CULLOWHEE – While students at Western are finishing their final exams this week, Don Connelly, director of electronic media, is still studying for his.
And it’s a tough one – an open book test before an audience of thousands. Connelly, a former radio announcer, will read the names of about 730 students who will walk across the stage during commencement in the Ramsey Regional Activity Center on Saturday, May 7. Names like Masafumi Takeda, Chetan Dedhia, Waew Wiboonsanti, Katarzyna Alexsandra Klimszyk. Names in Japanese, Chinese, East Indian, Polynesian, Philippine, German, Polish, Russian, Lithuanian, Spanish, Italian, British, and more.
On this test, there’s no extra credit for the easy American names. Names like Natalie Breitenstein and Diane DePietropaolo.
Boning up for this spell checker’s nightmare is a challenge. Connelly relies on members of the university’s commencement committee, his colleagues throughout the university, and conversations with students themselves to get pronunciations perfect. Once he hears the students’ names correctly, Connelly writes them out in his own phonetic shorthand. For example, Waew Wiboonsanti becomes “Wow Wee-boon-SAN-tay.” Chetan Dedhia becomes “Chah-tan Dayd-HEE-uh.”
In preparation for the big event, Connelly reads over the whole list of 700-plus for an hour or two each day. By the time he takes the stage, he will have reviewed the names 40 or 50 times and memorized many of the seemingly impossible combinations of letters. When it is time to go to the podium, he leaves his list behind and reads from the individual name cards handed to him, one by one, as students walk by.
Of course, there’s no grade riding on this test, so why does he work so hard? Connelly says, “Graduation is not only for the students. It’s for their families and friends, as well. They are proud of their graduates, and they want to hear their names pronounced clearly and correctly during this important event.”
In addition, Connelly is aware that he may be the last representative of Western to read the students’ names aloud in public, and he wants to get them right – every one of them and especially the most difficult.
Connelly, who has served as announcer for Western’s past two commencement ceremonies, knows that some students will try to sneak in nicknames on the individual cards they hand him, but that’s not allowed. Instead, he reads the same names that will appear on each graduate’s diploma – first, middle and last.
At the end of this particular exam, only Connelly will decide how well he has done. But it is clear that his hours of preparation will make the difference between passing and failing this very serious name game.