Halvorson recounts years
as University Marshal
May 11, 1998
Come Commencement weekend, University Marshal Peter Halvorson will don his blue velvet cap and blue robes with white trim on the sleeves, grasp the University baton, and stride out onto the floor of Gampel Pavilion, shepherding the procession of faculty and graduating students. As he has done for more than a decade, Halvorson will keep a stern eye on the proceedings to ensure that all goes smoothly. He also can be relied upon to add leaven to the atmosphere with his own special brand of humor.
In a strange irony, the man who has been the ceremonial figurehead for numerous graduation ceremonies at UConn did not attend his own Ph.D. commencement at the University of Cincinnati. It was 1970, the year of student unrest at Kent State, and he was teaching at the University of Colorado. Uncertain as to whether the ceremony would actually take place, he decided not to go.
Later that year he joined UConn as an assistant professor. At that time, the University marshal was Max Thatcher, a professor of political science, now emeritus. Thatcher held the position until his retirement in 1984. Tom Suits, a professor of modern and classical languages, and Fred Cazel, a professor of history - both now emeriti - took over the responsibilities until a permanent replacement could be found.
One day Halvorson received a call from Suits, inquiring about his willingness to serve. "We thought you had the right combination of an imposing presence and commanding voice," he said - much to Halvorson's surprise.
Halvorson served a two-year "apprenticeship" with Suits and Cazel, and has conducted every Commencement since 1987, serving under three consecutive presidents.
Since Suits and Cazel, the duties of marshal have remained split. While the emphasis of the marshal is on the ceremonial aspects of Commencement, the chair of the 28-member commencement committee - currently Keith Barker - concentrates on organizational issues, although, as Halvorson explains, "In point of fact, we both do a lot of both."
Halvorson says he welcomes the campus contacts the job brings. "I've done a lot of different things on campus but nothing I've been involved in reaches as widely into the campus community - the police department, communications, food services, event staff, and the people at Jorgensen and Gampel from stage hands to the director of athletics," he says. "When everything goes well, it's a reflection of their hard work more than mine."
After many years as marshal, Halvorson has a store of anecdotes to relate. There's the one about the student who triggered a fire cracker just as he shook hands with his dean, and the one about the pharmacy students who used to give prank gifts to the dean in exchange for their diploma.
One of his favorite memories is about a member of the audience. It was a hot day, the ceremony in the Field House was running late, and it seemed the speech would never end. "Then a little old lady comes over to the platform and says 'I want to know who's in charge, people are going to die out here.' She looks straight at President Casteen," says Halvorson, "- and he points to me."
Halvorson says the biggest single change in Commencement since he became University Marshal was moving the ceremonies from Jorgensen and Field House into Gampel.
One year Commencement was held outdoors, in Memorial Stadium. Thanks to a preceding week of wind and rain, "It was an unmitigated disaster," he says. The more than 3,000 chairs on the field blew over more than once during set up, and the day itself was so cold that "people showed up in Arctic gear" and students, parents and dignitaries alike left before the ceremony was over. "That was not one of the highlights of my career," he says.
Ideas for speakers come from many different quarters, but Halvorson says it's often difficult to get the University community to decide on a speaker early in the year. In 1988, he received a phone call in March. The University still had no speaker. "I'm calling on behalf of my boss," said the caller. "He likes to give speeches."
The boss turned out to be chairman of the American Stock Exchange, Arthur Levitt Jr. His speech has remained Halvorson's favorite Commencement speech, just ahead of the 1991 speech by TV personality Fred Rogers.
Halvorson says a particular privilege of serving as University Marshal is the opportunity to meet the recipients of honorary degrees, including such personalities as Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer and composer Virgil Thompson, who won the Pulitzer Prize.
Some honorary degrees have brought poignant moments. One of the most special, he says, was bestowing an honorary degree on actor Roy Bolger, best known for his role as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and was unable to attend the ceremony. So, a week after Commencement, Halvorson and another representative from UConn traveled to Hollywood and in Bolger's garden, with Bolger's wife as the only audience, conferred on him his honorary degree.
Halvorson also held an off-campus ceremony for opera singer and civil rights pioneer Marian Anderson, who was unable to attend Commencement.
"If I try to make an inventory of the honorary degree recipients I have met over time," says Halvorson, "It's an amazing cast of people."
In 1995, that amazing cast included Bill Clinton, the first sitting U.S. president to visit the University. Toward the end of the ceremonies celebrating the dedication of the Dodd Center, Clinton was to receive an honorary degree.
Halvorson thought he had better warn the Secret Service. "I told them, 'Some time late in the proceedings a guy dressed in strange clothing with a strange-looking object (the mace) is going to approach the President. I want you to know it's part of the show.'
"They asked 'Is it you? Because you're going to feel funny with that little red dot on your forehead.' They were referring to the laser sights on their guns." Fortunately, he says, the ceremony went off without incident.
In addition to University Marshal, Halvorson has served the University in other capacities - as vice president and president of the AAUP, member of the union's executive committee for about 10 years, and chair of several rounds of bargaining committees, and as chair of the Senate Executive Committee. A professor of geography, he also continues with his research, successful grant writing, has written several books, and teaches an average of five courses a year.
He says he sometimes wonders whether the younger generation of faculty will want to serve the University.
"In the generation before me, there were people who devoted a tremendous amount of energy to the University," he says. "I would like to think there are folks coming up like that."