Convocation is all about the graduating students and their families, but there would be no pomp, no circumstance and no ceremonies without the supporting cast. Dozens of people work behind the scenes – beautifying the campus, working security and ushering people into the main tent, among other tasks – to make sure each ceremony is perfect. The following stories are about a pair of McGillians who are as much a part of Convocation as flying mortarboards.
Winston Purdy: The Voice
While Convocation has its iconic sights – think James McGill decked out in red and white balloons – it also has two iconic sounds. First there is the stirring sound of the bagpipes leading another procession to the main tent. And then there’s Winston Purdy’s rich baritone singing the University song Hail, Alma Mater, to mark the beginning of almost every (he missed one due to illness) Convocation ceremony since 1999.
A Professor of Voice at the Schulich School of Music, Purdy first took the stage at Convocation in 1999, taking over for his late wife, Kathleen Anderson – herself a Convocation fixture since the late 1970s. Purdy says being able to continue in his wife’s footsteps has made each ceremony “very significant for me.”
Calling it “my 15 minutes of fame,” Purdy says he doesn’t get nervous even though each ceremony is broadcast around the world. The ever-growing list of luminaries he has performed in front of includes Bill Clinton, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Pinker, Adrienne Clarkson and, yesterday morning, William Shatner.
While forgetting the lyrics to the national anthem is every singer’s nightmare, Purdy did one better a few years ago by missing the whole song during a Music ceremony. “I wait at Redpath Hall between singing the Alma Mater at the beginning and O Canada at the end,” he said. “There were very few graduates and when I strolled down to the tent to sing O Canada, it was over. I felt like an idiot but the Principal was very nice about it.”
When asked if he had any performances that didn’t go as planned, Purdy hesitates. “The only really fun story is one I probably shouldn’t tell – but, what the heck,” he said. “I sing Hail, Alma Mater at the beginning. The wife of the composer Gustave Mahler was named Alma and I had always been tempted to sing, ‘Hail, Alma Mahler…’ Once, for the Music Faculty, I actually did it. My students noticed but I don’t think anyone else did. Now that the cat’s out of the bag I daren’t do it again.”
Jane Hawes-Russell: The Enthusiast
Every year, twice a year for the last 19, Jane Hawes-Russell has stood on stage during Science Convocation ceremonies, specifically to help sort out the names and diplomas of the new graduates and generally to provide encouragement and settle nerves.
“It’s a lot of smiling, and ‘Good morning, I love your smile’ – it’s a very tense time for some – a lot of them are very serious – so I have a little smile for them to put them more at ease.”
Hawes-Russell tears up easily as she describes the atmosphere on the day and her pride in the students and the University. Although, being on stage is technically part of her job as Assistant to the Director of Advising Services in the Science Office for Undergraduate Students (SOUSA), it’s a duty that is very special to Hawes-Russell.
“I just relish it. I go into it every time with complete and total enthusiasm. It’s the deep appreciation for all the hard work that these students have put into three or four years or longer that they’ve been here… the perseverance that they have shown… the difficulties that some of them have overcome, whether it’s family issues, or health issues… it’s knowing how hard they’ve had to work, everyone has accomplished what they set out to do… goals have been met.”
Hawes-Russell laughs as she describes the red and white outfit she wore each year until a few years ago when people helping on stage started wearing gowns. “My outfit was my red pants and my white top – red jacket, white purse and red sandals – because that’s McGill. I guess I’m colour-coded for McGill,” Russell-Hawes concludes with a laugh, caught up in her memories. “It’s all good, it’s all happy.”
– Katherine Gombay