goal is to get that noise down to one electron, so that astronomers can view dimmer objects than ever before.

“That’s what I’ve been working on in my spare time,” DuVarney said, not that he has a lot of it.