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Orchestrating the inauguration

PHOTO:  Getting down to details:  Jennifer Cully Shaw checks an inaugural scheduleJennifer Cully Shaw, director of the University's Office of Special Events, is comfortable with details, lots of small but important details. She and her staff of 10 can tell you, for example, how many pounds of cubed cheese a caterer considers capable of consumption by a crowd of 5,000 (answer: 550 lbs.). They know where to order maroon and white M&Ms. And they can handle a round of inaugural invitations complex enough to require printing (and keeping track of) 10 different response cards. Those invitations covered what Shaw calls a "kaleidoscope" of inaugural festivities, beginning with a September 13 civic dinner at Navy Pier and culminating almost two months later with the November 2 installation. The Rockefeller Chapel ceremony formed the centerpiece of 24 hours of "special events," including a November 1 faculty-trustee dinner for 987, a pre-installation lunch for nearly 400, and a post-installation party for thousands.

Armed with bulging three-ring binders, spreadsheets, cell phones, and an unshakable store of academic and secular etiquette, Shaw and her staff know stuff the rest of us don't. I looked at the huge peaked-roof white tent erected on the Midway for a post-inaugural campus party and thought of a medieval jousting tournament. Shaw agreed, then explained the purpose behind the pavilon's peaks: the design distributes the tent's weight in a way that requires fewer interior poles-improving the traffic flow for caterers, entertainers, and guests.

Her office's planning for the inauguration of Don Michael Randel as the institution's 12th president began, says Shaw, the day that the institution's 11th president, Hugo F. Sonnenschein, announced his resignation: "We pulled the files from the last time and started making time lines." Early in that planning, the scope of the project became clear: "We knew that we wanted to create a series of events that would be meaningful for each of the University's different communities."

A love of meaning, as much as a gift for organization, is what keeps Shaw going in the countdown periods before major University events, when she and the rest of her staff routinely put in 14-hour days.

"One of the first events I worked on at the University," recalls Shaw, who started in special events 13 years ago, "was a graduation convocation. After the ceremony, I went to the party in Ida Noyes. Sitting on a bench was a newly made graduate, still in his robes, his father sitting next to him. His father was reading the diploma, and the look on the father's face solidified for me the meaning of the University of Chicago-why we mark momentous moments."

She also thrills to the "pageantry" of the academic procession: "It ties us to our history and to academic institutions all over the world." That feeling of a shared academic past makes the challenges of convocations-whether keeping 800 diplomas and 800 graduates in marching order or running a convocation when the special guest is President Clinton and his Secret Service cast of thousands-rewarding. "I'm still awed by the University, and I feel honored to be a part of it and its traditions."

MASTHEAD NEWS: With this issue, Sharla A. Stewart joins the Magazine as an associate editor. A 1994 graduate of Grinnell College, Sharla has worked for six years as an editor at Emory University, most recently as senior associate editor of Emory Magazine. A native of Omaha, Nebraska, she's happy to be returning to the Midwest. We're happy that she'll be editing "Investigations" and writing features for us. --M.R.Y


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First Chair
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Burden of Proof
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