Pankratz hears wail of bagpipes one last time

October 07, 2004, vol. 31, no. 3
By Roberta Staley

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As a youngster growing up on the Prairies, the bagpipes were as foreign to Marilyn Pankratz as year-round green lawns.

If the pipes were heard at all, it was the screechy efforts of an amateur street busker trying to elicit alms from passers-by. “I was no fan of pipe music,” Pankratz says with bemused understatement.

Ironic then, that bagpipes have provided the musical score to Pankratz's dynamic career as SFU's director of ceremonies and events.

In that capacity, Pankratz has rubbed elbows with some of the world's most renowned citizens.

She has ensured that people like the Dalai Lama, Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, who received honorary degrees at last spring's special convocation, enjoy a seamless event imbued with an appropriate sense of history, prestige, dignity, scholarship and drama.

The October 2004 convocation is Pankratz's last. She is retiring at the youthful age of 55 following 22 years organizing convocation ceremonies - 11 of those as director. She has travelled the world, arranging fetes for the SFU pipe band and SFU alumni in such places as New York city, Sydney, Australia and Aberdeen, Scotland's international gathering of the Fraser clan.

She has captained every convocation since 1982, except for 2001, when she took time off work to be with her husband, who was dying of cancer. “With the passing,” says Pankratz, “I've been reminded how short life can be.” Realizing work is no replacement for a fulfilled and rich personal life, Pankratz plans to travel the world and spend more time with family, grandchildren, aging parents and friends.

Convocation is the glamour event of any university, a rite of passage and testimony to students' hard work, aspirations and intelligence. At SFU, it is also a barometer of the university's growth as a world-class institution.

There was only one convocation ceremony a year when Pankratz first started organizing graduation ceremonies while a secretary in the president's office. There are now 10 ceremonies a year, a number that will increase in the near future, says Pankratz.

Large graduation ceremonies - with their sea of traditional, royal blue gowns and bagpipes - have a splendour all their own. But one of the most profound and memorable, says Pankratz, was a tiny ceremony in Kamloops when an honorary degree was bestowed upon First Nations elder Aimee August in 1992. August is a survivor of one of Canada's notorious residential schools, which sought to exterminate native cultures and languages by forcing children to be reared in institutions.

August was awarded the honorary doctorate for her work in teaching her native language and culture to students in SFU's First Nations studies program in Kamloops. Native drumming and dancing accompanied the traditional caps-and-gown ceremony. “It was very moving,” Pankratz recalls.

Although Pankratz is leaving SFU, a little bit of SFU will always be with her. The solemn wail of a bagpipe - even an out-of-tune busker - is sure “to bring a tear to my eye.”

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