School for servers: Walton briefs wait staff on fine points of feeding 2,000. Les Todd.
School for servers: Walton briefs wait staff on fine points of feeding 2,000. Les Todd.

The Greatest Show on Campus

Pulling off a Party Weekend
Writer: 
March 31, 2005

The kind of nightmare that wracks the sleep of reunion organizers actually happened to Lisa Dilts. A few years ago, the tent for the 25th-reunion class was set up on a lawn that held an underground watering system. As is routine, the department in charge of sprinklers was asked to make certain that the system was turned off, so that no unexpected showers would break out on the day of the event.

"They said not to worry," recalls Dilts '83, who is the director of the reunions program for the Office of Alumni Affairs. "The water meter wasn't working, and the sprinklers hadn't been on for three months."

On Friday morning, the day the reunions weekend began, the plumber showed up unannounced, fixed the water meter, and set the timer. It worked perfectly. Precisely at ten o'clock that evening, just as the reunion-goers were in the middle of the dessert course, it began to rain. At least, it seemed like rain. Only it was happening inside the tent.

"I still remember the call I got from one of the student volunteers staffing the party," Dilts says. Her voice shrinks and grows tremulous: "The sprinklers have come on, and everybody is getting wet."

Dilts' audience--veteran planners who have gathered on a sunny day in early April 2004 to review attendance projections and determine final tent locations--chuckle appreciatively. Swapping stories like this one helps them blow off steam as another reunions weekend looms. Jim Slaughter, manager of special-events services--George Burns to Dilts' Gracie Allen--picks up the tale. "Water was squirting up through the tent floor in some areas, and it came out the sides and ran down the hill. It was real slippery. They started mud sliding. They had so much fun, they said when they had their next reunion, they were going to request the sprinklers be turned on again."

Of course, not all potential catastrophes have such happy endings. With a combined forty-three years of experience between them, Dilts and Slaughter have a lot of war stories they can tell that would chill the blood of any event planner: the alumna who spent her time at a Saturday-evening party talking to a tent pole, then, as she left, screamed that the caterer had stolen her purse; the alumnus who tried to pick up a security guard and burst into tears when the guard politely but firmly declined his advances; the alumna who had too much to drink and was seen dancing with the janitor; the fourteen alumni who hijacked a shuttle bus to the International House of Pancakes; the mini tornado that picked up one tent and hurled it into another, gouging a huge hole in the top. War stories, Dilts points out, are fun--in retrospect.

Reunions weekend, like any large event, is rife with potential for crises. It's the nature of the beast. No matter how well the event is organized and managed, an endless variety of things can go wrong. "It used to bother me," says DeDe Olson, a reunions staff member. "It seemed you worked and you worked, and all you would hear were the complaints. And it was so easy to say to yourself, 'Well, this is a disaster.' "

"But as I grew into it, I realized that crisis management is what we do. And we make fun of it, 'Oh, the crisis of the day is..., ' and just keep repeating our reunions mantra: 'Not a problem.' "

Reunions are held in mid-April. With a short break for graduation, planning for the next reunions weekend begins a few weeks after the last one is over. By June, reunions staff members are already deep in logistics. If it takes a village to raise a child, one could argue that it takes the equivalent of a small city to put on a Duke reunion: police officers, fire fighters, and EMTs; parking experts, planners, builders, and techies; chefs, bus drivers, electricians, musicians, teachers, and florists. They provide food, drink, housing, education, entertainment, transportation, and safety. Reunions weekend is the largest event Duke puts on, save for presidential inaugurations, and those tend to occur only once a decade. A single reunions weekend requires a year-plus of planning, thousands of volunteer hours, the cooperation and coordination of some thirty-five university departments and programs, and a subsidy of more than a half-million dollars from the Office of Alumni Affairs.

Typically, twelve classes--alumni from Trinity, the Woman's College, engineering, and nursing--return for the weekend, which is held in the middle of April. Last year, it was April 16-18; this year, it's slated for April 15-17. Although all alumni are welcome to attend, generally, the weekend is a time to gather what planners call the five- and ten-year classes--5th through 60th reunions--with special emphasis on the banner years, the 25th and 50th reunions.

"The overarching goal is to get as many people back to reunions as possible and ensure that they have a good time when they get here," says Dilts. She has an easy-going manner and a ready laugh. Her office, in the renovated carriage house behind Alumni House, is decorated with hothouse plants and Chinese prints. Dilts has agreed to allow a reporter to follow her and the rest of the reunions staff over the course of the year's planning for the 2004 weekend. It will be a kind of Reunions 101, a behind-the-scenes look at just what it takes to put on a Duke reunion.

Lesson One is the importance of recruiting alumni volunteers for each class. These are the people whose leadership, connections, and enthusiasm will get their classmates excited about attending. The volunteer chairs are chosen first; each then helps put together planning committees of eighteen to twenty people for his or her class. Typically, the class throws a party on Friday night of reunions weekend, and the committee tailors the details to reflect the history, personality, and culture of their year. So, while one 5th-reunion class opted for pizza, dancing, and a deejay, a 50th had skits throughout dinner, threw glitter, and staged a faux panty raid.

"They give us their wish list," says Dilts. "It includes what, when, where, and how much. We do all the legwork, come up with options, and attach a price tag. If you want to have live music and a bar, it might be $45 a person. You want beer and wine and a deejay, we can get away with $28." Ultimately, the class decides, but the reunions staff provides gentle steering. Some classes are overly ambitious. One 25th-reunion class wanted to have an Earth Wind & Fire concert. (The staff talked them out of it).

Each class planning committee also publishes a class newsletter, sets up a class website for posting information, and encourages everyone to send in class notes, so that the site functions as a kind of "virtual yearbook" of the class' activities.

The idea at this early stage is to "engage people on a variety of levels," Dilts says. "What's meaningful to alumni is as varied as the alumni themselves. Why do they come back? To see friends, of course. But that's not always enough. We need to let them be able to explore Duke as it is now. So we have to tip the scale in myriad ways." To that end, reunions weekend offers not just parties, but also, like many universities, lectures, tours, and visual and performing arts programs.

"Some people come back for really fun social events," Dilts continues. "Some people come back because it's important to them to show their children what Duke is like. And we're finding increasingly that one thing that tips the scale toward their coming back is professional or career networking."

"I'd love to run into the problem of, 'Oh no! We have too many people coming back.'"

A banner reunion will bring back, on average, 325 people. A 40th or 45th will bring only 100. Some classes are more predictable than others. "The Class of '73, for example, had a huge 25th, and we predicted was going to be a good 30th, and it was. They broke the all-time attendance records for the 25th and 30th reunions."

However, predictability of this sort is not something the reunions planners can depend on. By the end of July, Dilts and her staff are beginning to practice what she calls "voodoo reunions"--estimating the size of a particular class' reunion, based on experience with the reunion year (the 25th draws many more than the 20th or 30th, for example), and on the individual class' past reunion attendance (some classes have consistently low attendance; some, like '73, consistently high).

Like any hostess, Dilts needs to make decisions, most of which depend on how many guests are coming--number of hotel rooms, food portions, plates, knives, forks, centerpieces, and party favors--plus many things that most hostesses never have to think about, including size and location of tents, number of shuttle buses and vans, and capacity of classrooms. She won't have anything approaching real numbers until a few days before the event starts. "We actually get about a third of our registrations the last week," she says, "and then we'll have as many as 300 people registering when they get here."

Although twelve caterers work on the various class parties, preparing everything from Bullock's barbecue to steak and salmon, for the Big Dance, held on Saturday night, only J.W. Walton '82 will do. One of the owners of what is known simply as The Catering Company, he's the Wizard of Oz and Perle Mesta wrapped into one. Walton has done the last five dances (the party includes dinner and dancing, actually, with fireworks and two bands--the Casablanca Orchestra, a big dance band to start things off, and then Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs to entertain partygoers into the wee hours.)

Dilts trusts Walton completely. "He's a genius," she says. The food, although delicious, is the least of what he does. They have a couple of early meetings, and then one or two to go over numbers and finalize things. Then, she basically gives him a budget and free rein. He takes an empty tent longer and wider than a football field (it completely covers the practice field that runs along Cameron Boulevard) and turns it into--well, every year it's different, but always elegant and sumptuous.

The tent goes up about two weeks in advance of the weekend. On a cold gray day, Walton takes time out to talk about his plans. This year, he says, the dècor will have a "more contemporary look" than in the past. In addition to Gothic elements like six-foot tall, papier-machè gargoyles and hanging lamps inspired by chandeliers in old cathedrals, he's designed awnings that echo the shape of high-tech metal and fabric structures on the top of the new West-Edens Link residence hall. Photo slideshows in continuous, half-hour loops will be projected on large cloth panels, and the ceiling will be washed in lights of amber and reds, "to give a warm glow."

"This thing always evolves," Walton says. "As we are wont to say, we'll know what we're doing when we get done." Still, he says, his guiding principle is that "it should be fun. I always feel people are much happier when they look around and are almost saturated with stuff. You don't see the vast, empty space. You fit into the environment: It feels good, it smells good, it tastes good."

As he talks, gusts of wind spurt through the tent, picking up the bottom edges and causing the walls to flap and flutter. The fretful weather is a reminder of a cruel but inexorable fact: The weather is a major character in the drama that is reunions weekend--arguably the single most important influence on whether people have a good time. If it decides to pull a Lear, cracking and raging with storms, the effects can be dire. "People who arrive in cold, wet weather have a lot more complaints than people who get here when it's sunny," says Dilts. It not only affects attitudes, it can sabotage the most careful preparations. In 2003, she recalls, "the weather was so bad on Thursday, we couldn't set up. The wind was so strong it blew over our tables."

"Your weekend mantra is to let people know that whatever  problem they&squot;re having, we can solve it," DeDe Olson, reunions staff member, to student workers.

"Your weekend mantra is to let people know that whatever problem they're having, we can solve it," DeDe Olson, reunions staff member, to student workers. Les Todd.

Mid-February of 2004, while Walton is still refining his vision for the Big Dance, reunions staff member DeDe Olson is preparing to brief the forty or so students who will help out on reunions weekend and the weeks leading up to it. She recruits through ads in The Chronicle, but a lot of students are veterans of past years who re-up, or initiates who sign on after hearing from friends that it is, in the words of one, "a really nice gig."

"It got a really good review from a friend who did it last year," says John Rimel, a junior, from Charlottesville, Virginia. "He said he met a lot of interesting people and that it was a good way to make money in a short time." The students crowd into the conference room. The tangy smell of the outdoors follows them in and is overlaid with the odor of young people packed together in a warm room--sweat, deodorant, cologne, hair gel.

Olson has a gruff, crusty manner, like the no-nonsense schoolteacher who at the beginning of the year you thought was too strict and by the end of the year could do no wrong. "Alumni really look to you as ambassadors of the university," Olson tells them. "Your job is to think on your feet, to solve problems, answer questions, and check tickets to make sure they have registered."

"Your weekend mantra is to let people know that whatever problem they're having, we can solve it. You'll have a phone and a radio; it's up to you to find a solution."

Adds Dilts, "We get letters from alumni every year saying that the interaction with you is one of the highlights of their reunion experience."

"Dress code," Olson says, moving resolutely through her printed agenda. "Dress comfortably but neatly. Wear your reunions T-shirt with jeans or khakis--no ripped jeans. If it's hot, you can wear shorts, but down to here," she says, hunching slightly, stretching her fingers to their full extent, and tapping her thighs along a relatively demure line of demarcation.

"Punctuality: On Friday morning the start of reunions weekend, be there at 7:15. Don't make us wake up your roommates at 7:20."

"Each of you will be assigned a class, unless you're working the information tent." For the weeks leading up to the reunion, the students will work on stuffing registration packets, creating nametags, and putting together photo collages for each class. (Over the weekend itself, three students are assigned to each class; the rest work at the information tent, greeting people and answering questions.) Olson tells them that she will send an e-mail message letting them know when she needs them. "Please respond promptly," she says. "Don't make me nag."

Hiring and managing the students are Olson's main responsibilities. But she is also in charge of transportation and parking. (Dilts works with five classes, in addition to overseeing the whole weekend, and a third staff member--for 2004, it was Whitney Dunlap '01, who has since taken another job--works with the other seven classes. Bridgette Colton, a staff assistant, rounds out the reunions staff.)

Olson is an ¸ber organizer, a self-described "list kind of girl." "Everything goes onto my list, and I recycle and refurbish it from year to year. I keep copious lists. Of course, I'm also the kind of person who calls myself at home to leave messages of things to remember." Over the reunions weekend, she is in charge of triage. When she's not checking on students, she sits at her desk, with a half-dozen radios and a pair of cell phones in a little clearing of papers and folders.

Months of planning telescope into weeks. Days begin to blend in a whirl of activity and detail. "If I could just get some sleep," says Dunlap. Friday, April 9, is D-day minus one week. Seated in the special-events-management office in the Bryan Center, Dilts and Slaughter have finished exchanging war stories for now, though Slaughter can't resist a parting shot. "Every year I ask Lisa, 'Do you want sprinklers or no sprinklers with that?'"

It's on to the business of the day--finalizing which classes will be in what tents and where, based on guesstimates of final attendance. John Best of Best Rentals (tables, chairs, dance floors) is also there, along with Dunlap and Windy Jacobs '80, coordinator of special events and Slaughter's right hand. Jacobs had remarked in a previous meeting that she keeps her reunions file on the top of her desk all year. "So if we have a fire, I can pick it up and run."

"The attendance numbers are getting wild and wooly," Dilts tells the group. "The numbers are growing by, literally, 200-300 a day. The Class of '89 has already broken their attendance record." Because of the increases, they've moved the Class of '64 from Craven Quad to the quad in front of House P, and have had to rent a larger tent for '79.

"When the numbers increase," Dilts explains later, "it doesn't just affect the caterer. It affects the dècor (flowers and balloons), police, tables and chairs, tablecloths and napkins. It starts affecting our transportation resources--number of buses, parking--and classrooms." As the numbers climb in the days to come, Slaughter phones to tell her, "Remember, there are no tent stretchers."

By Monday of the week of the reunion, people walk around looking strained and tightly wound. Monday is the start of an anxious consulting of the five-day weather forecast. Dunlap is momentarily elated when told it will be in the mid-70s and sunny on Friday and Saturday. Then her face falls. "But I heard it might rain on Sunday."

The reunions office and the halls and living room of Alumni House are filled with stack upon stack of big white boxes, labeled variously, "Big Dance," or "Info Tent Supplies," "1949," "1974." You have to pick your way over students splayed on the carpet, working on photo collages, to get to Dilts' office. At 4:45 that afternoon, she takes a look at the latest attendance counts. "I tell you, we're forty-four people away from breaking the all-time reunions attendance record--3,458. That was in 2001."

"We've run out of everything--pocket guides, magnetic Duke cards. We're practically out of folders."

"Tomorrow," Dilts says, mustering a laugh, "we're going to play psychic catering."

Not surprisingly, current students have a range of responses to the massive influx of alumni on their campus. Some see it as an alien invasion by people old enough to be their parents, who take over their quads and embarrass themselves trying to recapture the exciting days of yesteryear, which were, everyone knows, like, eons ago. Others watch with the detachment of anthropologists. "Old people have funny names for bathrooms," says one student. "Like 'water closets' or 'powder room.'"

"Have you seen the show?" an undergraduate asked her seatmate on the bus from West to East Campus. She was referring to a current student production of West Side Story.

"You mean the alumni this weekend?"

"That's another show," the first woman said. "That's the show where alumni get drunk and sit on our benches and litter--like they were still in college."

The students who work the weekend and have the most contact with alumni say they look forward to the interaction. "I had a lot of fun last year," says Jenny Marron, a senior. "I had the fifty-year reunion. They like to tell you about how things have changed. And the women like to tell you about the Woman's College and how the rules have changed. They said during the week they had to be in by seven or some ridiculous time. And if you weren't back, they'd lock you out, and you had to knock and then they'd know you were late. It was hard to believe!"

It's junior Ian Byrnside's second year working reunions, too. "I had the oldest class last year--'43. It was a lot of fun. I also met some guys from the Class of '83 from my frat, Theta Chi. They were interested in what was going on in the frat, and they had some interesting stories." He declines to share them, instead giving a mischievous grin. "Alumni from the Class of '43 were interested in more general things," he says, "what I'm studying, what I want to do when I graduate."

Tuesday afternoon, Marron and a dozen other students sit around the table in the conference room of Alumni House, putting together name badges and weekend packets, which include booklets and information on parking, classes, arts performances, Duke Chapel services, and the Sunday champagne breakfast in Duke Gardens.

"I recently went through a job search, and a Duke alum was helpful," says Michelle Hurtado, a senior from New York, explaining why she took the job. "This is a way of returning the favor, as well as making money. I have '44. I'm hoping to hear stories of traveling and some life advice. I could use some of that."

The veteran student workers had some advice for first-timers: "Listen," says Byrnside.

"Listen," repeats Marron. "Smile. Sleep a lot Thursday night."

 
Logisticians:transporting boxes

Logisticians: transporting boxes. Chris Hildreth.

If reunions had a pulse, by Wednesday, it would be racing. First thing that morning, a young man in a bright orange safety vest comes into Dilts' office to introduce himself. He tells her he's going to be monitoring the lot across Duke University Road--one of the primary lots set aside for alumni parking for the weekend. "He wanted me to know that everything would be great now that things were in his hands," Dilts says. "He wanted to reassure me that no one would be parking there!" she adds, rolling her eyes.

On tables in the front room of the office sit battery-charger boards bristling with radios--forty or fifty of them. Each one is a communications medium, problem solver, and lifeline crammed into a plastic-and-metal container about the size of a man's shoe. Over the weekend, the crackle of the radio is heard nonstop--students asking about table linens, bus drivers having trouble getting through the traffic at the Doris Duke Center, a student asking for a lift from Cameron because his golf cart has a flat tire, another requesting ginger ale for a woman who has thrown up in the restroom. "We dream about radios when they're not on," says Olson. "We get so sleep-deprived we have audio hallucinations. I'll be driving home at two in the morning and I can hear it."

"Except it's not there," says Dilts.

"It's back at the office being charged," says Olson.

"The nice thing about radios is everybody knows what's going on," says Jim Hodges, manager of conference services at Duke, who, besides running the online registration, helps troubleshoot over the weekend. "The bad thing about the radios is everybody knows what's going on." As a joke, staff members begin referring to problems as opportunities--as in, "Hodges to Lisa. We have a major opportunity over here on Perkins quad." But as more and more people start using the radios and more and more opportunities come up, the euphemism becomes a useful code word.

"Opportunities" can include everything from transportation and parking snafus (the bus scheduled to pick up people from the steps of the Chapel for the Duke Forest tour can't get through the clumps of cars jockeying for position in the procession that follows a morning funeral on Friday); to catering missteps (the chef forgets to cook the fried chicken and ribs specially requested by a class); to potentially dangerous situations, like the one that occurs on Friday morning, when a child goes missing. Mitch Yelverton, a junior, comes on the radio.

"Mitch to DeDe: We're trying to find a child who wandered off--"

"Stop all radio traffic--now," Olson orders. "Call 911. I need to know the sex, name, age of the child, what she's wearing."

[pause]

Mitch: "Her name is Anita, she's nine, and she's wearing pink."

[pause]

Female student: "We saw her over by the '99 tent. I'll try to find her."

Olson: "Her name is Anita. Call her."

Twenty, maybe thirty seconds tick by. The only sound coming from the radio is intermittent static. For those waiting, it's as if hot coals and ice cubes alternately run along their spines. ("It was like everyone across the entire campus--fifty radios--were holding their breaths," Dilts says later.) The radio crackles into life.

Student: "We have Anita at Class of '99."

"God bless radios," one worker mutters to herself.

More crackle, then: "Anita is with her mother."

Friday morning, 7:15. The start of the weekend is less than two hours away. Olson stands in the information tent, going over her checklist and last-minute reminders with the students. "Some of your packets will have a red dot. Very important. Means this is a big donor to the university. They get special packets.... If someone has a problem with fees due or a question about a bill or their name is misspelled on their nametag, DO NOT call me over the radio. Send them over here.... The heaters in the tent use gas. If you smell the odor of gas, DO NOT call. That's normal. Call only if there are flames."

Hodges interjects, "The Big Dance is probably going to sell out today. There are only seventy tickets left. If it's a tour, doubtful they're going to get on it."

Olson resumes her list. "The golf carts are here for you to move stuff from one place to another. Don't, don't, don't let me find you tootling around the campus....

"Have your radios on. Every tent. Have your radio tuned to [channel] 1-A and turn it way, way high. So I can get you when I need you. It needs to be on some person all the time, not lying around. You press the side button to talk; let go to listen.

"Okay, any questions? No? We're good to go. Move out."

At nine o'clock, the doors open, and the weekend begins. There are lots of opportunities, but few real hitches. Most alumni are blissfully unaware. Buses run, caterers cater, J.W. Walton's Big Dance tent looks like an elegant Manhattan restaurant. And the weather--oh, the weather. The weather was most cooperative. Not a single drop of rain was recorded, outside or inside the tents.

Postscript: The 2004 reunions weekend went on to break the all-time attendance record: 4,073 people, an 18 percent increase over the 2001 record of 3,458. Five reunion classes also broke attendance records: the 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, and 30th.