Creamed at Commencement: A Graduation Mystery
By Gail Farrelly
a time of beginning and a time of ending. A perfect
time, Katie Maguire thought, for a college commencement,
a celebration of both a beginning and an ending.
At the stroke of noon on that Friday afternoon, as the
six-piece brass orchestra played the first few strains
of the Graduation March, Katie sat back to view the rite
of passage playing out. It was a fitting prelude to her
own upcoming rite of passage. She had always wanted to
go to college. Now, at the age of 61, she had finally
made it. A recently retired chambermaid, she was now a
receptionist in a detective agency and an aerobics
instructor for the "Oldies but Goodies" set. She had
come to the campus to sign up for a summer-school course
in education to begin in a few days. A course or two
now, maybe a degree later. Anyway, the course would
qualify her for an increased hourly rate at the aerobics
studio. A good investment.
From her aisle seat just behind the few rows of
faculty, Katie had an excellent view of the makeshift
stage on the huge lawn in front of the Administration
Building at Yonkers University. She glanced upward. Uh-oh, a few storm clouds. Katie hoped that rain wouldn't
spoil the ceremony, but the temporary blocking of the
sun was welcome relief from the heat and humidity. But
then what could you expect for the first Friday in June?
She felt the sweat trickle down her back as the first of
the more than 300 business school graduates proceeded
down the aisle to her right and began to fill in the
rows of seats across from her.
Katie mopped her brow with tissues and glanced to the
left at her friend, Maria Pinacchio, whose back was
partially turned to Katie as she chatted with another
administrative assistant to her left. The 90-degree
temperature didn't seem to bother her at all. Not a drop
of sweat marred her long, curly black hair or her yellow
pantsuit. Katie sighed. Her own short white 'do' was
beginning to feel more like a 'don't' and her white
slacks and blue shirt felt like old dishrags. But then
Maria, also a part-time aerobics instructor in New York
City, was only 24 years old. Age had its compensations,
but tolerance to heat was not one of them. Oh well, it
was nice to have a young friend, especially one who
could find her way around an aerobics studio and
a university. Maria always talked with her hands as well
as her mouth. This time her hands seemed even busier
than usual. Makes sense, thought Katie, since the person
she was talking to, Jeanne Farrow, had been deaf since
the age of ten. Jeanne read lips pretty well, Maria had
confided to Katie, but hand movements helped the
conversation along. Katie watched Jeanne and thought how
graceful her hand movements were. She looked a little
bit like Sarah Ferguson. A bit heavier than the
slimmed-down Fergie, but her long red hair was exactly
the same color.
Maria turned and poked Katie. She was pointing to the
faculty in front of them and whispered, "See, I told you
they'd be fun to watch."
"Yeah, their outfits are really colorful," Katie
answered, fanning herself with the program and looking
at the various robes and hoods that adorned the fifty or
so professors sitting in the rows in front of them.
"Not just that," Maria said as she pointed. "Look at
what that prof is doing. Professor Clark's his name. Two
rows up, right in the middle. He's that pudgy guy in the
blue and black robe, with the hat in his lap." Katie sat
up straighter and peered at Professor Clark. Just then,
he extended his hand to accept something that was being
passed down from his left. Katie was intrigued. "What's
he up to? That looked like a few bucks that were passed
down to him."
"Right. You see, he runs a betting pool for the
faculty—a betting pool about graduation. How long it
Katie was amazed. "Gee, I thought college teachers would
be above that kind of thing. I must be pretty naďve
about what goes on here."
Maria poked Katie's arm. "All those years as a
chambermaid should have prepared you. People are people,
on a campus or at a hotel, right?"
"True," Katie answered, once again straining to see
more of Professor Clark's actions. He was firmly nodding
his head from side to side and this time rejected what
someone was attempting to pass down to him.
Maria's friend Jeanne smiled and motioned as if she
were pulling down a window. "Betting's done. That's all,
folks," she said. Her speech, Katie noted, was good. An
outsider might not have even known that she was deaf.
Maria poked Katie. "But don't worry, Katie, the show's
not over. There'll be lots of other acts. That's why I
said you just had to sit up here with us." She
pointed her thumb toward the row of staff people from
The procession of graduates was over. Having survived
the long walk past adoring and camera-laden friends and
family, they were now settling themselves in their
Katie approved of the brass ensemble's rendition of
The Star Spangled Banner. The crowd was not
encouraged to sing along, a good thing because, in her
view, that was such a difficult number for a crowd to
Dean Alexander Stankowski—tall, bald, well built—then
introduced the onstage dignitaries. They were, he said,
all first-string players on the Yonkers University
Business School team. There was polite applause for each
of them, although judging from the few comments from the
faculty that Katie overheard from the rows in front of
her, all were not great fans.
The provost, a frump in her sixties, was introduced as
a "shining example of integrity and energy, a person who
works tirelessly for the University." To which one
faculty member provided a mumbled additional comment,
"and creates all that damn paperwork for us. I'd like to
give it all back to her and tell her to file it where
the sun doesn't shine."
A faculty member's evaluation of the president of the
university, an attractive middle-aged woman with red
hair and thick eyeglasses, was no less severe. "Her
vision is extraordinary," announced the dean. "It sure
is," muttered a young faculty member sitting right in
front of Katie. "Extraordinarily nearsighted. Too bad
she can't get a pair of goggles for that too."
Then the names of the graduates were announced and each
came to the stage to receive a diploma. Their basic garb
was traditional; black caps and gowns. But Katie was
amazed to see what else they wore. There were corsages
of different colors, even a single red rose pinned to
one graduate's cap, which was worn at a rakish angle.
Several varieties of footwear were sported: sandals,
Rockports, spiked heels, pumps, Doc Martens, etc.
What they wore under the caps and gowns, at least what
Katie could see, was another story. It ran the gamut
from jeans and shorts to lacy dresses and fancy slacks.
Maybe nothing in some cases. A well-kept secret, sort of
like what one wears under a kilt. In any event, it was a
good show, much more entertaining than the ones of
yesteryear where every graduate was expected to conform
by wearing traditional and boring garb. One graduate,
returning to her seat with a diploma in her right hand,
suddenly had a cell phone in her left and proceeded to
make a call. Who was she calling, Katie wondered. Maybe
it was someone who couldn't make the ceremony; then
again, it could have been someone sitting just a few
rows back. Today it was so easy to just reach out and
touch someone wherever and whenever.
At one point, the graduates who had already received
their degrees magically produced a beach ball, which
they happily tossed about. Apparently they were not that
eager to "commence" into the real world. A
stern-looking, string bean of a professor two rows in
front of Katie and her friends jumped from his seat and
angrily grabbed the ball after a number of bounces and
carried it back to his seat. The students quickly
produced another one. The professor threw up his hands
in disgust. Katie would liked to have given him some
free advice. You're too young, she wanted to say, to let
this stuff get to you. Chill out or go meditate or
There was a mini crisis of sorts when a female graduate
leaving the stage caught her heel on the bottom of her
gown. She would have stumbled and fallen down the four
steps, had it not been for the quick thinking of a
handsome thirty-something man posted on the stairs to
handle such a situation. He had quickly reached out to
grab her, preventing her from falling.
Maria leaned over, pointed to the young Denzel
Washington look-alike, and whispered to Katie. "Good
catch for Grabby Gabby. That's what we call that guy,
Professor Gabriel Winters. Rumor has it that he likes
the ladies, maybe a little bit too much."
"But you have to hand it to him. He really saved the
day. That girl could have ended up spending graduation
day in the emergency room."
She couldn't help but think of the saying that "black
is beautiful." Boy, did it apply here. Professor Winters
was an extremely handsome man. Maybe it was the female
students who were all over him, and not vice versa.
Katie looked behind her at the rows and rows of proud
faces—friends and relatives who had come to support the
graduates. She felt that she could separate the
first-time-college-graduation families from the rest of
the pack. They were the ones who obeyed the instructions
announced by the dean: don't leave your seat to take
pictures and hold your applause till the last name in
each group is announced. The families who were veterans
of college graduations happily disregarded the dean's
instructions. They loudly cheered when the name of their
family member was announced; one-day paparazzi, they
tripped over each other to rush to prime picture-taking
When all the degrees had been conferred and the dean
asked for a round of applause, there was a rain of
confetti and streamers in the graduates' seating area.
Two rows in front of her, Katie observed a
prissy-looking faculty member comment to a Mr. Stuffed
Shirt to her right, "A disgrace! How did they get into
the procession with all that stuff anyway? Hiding beach
balls and all that other garbage." An ascetic-looking,
old professor in front of them turned and clucked. Then
he smiled and said rather loudly, "Next year, maybe
you'd like to frisk the graduates." The woman just
glared at him, while Mr. Stuffed Shirt both glared and
treated him to a sharp "Shush."
Shushers were sometimes more annoying than shushees,
Katie thought. It was hard for her to figure who was
more infantile—the newly minted college graduates or
their esteemed faculty. And this was an institution of
higher learning. Yikes! Could she really learn
anything here that would help in her aerobics career?
Oh, who cares, she would get a pay raise anyway.
Finally the graduates were all back in their seats. The
beach ball had lost its charm and now lay, partially
deflated, in the middle aisle. The dean announced that
an honorary degree would be presented to "one of our
own," Professor Melanie Andrews, Chaired Professor of
Management, who would also give the commencement
address. He launched into a sterling and detailed
history of her accomplishments. The forty-something
Professor Andrews, petite and attractive, was standing
at the dean's left, just to the right of the speaker's
podium. She removed her academic cap and looked as if
she were wilting a bit as the dean went on and on.
When the dean finished his speech, he "hooded" the
honorary degree recipient. A video camera was whirring,
and the official university photographer captured a few
stills of the auspicious moment.
And what a moment it was. Two seconds after receiving
the academic hood, Professor Andrews clutched her throat
and slowly collapsed. It was almost as if the weight of
the hood was too much for her.
"Give her air, give her air," the dean screamed,
bending over his fallen colleague. But Professor Andrews
didn't need air. Not at that moment and not ever again.
This ends the except from
Gail Farrelly's Creamed at
Commencement: A Graduation Mystery