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‘Gravitas and aplomb’

Essential volunteers make convocation ceremonies smooth — and memorable

Campus and Community

By Mandy Cook

When it comes to participating in a convocation ceremony, the pomp and pageantry of the occasion can be a little intimidating to some.

That’s where the university marshal comes in.

University Marshal Bert Riggs, with white beard is pictured in the wings on the convocation stage during Dr. Vianne Timmons' installation as president in spring 2022. Marshal Brian Hammond is to the right, holding the staff. Everyone is in ceremonial dress, some are seated behind a large desk and others are standing. President Timmons is standing at right with a hand on her heart.
University Marshal Bert Riggs, with white beard, is pictured with a staff in the wings on the convocation stage during Dr. Vianne Timmons’ presidential installation in spring 2022. Marshal Brian Hammond is to the right, also holding a staff; Marshall Jim Price is at far right, holding a staff.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The university marshall is the director of protocol and logistics during the ceremonial graduation event.

They are recognizable in part due to the black robe with claret trim, Memorial University’s official colour, and the wooden staff that they carry.

The staff, topped with a silver tri-cornered decoration, represents their authority; its metal tip on the bottom is a useful instrument to strike the floor to command attention if required.

From marshal to marshal

Since 2015 Bert Riggs, an instructor in the Department of English, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, has provided a steady hand and presence in the role.

He says he learned the ropes from the previous university marshal, Dr. Christopher Sharpe.

“Chris was a great mentor and teacher – it was from him that I learned to demonstrate the appropriate gravitas and aplomb required in the role,” said Prof. Riggs.

The convocation stage can be a little overwhelming from a graduating student’s — or, a graduand’s — point of view in an auditorium seat.

It is set with beautiful hand-carved furniture adorned with Memorial University’s crest and colours. Banners hang the full height of the stage. Television cameras are placed throughout the space.

When Prof Riggs approaches the assembled graduands 10 minutes prior to the ceremony from centre stage, he uses the time to help settle any nerves by providing direction and a friendly face.

At right, University Marshal Bert Riggs guides a cohort of graduates through the convocation process prior to their ceremony. He is wearing convocation robes and stands on stage in an auditorium; graduates in convocation robes sit in seats below.
At right, University Marshal Bert Riggs guides a cohort of graduates through the convocation process prior to their ceremony.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Crucially, he orients Memorial’s newest alumni so that nothing mars their big moment.

He explains how to wear their hood, what information they need to provide to the university registrar when they cross the stage to collect their degree and what side their mortarboard tassel should be on.

“The tassel should be on the left, not because there is any particular rule, but no one wants a tassel blocking their face if their picture is being taken,” said Prof. Riggs.

Team of volunteers

The university marshal is supported by a convocation team.

Donna Walsh, a retired member of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, is deputy marshal and has performed in the role for numerous years.

In addition, there are four marshals: Brian Hammond, Office of the Registrar; Derek Howse, Marine Institute; Shona Perry-Maidment, retired from the Office of the Registrar; and James Price, Department of Human Resources.

All of the marshals assist with guiding the university procession — the university’s senior leadership, including the president and the chancellor, deans, faculty members, dignitaries and special guests, including honorary degree recipients — onto the stage and to their assigned seats.

They also have to operate on the fly at times: if there are late graduates, the marshals must slot them into the correct spot to be included in their relevant degree cohort.

As well, there are two mace bearers at Memorial: David Pippy and Carolyn O’Keefe of the Office of the Registrar.

At left, David Pippy prepares to set the mace before the chancellor to officially open convocation. He is wearing convocation robes, as are the assembled people in front of him. He is carrying a large pole with a silver urn on top and wearing white gloves.
At left, David Pippy prepares to set the mace before the chancellor to officially open convocation.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

The role of the mace bearer is significant in that convocation is not declared open until the mace is placed in front of the chancellor or vice-chancellor. It symbolizes the authority of the university to confer degrees.

Mr. Pippy has volunteered at convocation in various roles for almost 10 years. He’s been a mace bearer since 2017.

“The celebration, excitement and pride from the graduates is contagious,” he said. “So, when I was asked to be part of the procession and carry the mace, I accepted without hesitation.”

Rounding out the team led by the university marshal are the ushers.

Kathy Skinner is the chief usher; there are about a dozen ushers, overall. The ushers help graduands find their correct seat and double-check that they have the correctly coloured hood for their degree.

“Volunteers do this because of their commitment to the university and to convocation.” — Prof. Bert Riggs

When an honorary degree recipient is part of a ceremony, the university marshal has the additional responsibility of guiding them to their stage position when their oration is being delivered and, once their degree has been conferred, to the register to sign their name.

“Volunteers do this because of their commitment to the university and to convocation,” said Prof. Riggs.

And his favourite part of the role?

“The smiles. You never see so many people smiling at the one time.”

If you are interested in volunteering as part of the convocation stage team, please get in touch with Prof. Riggs.


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