There's no place like Homecoming

Dr. Andrew Gillespie, BSc'47, MDCM'48, reconnected with former classmates at the Jubilee Dinner for alumni celebrating their 50th class anniversary in 2008. / Photo:Owen Egan

McGill to welcome 4,000 alumni from Oct. 14 -18

By Neale McDevitt

Fifteen minutes into the interview and Maria Keenan is tearing up. Again.

“I remember one graduate who came to the James McGill Dinner, God bless her,” said the Associate Director, Homecoming. “She was in her eighties and had been through WWII. Her health was failing and now was in a wheelchair. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said ‘You know, this is going to be my last Homecoming ever.'”

“I do know that when she was here, she had the best time,” Keenan continued. “And that’s why we want to make sure Homecoming is as special as possible for people.”

Organizing her thirteenth Homecoming, which will take place from Oct. 14-18, it is clear that Keenan hasn’t lost an ounce of enthusiasm for her job – or more importantly, for the people who come back to to renew their ties with their classmates and alma mater. “You only meet people for three or four days, but some of them really work their way into your heart,” she said. “It is particularly wonderful to see grads meet up for the first time in 40, 50 or even 60 years.”

“Of course, by that time, [my team and I] are pretty exhausted, so just about everything makes us cry.”

And Keenan comes by her exhaustion the old fashioned way – by working long hours to make sure everything is just right,= right down to booking photographers, assigning the seating for the various dinners and making sure personalized greeting cards are delivered to every alumnus staying at a hotel.

She likens organizing Homecoming to hosting a party – except you’re entertaining 4,000 people on two campuses over five days during which time dozens of events and dinners must be planned and executed with military precision.

Keenan laughs when recounting a typical Leacock Luncheon for her. “I’m like a director,” she said with a chuckle. “I’m running back and forth on my walkie-talkie. ‘No the platform party’s not ready yet…hold the piper…hold the piper…wait, here comes the platform party – and, cue the piper.'”

One of the secrets to a successful Homecoming is to make sure there are activities for everyone. “We offer a very diverse program that appeals to all sorts of people,” said Keenan, “jocks, academics and, of course, people who come here for the social aspect.”

Along with the requisite Homecoming football game (versus Saint Mary’s on Oct. 17), the week’s signature event will be the Leacock Luncheon, hosted by the irrepressible Derek Drummond and featuring guest speaker Nicola Cavendish, the Genie-and Gemini-award winning actress who reprised the role of Shirley Valentine at sold-out performances this spring.

Although not as ribald as Drummond’s musings at the Leacock Luncheon dais, Classes Without Quizzes, or CWOQs, are growing in popularity with each passing year. Featuring some of McGill’s most eminent and engaging professors, this year’s CWOQs will look at a variety of subjects including how to create an opera; the ins and outs of the economic crisis; social media and students; postmodern architecture; and international law. “We’re very proud of the CWOQs,” said Keenan. “We started them five years ago and they’ve really taken on a life of their own. Just about every class is sold out.”

Not surprisingly, Keenan particularly enjoys attending the anniversary dinners. “Especially with the older classes, there was a lot of Science-married-Arts or Agriculture-married-Home-Economics,” said Keenan.

“They have some of their fondest memories at McGill and Macdonald Campus. In many ways, I think some of the older grads understand what a priviledge it is to study here more fully than recent ones.

“I love having current students working at some of the events because it gives them a chance to meet with alumni, and it’s a real eye-opener. So many come up to me afterward and say ‘You know, I really have a greater appreciation for my education now.’ It’s just so heartwarming,” Keenan said, smiling one last time through the tears.