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My Cardiff

Professor David R Williams OBE

Emeritus Professor David R Williams OBE, Chief Marshall, recalls the numerous graduation events of Cardiff University that he has attended

Professor David R Williams OBE

Professor David R Williams OBE

We moved to Cardiff the day that Elvis died and the city suffered its deepest summer floods for many decades (August, 1977). Such dark clouds led to a fascinating silver lining - working in a stimulating University with such extraordinary staff and students.

Not surprisingly, our Cardiff expertise in environmental, and in biochemical speciation has been called upon by a range of Government departments and I accumulated more that 50 years (not consecutive!) serving on advisory committees in Brussels, London, and Cardiff Bay. The most stimulating was chairing the British Council Science Committee (having representations in over 100 countries). Wherever one travelled you met Cardiff graduates and their proud parents exhibiting their graduation photographs. The Council aimed to greet all in their local language, be it Mandarin or Maori, and this habit still brings a welcoming smile to increasing numbers of international students who have trusted Cardiff with their careers.

Graduation ceremonies and academic dress date back to middle ages when universities broke away from the church monopoly on education; in the 1500’s the cassock-style gowns had their fronts opened up to display the fine suits worn underneath – an early form of advertising since a good teacher could charge substantial fees and so was seen to be well-dressed! Today, Cardiff graduation photographs displayed around the world reflect the stimulating background of the University’s buildings and Cardiff City sights rather than staff front buttons and their gold watches and chains.

I cannot recall missing a graduation ceremony since starting out on my University career, even to the length of taking a taxi from Heathrow to Cardiff to arrive in time for HRH Prince Charles (HRH - like me - had been delayed by fog!) who was presiding at a ceremony. Nowadays, ceremonies are optional and so it is even more important that we put on our most pleasing show for those opting to be with us or for those who watch the ceremonies on the University web site.

Following the early death of Chief Marshall Mike Barnett, whom I had understudied, - an icon in his tall Swedish top-hat – ceremonies have improved even more so; outstanding standards of organ music, Cardiff International Academy of Voice performances, web broadcasts for friends and family who weren’t able to be present, DVDs of the whole ceremony, high quality portrait photographs, and University souvenirs. The list is endless.

Once the Marshall has demonstrated to the graduates how to cross the stage, to hand-shake, to doff, and - for newcomers to healthcare professions - to affirm the medical oath, and then lead in the two processions (Academics and then Officers) the really challenging work commences. We sympathize and reassure guests commenting such as ‘it is raining today!’, ‘there is no parking left’, ‘the Bryn Glas Tunnels were gridlocked!’, ‘we were charged for entering Wales at the Severn bridge, ‘if we settle our outstanding university fees now can he/she graduate now?’, ‘the tickets you issued seats me right next to my Ex whom I divorced!’ .

Successes? Most of the concerns that marshalls field originate from parents or friends being tense and nervous – after the ceremony guests seem to have grown three inches and relaxed to revel in the photographs and School receptions. A timely cup of tea and some sympathetic humour lubricates and deflates this stress.

Audience events range from a fire alarm evacuation mid-ceremony, several health crises and, sadly, even an audience death. The speediest rescue achieved was a student from Africa who was mistakenly directed to walk to the St David’s Hotel (not Hall!) and after trudging there in torrential rain was sent back to central Cardiff where he arrived – drenched - 10 minutes before the Presenter called his name. He was dried off and gowned in the Green Room and made his stage appearance dead on cue!

It is always a pleasure to meet numerous honorary fellows – many have enriched the University and its ceremonies and given us all pleasure - but the real rewards are seeing students coming to Cardiff for the ‘best years of their lives’ and then seeing them graduate into promising future professionals; if we are recognised by them many years hence it is an inestimable pleasure!

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