WCU planning two fall commencements as longtime ‘name-caller’ Connelly steps down

With many attendees finding themselves in seats behind the stage at WCU’s fall commencement, WCU officials have decided to hold two ceremonies to honor the fall graduating class.

Fall semester at Western Carolina University has just begun, but faculty and staff involved in commencement already are pondering a couple of big changes that will take effect as the university celebrates its fall graduating class in December.

First up on the list is a switch to holding two fall commencement ceremonies instead of one – a change approved by the chancellor’s Executive Council earlier this month. Over the past several years, the university’s Commencement Committee has considered the idea of adding another December ceremony because of capacity limitations at Ramsey Regional Activity Center – an issue that has risen as the number of graduating students and commencement attendees has surged along with WCU’s record enrollment. The same issue prompted university officials to add a second ceremony to accommodate the much bigger spring class in 2008, and then a third spring commencement was added in 2010.

“It has long been known that the shift to two fall ceremonies was inevitable; the question was only when,” said Lowell Davis, WCU assistant vice chancellor for student success and chair of the Commencement Committee. “With another record-breaking class beginning the school year, it was clear to the members of the Executive Council that such a change will be easiest to manage if made sooner rather than later.”

The fall commencement schedule now calls for a first ceremony beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 16, to include graduate, undergraduate and Honors College students from the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Allied Professions, and Fine and Performing Arts. The second event will begin that day at 2 p.m. and include those same categories of students from the colleges of Business, Engineering and Technology, and Health and Human Sciences. The schedule will be the same for the colleges as during the May commencement weekend, except in May the graduate students have their own ceremony on Friday night.

Davis said the capacity issues at the Ramsey Center involve both the number of graduating students who sit on the arena floor and the number of family members and friends who attend. Each graduating student brings an average of 10 visitors to witness the big event, resulting in an audience that fills up the Ramsey Center close to capacity, with many attendees sitting behind the stage. The big crowds also strain parking capacity at WCU, clog up traffic in the area and put a heavy weight on university parking and police personnel, Davis said.

“Splitting the crowd helps to ensure convenient parking is available for all our guests and that the flow of traffic can be reasonably maintained,” he said. “Also, a lower number of graduates keeps the ceremony length at about 90 minutes, which we feel is ideal.”

Aside from the practical matter of capacity, the move to two December commencements also will improve the quality of the experience for the graduates and their families, Davis said. “Traveling to the area in traffic, navigating a campus they may or may not have ever visited before, finding a parking spot and then finding a seat – all with enough time left over to take a deep breath and celebrate the meaning of the day – can be a pretty stress-inducing experience. We want to minimize as much of that as we can,” he said.

In years past, WCU held a commencement ceremony in August for students who completed degree requirements during the summer sessions, but the custom of holding that event ended in 2009 as a cost-cutting measure in a tough budget year. Since then, summer graduates have been allowed to participate in December commencement, adding to the capacity issues. “We still feel that it is the best use of campus personnel’s time and resources to keep these groups of graduates together, rather than adding a ceremony back to August,” Davis said. 

Connelly retires from commencement duties

Don Connelly joined the faculty of WCU’s Department of Communication in 1999, and in December 2003, the 23-year veteran of the radio broadcasting business took on the task of calling out the names of the university’s graduating students as they filed across the stage during commencement. In May, Connelly worked his 48th, 49th and 50th WCU ceremonies, but now he has decided to hang up his microphone.

Don Connelly (left), who has called the names of WCU’s graduating students since December 2003, has decided to hang up his microphone.

Although he is getting out of the “name-calling” business, Connelly said he will continue in his current role as department head and professor in the Department of Communication. When he started his commencement duties, the total graduation list usually included 400 to 500 names, but during WCU’s graduation weekend last May, there were about 1,530 names to announce for the three ceremonies, he said. “This all occurs at the end of the semester, and as a professor and department head, the timing was becoming a trick to pull off,” he said.

Over the years, Connelly has cemented his status on campus as a stickler for pronouncing each student’s name correctly, with regular mass emails going out to faculty and staff in an attempt to find the proper pronunciation for some of the tougher names on the list. Connelly said his process typically began with his reading of all the names about six weeks before commencement and flagging those that could be a problem, with the emails to faculty and staff going out right after that. Early in the process, he read the most difficult names out loud three to five times a day, and then, about a week before commencement, he started repeating the entire list three times a day. The night before commencement, he went through the entire list two or three times, and on commencement day he arrived at the Ramsey Center early to find a quiet place to run through the list once more.

Some observers may have thought that the graduating students’ names were spelled out phonetically on the cards they carry on stage, and which Connelly used to announce their names, but that was not the case, he said. The names were printed out just as they appeared on the students’ diplomas.

“The reason I took so much time to get a student’s name right was that I was given the honor of announcing that undergraduate or graduate student’s name for the very last time at Western Carolina University,” he said. “The very selfish reason was that everyone in the audience was focused on me to hear their student’s name called correctly. I really did not want to screw up.”

Connelly said several WCU commencements stand out as particularly memorable for him, including a ceremony in which one of his communication students gave the primary address, accompanied by his guide dog. As a freshman, the student had lost his eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa. He left WCU, but returned several years later to complete his bachelor’s degree.

Connelly said he never missed a commencement in his 14-year run, but his consistency almost took a hit one year when he broke a molar just before the ceremony and his dentist told him he faced a long procedure and root canal.

“I told him that was not an option because I had to announce graduation,” Connelly said. “He made a temporary repair and provided pain medication. When graduation was over, I got in my car and drove to the dentist’s office where the staff was waiting on me and had the root canal and dental work.”

Davis said the university will not be holding auditions to find a replacement for Connelly. Instead, WCU will be contracting with the company Marching Order to automate the process of calling out the names with the use of a QR code printed on each graduating student’s card. The cards will be scanned as the students come on stage, triggering a pre-recorded sound file of each one’s name. “Many people have asked if the voice will sound robotic, and the answer is no,” Davis said. “A voiceover professional will be recording each student’s name.”

The preferred pronunciations of student names will continue to be emphasized because graduating students will have an opportunity to record their preferred pronunciation and send the recording to the company well before commencement. Another benefit is that the software will work in conjunction with the university’s live web stream of the ceremonies to display each student’s name on the broadcast as he or she crosses the stage, Davis said.

Over the years, Connelly read out the names of more than 28,000 WCU students, and Davis said it is doubtful that any of them were aware of the consideration he gave to pronouncing their names correctly. The university community knows about Connelly’s efforts, however, and owes him its gratitude, Davis said.

“We will never be able to give adequate thanks for his service to WCU in this capacity, and we are so grateful for his many years as our commencement name-reader,” Davis said.