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Entering the main floor of Martlet House on Peel Street in the weeks before October 14, visitors are confronted with a slew of signs leaning up against the walls of the hallway: "Welcome to the Principal's Anniversary Reception," with an arrow that points to another that reads, "Welcome to Campus Tour." Others extend welcomes to Lunch et Livres, the Governor's Dinner and the Leacock Luncheon.
None of these welcoming signs are as effective as the smile of Maria Keenan, who, as associate director of the Alumni/Annual Fund, is responsible for the Annual Homecoming Weekend.
It's nearly eight o'clock on a Wednesday night when Keenan and Anna Galati greet this reporter at the door of Martlet House. The headquarters of Development and Alumni Relations has been working overtime — until 11 at night and weekends — to manage the thousands of little details that will make this Homecoming Weekend a memorable one.
This year's homecoming will see roughly 4,000 McGill graduates return to both campuses. In addition to the special reunion dinners for the classes of '79, '64, '54 and earlier, there are general homecoming events like lectures and campus tours, as well as 79 separate class events occurring over the weekend.
"We're just putting together the seating plan for the Leacock Luncheon for 1,000 people — by the time we're done, we'll be able to tell you where anyone is sitting," said Keenan.
As a test, I ask the two where I will be sitting. Keenan looks blank — she looks at Galati, who also has no idea. When I tell them it's a trick question, and I'm not confirmed to go, Keenan is horrified.
"You'll go as my guest!" she said, and before I know it I'm booked to sit with her table at the back of the Bonaventure Hotel dining room.
She warns me that she may barely be able to sit at the dinner, and it is easy to see why. There's a lot going on; in addition to the homecoming signs lining the hallway, the main floor of Martlet House resembles a residence hall on move-in day. A conference room table groans under the weight of 20 boxes of homecoming paraphernalia — pins, table flags ("Very important," says Keenan), brochures, presentation gifts and even song sheets.
These will be distributed to the different dinners and luncheons hosted by McGill for this year's homecoming, from the Sports Hall of Fame Lunch to the James McGill Dinner for graduates from '54 and earlier.
Making sure that homecoming is enjoyed by all is a passion of Keenan's — inviting strange reporters to the Leacock Luncheon is only one manifestation of her enthusiasm. After eight years, Keenan is still trying to make homecoming better than the year before. This year, the main avenue from Roddick Gates will be decorated with banners. The student body will be given buttons that will serve as conversation starters for alumni who want to chat up today's McGillians. There will be a reception site in the University Centre, and the SSMU LED display board will have a welcoming message for homecoming guests.
Of course, given the breakneck pace of events over the weekend, any message on the board might only appear as a Doppler blur. Most of these events are organized by volunteer class representatives, and class reunion coordinator Kathy Bowman is the link for all of them. She coordinates with the volunteers to get them names and locations of classmates. Once the happenings are set for a given class, she also compiles a schedule for all groups that will be available at the various homecoming reception sites so that any lost sheep know where they are supposed to be at any time.
Bowman works on over 100 class reunions in a given year, most of which occur this weekend. There are dances, cocktails and pubcrawls, explained Bowman, saying that the older classes tend to have more elaborate affairs. "A lot of the younger classes tend to work more off the cuff."
They may have that luxury, but the homecoming team does not. Also in Martlet House after dark is Steven Blagrave, who is topping Santa by making a list and checking it twice — and then once more.
Working with student interns Lauren Wilson and Marco Tesolin, Blagrave makes sure that every returning alumnus has an envelope with tickets for all of the events that they wish to attend. A shared work area is bustling with the group checking computers, rechecking lists and inputting forms. A table off to the side supports boxes of envelopes ordered alphabetically, each with multicoloured tickets inside.
"Every day people are calling us up with changes. Right up until the day before the event we have changes coming in, and people you need to add or delete," he said.
Executive Director of Alumni Relations Honora Shaughnessy has nothing but kudos for the Homecoming team.
"In the weeks leading up to Homecoming they practically sleep here," she said.
"The downside is that by the time Homecoming arrives, they're too exhausted to enjoy it."
Shaughnessy will spend much of the weekend as the public face of alumni relations, attending nearly 20 events, from the Sports Hall of Fame Lunch and football game to the campus tour. She will meet and greet hundreds of alumni at these events, and chat with them about their days at McGill. She confesses that after the rounds of cocktails and handshaking she's not as "sparkling" by Saturday night as she might like, but it's worth it.
"Our graduates are part of the McGill family, and any time we make our family feel closer to us there's a benefit," she said.
She has a family connection of her own at the event: As the granddaughter of the legendary McGill football coach Frank "Shag" Shaughnessy, she presents the Shaughnessy Cup to the winner of the annual football game. This year the Redmen take on the Laval Rouge et Or.
Homecoming has changed a great deal since its beginnings in 1948 (previous reunions happened on a less regular basis). For the alumni of that time, McGill was often the best time of their life, marked until then by the Great Depression and World War II. Later alumni don't have that same connection, and reaching out to them is consequently more difficult. A special directory is printed for the 25th anniversary class to let them get in touch with each other, and the nature of events have changed over the years. The meet-and-greets are still a part of it, but there are more lectures, and faculties have become more involved.
Out at Macdonald Campus, for instance, Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Deborah Buszard will host a breakfast (as do all the faculties). She will speak at the breakfast, to welcome the alumni, and also bring them up to speed on what's been happening out in Ste. Anne de Bellevue.
"What we do now is so different from when they were here in the '40s and '50s — it's a way of making them feel comfortable here again."
Where most other faculties host a Dean's Breakfast, Macdonald Campus hosts a Memorabilia Breakfast, explained Begoña Pereira, Development and Alumni Relations Associate at Macdonald Campus.
"Over the years, alumni have been sending me objects — things like photos, dance cards," said Pereira. At the Macdonald breakfast many of these items, as well as artifacts from Sir William Macdonald's personal archives, will be on display for returning alumni to view. Initially the collection was gathered for the upcoming Macdonald centenary; "But we have all this wonderful stuff, and we didn't want to wait until 2006," said Pereira.
The main event for the Macdonald reunion is the Sir William Macdonald Luncheon that happens Saturday. There are speakers and different classes present gifts to the university — the results of their own fundraising efforts.
Senior Development Adviser Tom Thompson has been a part of homecoming for so long he's been at 25th year celebrations of classes that are now marking their 65th anniversary. His first job at homecoming was making sure the marching band knew the tunes to such songs as "Hail Alma Mater," and "Put on that Red and White Sweater" for the football games. Those were the days when cheerleaders were forbidden to do cartwheels by the then-warden of Royal Victoria College.
It was the later years of the '60s and early '70s that saw what Thompson calls the "democratization" of McGill, which led to a less friendly atmosphere on campus, and this has had an effect on reunions today.
"That's the reason we have an increasing number of talks, because that's what graduates want. These seminars are a way to show the role of the university in the world," he said.
Our alumni, whether they came from the cozy college days of the '50s or the social upheaval of the '70s, are crucial to the success of McGill.
"It's the moral support of our alumni that contributes to the reputation of McGill — they're our biggest boosters, and our best critics," he said.
The university can take criticism, and fortunately for Derek Drummond, it can take a joke as well. The architecture professor has been hosting the Leacock Luncheon since 1990. The event is the main homecoming get-together, cutting across graduation year and faculty interests. The keynote speaker is usually someone who can be funny, but who isn't known for being a comedian. Last year's guest was Preston Manning. This year's speaker is author Will Ferguson.
As moderator, Drummond sets the tone for the lunch, here in Montreal and for others in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, performing a monologue of wry observations of current events and much cornball humour.
"I seldom discount anything on the basis of taste, because I've found over the years that I've been able to get away with saying anything I want," said Drummond.
"I've always got great mileage out of poking fun of the university administration. I have to be careful with that — but not that careful because I'm tenured."
It is also his job to make fun of the head-table guests — the principal, homecoming chair and selected others, including students. By his estimate, he's roasted 250 people over the years.
"That's a collection that might make an interesting book: Humourless Overachievers. I'd publish it, but I'd probably get sued," he said.