Creamed at Commencement: A Graduation Mystery

By Gail Farrelly

Chapter One

     Twelve o'clock, 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 will last."
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 Yonkers University.
     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 seats.
     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 perform well.
     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 something.
     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 positions.
     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