At NC State’s largest-ever graduation, there was no man behind the curtain. Instead, beside the stage was a dynamo of a woman in electric blue.
Martha O’Donnell, the commencement coordinator, volunteered to take on graduation responsibilities back in 1990, when the university began holding ceremonies twice a year.
Forty ceremonies later, she savors the buildup to the big event.
“I love it,” she says emphatically. “It’s actually a lot like being a wedding planner. It’s a happy event – everyone’s happy. Usually there aren’t any glitches.”
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O’Donnell, who retired as registrar in 2002, now focuses exclusively on graduation, directing about 100 people needed to pull off the ceremony: student marshals, registrar’s office staff, housing employees who line up students, technical workers at RBC Center and an assortment of other volunteers and dignitaries.
Her duties include hauling the heavy marble slab for the ceremonial mace in the trunk of her car.
Two of her biggest tasks are getting the graduation program to the printer and pulling together a detailed script for the event (more about that later).
The morning of commencement, O’Donnell is a blur, attending to last-minute details and talking with the platform party in the inner sanctum of the robing room.
Questions race through her mind. Will the overflow seating arrangement work? Will the video play on the Jumbotron? Has the speaker arrived yet? Will the new red robes for undergraduates be a hit?
Once the event is under way, O’Donnell catches her breath and takes her place near the platform, where she can lend a hand if things go awry during the ceremony. She’s armed with an unflappable demeanor, quick wit and a script that spells out each well-choreographed moment of the ceremony.
In fact, there’s a good reason the 60-page script is bound.
In the days of outdoor ceremonies at Carter-Finley Stadium, a breeze whisked away some of the program, unbeknownst to Chancellor Larry Monteith.
O’Donnell quickly slid the missing section onto the podium, whispering to Monteith, “You missed about four pages.”
A veteran of bad weather, speaker controversies and even a streaker, O’Donnell isn’t fazed by giant beach balls or live animals on mortarboards.
“We don’t give out any rules,” she notes. “Sometimes I’ve even wished the grads were a little more animated.”
And she never tires of seeing happy families.
“We have an awful lot of first-generation college graduates here and because of that, graduation’s a tad more special, an especially big deal.”