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Here and There at Commencement


As the Class of 1999 entered Killian Court to begin their somber and orderly procession up the center aisle, a discordant buzz -- well -- buzzed overhead. A small plane trailed the message "Congrats Meena Sharmant Proud of You Grandpa" in red capital letters. The plane circled slowly, beginning about 10:15am, three times over the square-capped heads. But no Meena Sharmant was listed among the graduating students. Maybe she went to the place up the street.


While thousands of guests slowly filled Killian Court, a squirrel got stuck in a crowded pathway, with no tree trunk in sight. His sides heaving, he froze for a minute in indecision, then dashed down a crowded row of seats. He dodged several pairs of feet and ran over some others before he leaped into the air, launched himself off the shoulders of an elderly gentleman and disappeared into the crowd, leaving a bunch of flabbergasted people in his wake. "Did you see that?" one woman said.


The Gianferante family's Commencement started at 4:30am on Friday with a drive from Sagamore Beach, MA, and it ended 30 hours later with a pig roast and a clam bake in honor of Nicholas F. Gianferante, who received the SM in civil and environmental engineering.

Sitting with the couple's three children -- Danielle, 11, Robert, 9, and Mark, 7 -- Beth Gianferante reflected on life with an adult student. "I bet he was the only one with three kids and a mortgage," she said. "It was a long year. We're all proud of him."

"School, school, school, school," said Mark. "That's Dad!"


Robert S. Damus, who received the SB in ocean engineering, had two seats in Killian Court. One was among his classmates, close to the stage. The other was held for him by a proxy -- an 18-inch teddy bear dressed in black cap and black gown, with "Rob" in gold letters on the left sleeve and "Class of 99" on the right.

Mrs. Earl Messer of Fairfield, CA sat beside Teddy -- er, Rob. "I'm Rob's grandmother," she said, beaming. "I wouldn't miss this for the world!"


Olavi and Anja Kamppari relished the dry air and the nice mix of shade and sun in the spot they staked out for Commencement 1999 -- and for Commencement 2002 as well. The Finnish couple, who moved from Finland to Silicon Valley, were proud witnesses as their son, Simo O. Kamppari, picked up his SB in electrical engineering and computer science.

The Kampparis said they will reclaim this great spot in 2002, to do the same for their daughter, Sini M. Kamppari, who has just completed her freshman year at MIT.


As the formal procession slowly rounded the corner from Memorial Drive onto Killian Court, the wind lifted one faculty member's mortarboard from his head and blew it directly into the head of Campus Police Sgt. Richard Sullivan, the motorcycle officer who had led the procession. Sgt. Sullivan picked up the errant hat and handed it back to the begowned professor with the quip: "That's why I wear a helmet."


The soon-to-be-graduates were well prepared for a long day's journey in the sun. In addition to the traditional sweltering black cap and gown, they wore necklaces made of shiny black beads or purple floral leis, leather shoes, shower shoes, boxer shorts, bare feet and a backpack alleged to contain a gorilla suit.

They also carried water bottles, Diet Coke, Gatorade, cranberry juice, tiny cameras and shopping bags from DKNY, Saks and EmporioArmani, all containing extra shoes or books or both.

While waiting in Killian Court, various students could be seen reading Dune by Frank Herbert; Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie; The Testament by John Grisham; Vogue, the doorstopper edition; Entertainment Weekly; Rolling Stone; the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

While waiting, families and friends read a wide variety of newspapers, including some Greek, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese, as well as Fortune, Aviation Week and Newsweek.

Audience members also read books, including The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, Genius by James Gleick, Timemaster by Robert Forward, The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkein, Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton by Jane Smiley, Turn of the Century by Kurt Andersen, Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, as well as Introduction to Fluid Mechanics, Jughead's Double Digest, Advanced COBRA Programming and a Pokemon comic book (Japanese edition).

A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 33).

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