No graduate’s name has thwarted SCU’s star commencement announcer—except one.
It will be a big moment for Varun Subraya Yadapadithaya and Brittany Ann Kalamehana Olival and Pratyusha Ramarathinam when their names are called at SCU’s graduate commencement, June 10. They will receive, respectively, master’s degrees in computer science and engineering, teaching, and information systems.
It will be a big moment for Rose Marie Beebe ’76, too, because she’ll be the one trying to pronounce those names and more than 850 others.
Beebe, a professor of Spanish literature, took over as the University’s lone lector or name announcer at graduate commencement in 2010 after many years reading at the ceremony for undergraduates.
She gained fame in 2007 when NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed her about the role of lector for a segment of “All Things Considered.” That came on the heels of a front-page feature in the San Jose Mercury News.
Back then she was responsible for correctly pronouncing 400 to 500 names of Arts and Sciences graduates at undergraduate commencement. It was no easy job. One of the names she recalled to the radio host was 2001 valedictorian Dana Keali'nuipi'ilaniomaui Creston Wolfe ’01.
But graduate commencement is the Mount Everest of name reading. That’s because graduate programs tend to attract a higher concentration of students of non-Western ancestry, especially in the sciences and engineering. With its West Coast location, Santa Clara also draws many students such as that 2001 valedictorian, who was from Hawaii and carries a vowel-abundant Polynesian name.
“It’s a lot of work, I’m not going to kid you,” Beebe says. “But I really enjoy it because it’s such a happy day for the graduates.”
Asked how Beebe is able to perform so well, SCU’s czarina of commencement, Karrie Grasser ’70 (formal title: assistant vice president for protocol and events) launches into the old joke about the driver who asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice, practice, practice.”
Talking with dachshunds
Rose Marie Beebe’s preparation begins in early May, when she receives a list of names from the Registrar’s Office and highlights the ones she’s not sure of. With her Spanish expertise (her mother was from Cuba and Rose Marie grew up speaking Spanish), Hispanic names are a snap. And having done this so long—this will be her 16th ceremony—she occasionally gets a rematch with a tongue-twister from years past.
But that still leaves scores of challenges, not all obvious. She gives the example of the common first name Megan. Some pronounced it MAY-gan, some MEE-gan.
She says about 300 of the 850+ names of this year’s graduate students caused her concern. In the past she would email students asking them to call her office and leave a voicemail giving the correct pronunciation. Now she has them record sound files and email them. She’ll listen to these over and over, trying to memorize them.
Then come weeks of rehearsal.
She likes to read the list aloud in its entirety, which takes about an hour, she says. She prefers to have an audience. For years, her most reliable listener was her long-haired dachshund, Ollie. The pet passed away just before commencement 2013 at age 18 and has been replaced by Cody, another long-haired dachshund.
At the ceremony itself, she has the list of names nearby, including her own phonetic spellings, but she never consults it. There isn’t time. The schedule calls for students to cross the stage at a rate of 18 per minute.
Besides, there’s no guarantee that the students on the list will be the same as those who actually show up. Instead, graduates hand the lector an official card as they reach the stage. Generated by the Registrar’s Office, the cards have the student’s name printed on them.
Some students forget their card and have to write their name on a piece of paper. In such cases, creativity is not indulged. Beebe recalls one particular graduate who handed her a scrap of paper. On it was written “Huggy Bear.”
Very nearly perfect
The Spanish professor says that when she emails students asking for guidance in pronouncing their name, they sometimes write back or call to say how much they appreciate the extra effort. At the ceremony fellow professors have been known to break into applause after she navigates what appears in the program to be an intimidating name. The graduates sometimes turn to her and mouth “thank you.”
She says that in all these years she has, to her knowledge, mispronounced only one name. It happened in 1999. She had undergone two emergency root canals the day before graduation and was feeling the effects of painkillers.
“I got through all the names and I got to the last one. It was a really simple name, and I kind of took a breath and thought, ‘Oh my God, I made it,’ and I flubbed it. It was something like ‘Alice.’ I forget what I actually said.”
Beebe is not the only lector among the faculty. The 1,300 students expected to march in Saturday’s undergraduate ceremony will have their names read by professors Michael Whalen ’89 (who’ll read arts graduates), Gregory Baker (business), Ruth Davis (engineering), and Kieran Sullivan (sciences).
Incredibly, for decades a single person read all the names at both ceremonies. Rev. Edward V. Warren, S.J., served at SCU for 50 years in a variety of capacities, including assistant dean in the School of Education and Counseling Psychology. He was a legend as a lector.
Beebe says she can still hear the thin man with the incongruously booming voice broadcasting “Rose Marie Beebe, Summa Cum Laude” across the Mission Gardens at her graduation in 1976. He was still serving as one of University’s lectors when she worked her first commencement in 1996.
The Spanish professor says Fr. Warren was a very kind man. Her eyes turn watery as she remembers a note of congratulations he sent her after her first ceremony reading, in 1996. The priest died in 2007 at age 89.
Beebe has a memorial card with his picture on it. She keeps it on the lectern at every commencement.
“I guess he watches over me,” she says. “I always say I want to be like Father Warren when I grow up. I want to do the names just like he did. Nobody will ever be as good as Father Warren.”
But she’s trying.