A classmate of the Unabomber. The only Newfoundlander to survive the bombing of Nagasaki. Canada’s first female astronaut. The wife of a president of the United States. The Princess Royal.
What do all these individuals have in common? They are all honorary graduates of Memorial University.
The university presented its first honorary degree in May 1960. The ceremony for that first degree, presented to Monnie Mansfield, who had been Memorial’s registrar for 30 years, served as a dress rehearsal for the most elaborate convocation the university has ever held: the opening of the Elizabeth Avenue campus in October 1961.
Overseeing the arrangements were Professor John Facey as the first marshal of convocation, responsible for the organization, direction and decorum of the occasion, and Dr. George Story as the public orator, responsible for the delivery of the orations about the honorary graduands, a special feature of Memorial’s convocations.
Concise and lively
Nineteen honorary degrees were conferred on a galaxy of dignitaries that day, local, national and international. Receiving degrees were such luminaries as Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, Premier Joseph Smallwood, the Duke of Devonshire and Edmund de Rothschild. The public orator and his deputy each had to deliver as many as 10 orations, each a concise but rhetorically lively account of the rationale for conferring the degree.
1/ Eleanor Roosevelt receives honorary degree
2/ Edmund de Rothschild
3/ Sandy Morris
4/ Dignitaries leave the Physical Education Building
5/ Princess Anne
6/ John Ford
‘Licensed to kill’
And such has been the demand of orators ever since. As Rex Murphy, himself a Memorial honorary graduate, noted in the forward to Prof. Shane O’Dea’s Orations, the orator, “Praising a person, and doing so seriously—elsewise why is the honoree there—while simultaneously indulging in what we Newfoundlanders wisely know as ‘taking a few shots at him’ is a neat balancing act.” They were, he said elsewhere, “licensed to kill.”
So John Crosbie may be named by orator Annette Staveley: “Lord of the One-Liner and Imperial Scourge of the Politically Correct.”
“Praising a person, and doing so seriously—elsewise why is the honoree there—while simultaneously indulging in what we Newfoundlanders wisely know as ‘taking a few shots at him’ is a neat balancing act.”
Baron Taylor of Harlow, Memorial’s fourth president, we are told, “Brought the ceremonial, prestige and dignity of the House of Lords to the high office of the university, but tickled the housewives in the local shopping malls when he boomed his greetings to them wearing his bayman’s hat,” according to Robert Mowbray.
And Prof. O’Dea can declare that Rick Mercer, “…really should have been an early candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood or Mao’s Red Guard.”
Pomp and circumstance
Convocation day is full of pomp and circumstance. The ceremonial trappings of convocation began to be developed in the early 1960s. The academic robes are based on those of Oxford University. The silver mace—the symbol of the university’s authority and the presence of which signals the official opening of convocation—and the marshals’ staves were donated by Chancellor Lord Thomson in 1961. The original chancellor’s chair and a lectern were presented in 1963 by then-Lieut.-Gov. Campbell Macpherson.
And how do the honorary graduates reflect and contribute to this solemn occasion? Musician Sandy Morris did a jig. Comedian Rick Mercer’s advice to the graduates was to moisturize. Singer Anita Best broke into song.
Mr. Budgell appearance
Greg Malone admitted to watching his “split personality” reaction when he received the letter awarding him the degree.
“Mr. Budgell leaped out of me, grabbed it from my hands and went dancing around the room with it with some glee and malevolence, as though he’d gotten away with something.”
And recorded for posterity is a photo taken at Government House of former auditor general Sheila Fraser, journalist Shelagh Rogers and then-Lieut.-Gov. John Crosbie—with a bottle of tequila.
Since 1950, when Memorial held its first convocation, thousands of students and more than 500 honorary graduates have crossed the stage to receive their degrees from the chancellors. Our convocation—defined as a gathering of the university community—has grown from the practices and traditions of older universities. Today’s convocations are a distinctly Memorial University experience for all who attend, be they distinguished guests or faculty, honorary graduates or our graduating students who are, as they should be, the focus of the events.