At approximately 1:51 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, David Yellen stands on an imposing, dramatically lit stage upon the basketball court of the McCann Arena and is officially sworn in as the fourth President of Marist College.
Exactly 24 hours before this moment, a team of five technicians pull in unison at steel chains that hoist a massive lighting system up to the rafters. Equipment is being filtered in from side entrances and loaded onto forklifts, while cables are being run from an operating booth to the stage. Meanwhile, Marist students unfold rows of white chairs and neatly arrange them in dozens of rows.
Seated in one of the white chairs and overseeing the process of the transformation is Laurie DeJong, the founder and CEO of a creative services technical production company known as LDJ Productions. While the setup seems to be going smoothly, the strategist within the fifteen-year executive is preparing to combat all potential problems.
“The acoustics in a basketball arena offer a unique challenge as far as projection goes,” notes DeJong. “We may have to look into that at rehearsal tonight, especially with the singing and the bagpipes tomorrow.”
The setup in the gym runs parallel to the official start of the weekend ceremonies for the Inauguration of President David Yellen, the formal passing of the guard to him after taking office from President Emeritus Dennis Murray on July 1. In the Student Center, faculty-run symposiums on social justice reform and technology are being held in conjunction with presentations of student research projects. This is all precedent to the main inauguration ceremony on Saturday, which is followed by a general reception and a VIP dinner at Shadows on the Hudson.
“They wanted this to be such a special occasion for everyone, and therefore more than just one event,” says DeJong. “We wanted this to be a celebration of President Yellen’s passions and the tremendous work that the Marist community is capable of producing.”
Much of the coordination for such a special event falls on LDJ Productions. DeJong is a Marist graduate from the Class of 1987 and a member of the Board of Trustees. She was asked by Trustee Chair Ellen Hancock to co-chair the event with Dr. James Honan in late April.
“I was actually in Africa at the time of the call working on a fashion event when Ellen reached out to me,” DeJong remembers. “When Ellen calls, especially about such an important topic, you make time.”
What followed was a multitude of meetings and phone calls almost on par with the multiple New York Fashion Week events that DeJong organizes each year. Since Marist hasn’t had an event like this in over three decades, DeJong and Honan consulted with experts on inauguration protocol from other colleges across the country.
For on-campus advice, the co-chairs turned to Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Programs John Ritschdorff. Dr. Ritschdorff joined the Marist faculty in 1970 and is one of the few individuals currently at the school who attended Dr. Murray’s induction back in 1979.
“That entire process was much smaller and scaled down compared to what is happening here this weekend, and that fit the size of college at the time,” remembers Ritschdorff. “We could ostensibly fit the entire process in Donnelly [Hall] back then because it made sense logistically.”
Much has changed since 1979, as the college and LDJ Productions estimates 1,000 individuals were on-hand for the ceremony on Saturday. This number takes into account students, faculty, friends and family of Yellen, plus Poughkeepsie locals. The completed stage featured copious backlights that glowed over banners of Marist’s schools of study. Behind the Marist-embroidered wood podium and in front of the circular Marist insignia stood the school’s new red and black doctorate gown.
Accommodations were made to make the event accessible for all, as the Marist College Media Center streamed it online and sign language experts translated the speeches for the audibly impaired. Despite a number of speeches and musical interventions, the event ran under 90 minutes, a request made specifically by President Yellen to DeJong and the planning committee. Only Yellen himself took longer than 15 minutes, using his moment to reflect on the past of the college and look to his plans for the future.
Despite the amount of work that went into planning everything, DeJong believes that it was well worth it. She recognizes that there is an importance to the event that is matched by few others.
“The thing that excites the most is being a part of history,” DeJong says. “We found our man after such a long search. For everybody at the campus, we wanted this to be momentous.”