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ODU's Longtime University Marshals Take Their Final Commencement Walk

As the final graduates at Old Dominion's spring commencement exercises walked across the stage to receive their diplomas, University Marshal Gary Crossman and Deputy Marshal Phyllis Barham reflected on all the memories they've had at the university.

For 13 years, they've been the dynamic duo - acting as the senior marshals for morning and afternoon commencements in the spring and fall. Together, they've overseen about 40 graduation exercises, doing "just about everything you can think of" to make sure they come off without a hitch, Barham said.

They've marshaled ceremonies moved to Norfolk Scope because of inclement weather, and they've helped incorporate new traditions, such as the march of graduates across the ODU seal on Kaufman Mall.

Most of all, they've watched the university continue to grow during their time doing commencements, which Crossman said he first got involved with "because I thought it was the right thing to do."

Crossman actually retired as a professor of engineering technology two years ago, after 38 years on the ODU faculty. But he stayed on as university marshal for two more years of spring and fall commencements, so he could watch grandson Kevin Crossman walk across the stage to receive a history degree two weeks ago.

Crossman's final official duty for ODU will be to serve as university marshal for the fall 2010 Freshman Convocation ceremony for the next incoming class, which will include granddaughter Kelly Crossman.

Many years ago, Crossman and Barham made the walk across the ODU commencement stage themselves. Crossman received a master's degree in 1970. Barham earned both undergraduate and graduate nursing degrees from the university, eventually assuming her job as chief academic adviser for the School of Nursing.

"As their adviser, I know all the students, so commencement is special for me every year. I know what they've gone through, what struggles they've overcome, to get their degree," Barham said.

Still, Crossman and Barham are happy to relinquish their official duties this year. Barham retires June 30 after 28 years at ODU. The new university marshal will be Bernie Bohm, assistant dean of the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology. Jill Dustin, associate professor of counseling and human services in the Darden College of Education, will be deputy marshal.

"I'm happy that we're going out together," Crossman said. "I can't imagine doing this without Phyllis."

Crossman's has been a high-profile role at commencement exercises - carrying the university mace and leading the procession of students across campus to the Ted Constant Convocation Center. But behind the scenes, he and Barham have worked much harder, making sure the students are properly organized in the delegations from their colleges, ready to march, two-by-two, across Kaufman Mall and on to the Constant Center.

"Herding cats is a good analogy," Barham laughed.

Working with the other volunteer marshals, they also made sure the logistics went smoothly, sometimes making changes on the fly. One time at Scope, Crossman said, the banners representing ODU's six colleges had to be carefully rested against the wall next to the stage, because the stands to hold them were hidden behind floral arrangements.

And just last year, students from one of the colleges started coming down the center aisle at the Constant Center to receive their diplomas, which would have fouled up the choreography of the entire procession. Crossman himself left his seat and motioned to the graduates to use the side aisles to approach the stage. "I don't even think anyone noticed. But we sure did," he said.

Over the years, besides the impressive growth in the size and scope of commencement, Crossman and Barham have noticed something else - the students themselves approach graduation day with a far more mature attitude.

"You don't see beach balls being batted around anymore," she said. Both Barham and Crossman said students at more recent commencement ceremonies have observed a greater sense of decorum -- before, during and after the event.

Both longtime faculty members feel an incredible connection to ODU, but don't feel the need to hang on as lead marshals for commencement. "I'll miss the excitement; I won't miss being dog-tired at the end of the day," Barham said.

Crossman said this year's heat and humidity was especially difficult, with all the running around the marshals do on graduation day. "I know when I finished this year, I was relieved, but I will miss it," he said. Still, he added, with the new team in place, "I know we're in good hands."

This article was posted on: May 18, 2010

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