University Marshal Looks Back on Almost a Decade of Tradition

Posted: May 21, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Prof. Jeff Chamberlain leading procession
Professor Jeff Chamberlain led the 2008 Commencement procession.

Associate Professor Jeff Chamberlain spent Monday catching up in his office after the whirlwind that is Commencement each spring at Mason. This was Chamberlain’s eighth and final Commencement as the university marshal.

This summer he is passing “the torch” — actually a handcrafted wooden mace he carries at the front of the academic procession — as he steps down from the role.

It is the university marshal’s job to oversee Commencement, something Chamberlain says he couldn’t do without the tremendous support and professionalism of a number of offices on campus.

“It was just terrific,” he says of Saturday’s ceremony. “Everything went smoothly, but it was bittersweet because we all knew it was the last time for me.”

He adds, “One of the things I’ve always appreciated about our ceremony is the nice balance of serious and not-so-serious. We have a lot of fun.”

Among those Chamberlain has enjoyed working with over the years are Barbara Lubar and Julie Gladbach of Events Management; Benn Crandall, associate director of University Operations; and John Besanko, assistant general manager of the Patriot Center, where the event is held each May.

“Barb Lubar and her people have this event so well organized that they have it down to a science,” he says.

But he acknowledges there is some magic to it too, such as how the mace miraculously appears in his hands when it is time to begin the procession. It just as mysteriously leaves his hands at the ceremony’s end.

“I’ve joked over the years that you can probably see indentations in the wood from where I gripped it so hard that first year. I was nervous,” he says.

Chamberlain, who is also chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, accepted the presidentially appointed position following the retirement of Mason’s first university marshal, Michael McDermott, in 2000.

Chamberlain had been “marshaling” at commencement all along, but it was McDermott who approached him and suggested to President Alan Merten that Chamberlain succeed him.

Much like he “shadowed” McDermott at the 2000 Commencement, Toni-Michelle Travis, associate professor in Public and International Affairs, has been learning from Chamberlain over the last several weeks. She will serve as Mason’s third university marshal and oversee next year’s graduation.

In the years he has served as university marshal, Chamberlain remarks on some changes he believes have really made a difference for the graduates: switching to Mason green graduation gowns in 2004 and moving the academic procession from a parking lot to the North Plaza.

“When you look out over that sea of green, it is really something to behold.”

In addition to the “magic” mace, Chamberlain holds other special memories, such as one ceremony where he was approached by a professor visiting from Canada who hoped to join in the proceedings.

“He said he had a student graduating and wanted to participate, so I welcomed him.” As he showed the visitor where he could join the faculty in the procession, again something magical happened — the man fell in love.

Prof. Jeff Chamberlain at CHSS convocation
In addition to presiding over Commencement, Chamberlain attended the College of Humanities and Social Sciences convocation.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

The visiting professor, Jean Pilon, now teaches geography in the College of Science. He met his wife, Elizabeth Chong of the College of Health and Human Services, in line that day.

“Matchmaking isn’t a large part of the university marshal’s job, but I do enjoy that story. They have reminded me several times over the years how they met,” he says.

The opportunity to interact with colleagues from across the university is one of the biggest perks of the job for Chamberlain.

“Sometimes you can get so involved in what you are doing and what’s going on in your department that it is difficult to meet people. Over the years, I’ve gotten to work with people all over campus who I would’ve never met otherwise. You really feel like part of the community.”

For each ceremony, Chamberlain has worn Mason regalia that includes cords from honor societies to which he belongs, Phi Beta Delta and Alpha Lambda Delta; a medal for service to the government of Belgium; and a Final Four pin, which he wears over his heart.

“Everyone comments on the pin, and I tell them that one was the hardest to get.”

For future graduations, Chamberlain thinks he will probably go back to wearing his regalia from the University of Illinois, where he earned his PhD, but he plans to continue to participate in Commencement when he can.

This summer, he is teaching a graduate-level course in comparative Romance linguistics and will teach in the fall before starting his leave in spring 2009.

Chamberlain recalls one ceremony when a former student was joking with him. “He said something like, ‘ha, ha, I get to leave Mason, and you don’t.’ I consider staying an honor and privilege.

“I tell my students that it is our job to get them out the door with a diploma. Marshaling provides a chance to gather with the students and celebrate their accomplishments. I have really enjoyed it. I’m glad the opportunity came along.”

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