Pomp and Circumstance

Rediscovering the need for tradition, ritual, and ceremony—all at one memorable event.

Church bells up the street began to chime, calling us to order. We were a formally attired group of graduating seniors, faculty, trustees, the president, and one honoree—all wearing long, black robes, accented with colorful braids, and square hats with tassels of various hues. My gown had three velvet stripes on each flowing sleeve and my tassel was gold. I also wore the bright braids of a graduate.

The processional was closed up by Oliver Evans, the president of Kendall College of Art and Design, and me. We started our journey at the school, walking slowly to the church, where the bells tolled and 1500 people waited for the ceremonies to begin. Banners and gowns and tassels fluttered in the balmy breezes. The strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” could be heard. It was a hazy May morning in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The non-denominational church, with light glimmering through its stained glass windows, was filled with the proud and smiling faces of parents, siblings, friends, and visitors. This was what the students—whose excellent work was on display throughout the now empty classrooms for everyone to see—had worked toward for four years.

During the ceremony President Evans said some very nice things about me and called me to center stage to receive my honorary doctorate in the arts. After he placed a colorful cowl around my neck, he introduced me to the audience as “Dr. Susan Szenasy.” I thought I heard my parents, now departed, cheering. Then, turning to the lectern, I delivered my good wishes to the graduates, noting to myself how attentive their faces were. As the diplomas were presented, the audience was treated to a show of work from each student on a large screen on the stage. This all took place on a stage where the Grateful Dead, among other attractions, once performed.

At the end of the ceremony I lead the procession of new graduates out into the brightening sunshine and the beginning of their adult lives. I was always a Modernist amnesiac who rejected the sacraments of ritual, but looking back now on that perfect day I understand their role in our lives, and in our designed environments. I will never forget it.

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