SPRING CONVOCATION: Semmens gives ceremony its voice

By Paul Mayne
June 06, 2013

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SemmensPaul Mayne, Western News
Music History professor Rick Semmens, Western’s chief public orator for convocation, gets a little practice in on the names of some the students set to graduate this coming week.

Most people have a blanket, jumper cables and other miscellaneous items in the trunk of their car. But Rick Semmens is not most people.

“The horrible reality is that convocation lives in the trunk of my car. If something happens to my car, we’re in a lot of trouble,” the Music History professor laughed.

Semmens, who has been volunteering at convocation ceremonies pretty much since he began at Western almost 35 years ago, is referring to the thousands of index cards he, as the ceremony’s chief public orator, ensures are not only in alphabetical order, but are distributed to the right students at the right time at each ceremony.


“Those are what drive convocation,” he admitted.

Having had his hand in pretty much all aspects of convocation – from the music, ushering and hooding – Semmens said being part of all the ceremonies, even after hundreds under his belt, continues to be a thrill.

“The reason that I was interested in it at all is because I think it’s a wonderful ceremony,” said Semmens, a graduate of the University of British Columbia and California’s Stanford University, where he admitted the ceremonies “were god awful single-day affairs that didn’t seem particularly ceremonial.”

It was the early 90s when now-retired Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Alan Mills talked Semmens into being part of the orating aspect of graduation – organizing and announcing the graduates on stage.

“I had volunteered for several different duties over the years and the orating intrigued me, though it also terrified me,” Semmens said. “You are actually addressing the public. The first time, I was quite scared.”

As chief public orator for the last eight years, Semmens continues to receive the help of Mills, who remains chief public orator emeritus, along with assistants Margaret Kellow (History) and John Thorpe (Philosophy).

Semmens admitted, to some, it may look easy to stand on stage and read a name from a card. But there is plenty of behind-the-scenes work that goes with it. With students amassed in the gymnasium of Thames Hall, anything can happen.

Students not eligible to graduate will show up; students who are eligible to graduate show up, but they aren’t registered; students are there on the wrong day; students are in the wrong line; students try to slide a nickname onto their cards in hopes of getting read to the crowd.

You name it, it has likely happened to Semmens.

“One of us is always on stage and receives the three cards each time to hand to the volunteer orators to read,” he said. “We check and see if there are special instructions such as wheelchair needs or special hooder, and then pass to the orator. Some will write gold medalist, I tell them not to read that; some will write nicknames like ‘hot lips’, I tell them not to read that. And there are always last minute instructions, for example, is it pronounced Ruben‘steen’ or Ruben‘stine’.”

Semmens said Western has become so well known for its lavish and memorable convocation ceremonies that officials from universities around the world have attended to learn how it is organized so well.

That smooth organization could be yet another reason why Semmens, and so many others, find themselves coming back to convocation each spring and fall or, as he refers this group, “chronic returners.”

“There is no explicit requirement for me to participate, but there is a general requirement for all faculty members to engage in service,” Semmens said. “The truth of the matter is convocation is the single most public face of this university. There is nothing more public than this, and nothing more understood by our students and their families, that this is what the university is all about. It is gratifying to be part of this.”

So a convocation veteran of almost 25 years doesn’t get nervous any more, does he?

“Get nervous? Oh yeah. It’s more anticipation. You get the juices flowing when you get out on that stage,” Semmens said. “When they play God Save the Queen, you start thinking, ‘Okay, do I have everything? Where’s my list?’ Once you start, it’s going and you can’t go back.”


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