A Minute With the Marshal

A Minute With the Marshal

by Lauren Davidson

July 1, 2012

Picture of Chuck Zwemer and his Doctoral Robe

Chuck Zwemer, associate professor of biology, holds a distinguished post at Dickinson: college marshal. Since 2008, he has been responsible for directing key elements of Convocation, Baccalaureate and Commencement, including leading the processions, ensuring that everyone is in the right place at the right time and generally averting disasters.

In this Esquire-style Q-&-A (minus the Qs), he shares memorable moments, lessons learned and insider details. 

Leon Fitts [professor emeritus of classical studies] sent me an e-mail saying, “Would you like to do this?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll give it a whirl.” I’ve always thought that the college has done a remarkable job at Commencement services and Convocation. The institutions I’ve been at prior to Dickinson didn’t come close to the tradition or the classiness. I’m thinking of the Ron Burgundy line, “Stay classy, San Diego.”

I suppose being rigid would make this job impossible, because things change quickly. Sometimes we’re handing out cafeteria trays and sometimes we’re not. I’m serious! That one showed up the day before Commence-ment, and that’s cool. We adjust, we adapt.

The robe is a straight-up doctoral robe. The hood is Indiana University’s medical science program. The red collar is derived from, I believe, historical marshal of the college attire, so it sets the marshal apart from the other individuals in the procession.

I’m looking forward to seeing some of the students I’ve had in my lab and seeing them off to wherever they’re headed—to medical school, to graduate school. That’s always a great and satisfying part of this.

It was ’97 or ’98 and it was one of those where it was just a torrential downpour. It was not a light rain; it was as if someone threw a swimming pool on us. The speaker was from England, and when it was time for her to speak she got up and said, “This weather is dreadful. You don’t need to hear from me. Congratulations.” And that was it! Professor [Anthony] Pires had come prepared and pulled out an L.L. Bean tarp, keeping him dry but turning Professor [David] Crouch and me into aquatic mammals. It was awesome. It was just pouring—destroying my shoes. And I thought, “You know? A: I’m slipping. B: They’re not waterproof. I’m going with golf shoes next year.”

What keeps me awake? Mismanagement of the alphabet. Somehow the Js appear before the Ds. That would be freaky. That would be crazy. And that would make it difficult on pretty much everyone.
The tie is a Dickinson tie that I bought my first year at the college—that was 17 years ago. And I’ve worn it to every Commence-ment and every Convocation since.
The baton was designed and carried by the first marshal of the college, Horatio Collins King. It is in my possession two weeks surrounding Commencement and two weeks surrounding Convocation. It is stored in the college Archives [& Special Collections].

I arrive around 6:30 a.m., and I usually ride in on a bike. I like to make sure all the postings for the soon-to-be graduates are in place and everything’s alphabetized. I take a shower over in Rector, ’cause I rode in, put on the glad rags, as it were—the “big boy” clothes—and then I go to the President’s House for the brunch with the honorary degree recipients, which is a great affair. 

From about 9:30 on I begin telling the president every five minutes, “This is how much time we have left.” He always seems surprised. This watch is set to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and so this is what I use to make the call on starting and stopping.

This sounds insane, but I like the brunch and I like the dinner. Frankly, I like the food.

During my first trial run as marshal when Leon was still here, I was to lead the faculty up through the right. Instead I led them through the tighter, smaller, more choked corridor to the left of the graduating class, and that really slowed things down. That was a bummer.

Till I retire; till I’m kicked out.

I like the recession because that’s when the students come through our line and they’re graduates and it’s a great tradition.

Usually Chad [Everts] at the sound booth has a computer with weather radar—we’ve done that every year I’ve been marshal. And we sort of look at things that are coming and make the decision based on that.

It is a top-notch operation, and that is almost entirely due to our staff—the men and women who work crazy long hours that weekend to make sure everything’s clean and squared away, to make sure we’ve got good sound; to handle all the crises. That is why this is pulled off so well. They didn’t take my suggestion to have “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin play. That would have been cool—process to “Kashmir.”

Published July 1, 2012