OPINION: Commencements Past 

Recalling the joy of VCU graduation at the now-shuttered Richmond Coliseum.

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Scott Elmquist

I already miss the Richmond Coliseum. That emotion hits me when I attend the listless and colorless Virginia Commonwealth University commencement May 11 in the barnlike first-floor exhibition hall of the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

For 46 years, pretty much from when VCU was established by the merger of Richmond Professional Institute with the Medical College of Virginia, the university held graduations in the architecturally brutal but soaringly dramatic indoor stadium. Each spring, the packed house of some 13,000 expectant attendees showed the facility at its best, thrilling advantages.

Here's what I recall from a number of commencements I attended in the circular arena. The fixed, tiered seating surrounding the floor places all spectators facing each other. And because there are few, shared, happier occasions then graduations, the joy of forming a closed circle of thousands of smiling folks was palpable. Each gussied-up attendee, regardless of age, race, nationality or whichever interstate highway they'd taken to get there, had a part to play. Unlike a wedding or birthday, VCU graduations are not only tribal occasions, but also celebrations of shared accomplishments across disciplines.

At the Coliseum, a Sputnik-era complex that was completed two years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, VCU skillfully manipulated the space for graduation ceremonies. The university initially engaged its fine and performing arts programs — especially the theater department — to choreograph the event. Organizers went big for a guaranteed packed house. A large orchestra, amplified by the Coliseum's sound system, struck up a medley of thrilling, martial music at the moment the first be-robed marcher appeared on the floor.

The graduates flowed in from different tunnels of the stadium and followed a marshal, who held high a large, colorful banner identifying each college, school or degree program. The flow of graduates generated shouts, waves and tears from those seated in the stands. Faculty and platform guests, adorned with the colors of their respective alma maters, added gravitas.

Magically, universal academic traditions dating to the 12th century converged with the soaring steel grid of the Coliseum dome. History, spectacle and personal achievement was rolled into one emotional moment. The effect was military tattoo meets Busby Berkley.

But here's the thing: Only one-third of VCU's graduating students attended the annual Coliseum ceremony. Most opted for separate graduations at their respective schools or programs. They missed out on one heck of an experience.

When the Coliseum was shuttered last year pending possible demolition or redevelopment, it was clear that VCU needed a new graduation venue. But the university announced Oct. 30 that because of "cost, size, or access," no facility could be found. Graduation 2019 was canceled.

That cost was cited for not holding this sacred ritual of academia was downright tone deaf, if not tacky, especially considering college costs. Opting out of collegiate football because of expense is one thing; canceling commencement is, well, unthinkable.

Response was swift. A campaign to reinstate graduation was initiated by VCU senior Isabela Silva. Hundreds of people signed the petition. "These students and my own daughter deserve their moments!!!" irate parent Tammy Taylor wrote. "If not give them a full refund."

The university retracted the gaffe less than a week later on Nov. 5, announcing that there would be a commencement after all, saying that "many of you have expressed your desire to proceed with a ceremony while the city redevelops the land that includes the Richmond Coliseum, a project that represents tremendous long-term opportunities for our region." Strangely, the message was more of a pitch for a downtown renewal scheme than an embrace of a commencement ceremony.

I arrive at the convention center on the morning of May 11. The staff and security officials at the entrance are top notch and all smiles. The huge, two-block-long exhibition hall, with a sweeping flat floor, has four seating areas, each with a projection screen because it's impossible to see the stage from certain points. The center section has seating for graduates. The broad, shallow stage is banked with greens and yellow flowers and also has an overhead screen. The university orchestra is positioned upstage from the podium.

While the excellent orchestra plays a processional medley that includes "For All the Saints" and concludes with Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance," it's clear that the sound system doesn't measure up to that of the Coliseum. The thrill is gone.

Some families and friends sit the equivalent of a full city block away from the graduates. There are no festive or identifying banners to break the sea of seated humanity. There isn't even a huge official seal of the university hanging over the platform. Immediately behind the podium, painted on an uncovered wall is: "Concession Area #1."

Memo to university officials: If the convention hall is the new graduation venue, with your ballyhooed arts programs and depths of talent in music, theater, sculpture, kinetic imaging and choreography, engage them in bringing the dead space to life. Show some imagination in lighting the hall. Devise a platform backdrop using video, still photographs, graphics or stage flats. At the very least, cover the concession sign. This is VCU's biggest day each year, and one of the biggest days in the lives of thousands who attend. Up the ante.

One bright take-away is the keynote speaker, former Richmonder Andrew Florance, a Princeton University graduate. The founder of the Costar Group was homeless at 7 years old. This contemporary Oliver Twist meets Horatio Alger saved the day.

Style senior contributing editor Edwin Slipek writes on architecture and history.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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