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Joe Ferrell: Livening up Ceremonies Since 1996

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Joe Ferrell just can't help himself.

He can't let you sit in the audience at some stuffy university event while he drones on and on about some wonderful person's wonderful background.

"I've sat through too many of these things and been bored to death," Ferrell said of listening to a featured guest's long list of impressive, if arcane, accomplishments. "It's like reading the obituaries."

That's why, as the secretary of the faculty at UNC Chapel Hill, Ferrell tries to lighten the mood at commencement, when honorary degrees are bestowed upon notable folks with long resumes, and at University Day, when distinguished alumni awards are given to, um, notable folks with long resumes.

He does so by prefacing the standard biographies of these overachievers with short, pithy, well-thought-out comments that warm up the crowd.

Take his recent University Day introduction of Janie McLawhorn Fouke, a distinguished alumni award winner among the world's leaders in biomedical engineering.

"Don't ask Janie Fouke about a glass ceiling for women in engineering," Ferrell intoned in introducing her. "She's standing on the shards."

Ferrell, 71, has seen enough pomp and circumstance for several lifetimes. A member of the School of Government faculty since 1964, Ferrell became faculty secretary in 1996, a role requiring attendance at these ceremonial events.

His first University Day included an award for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, an author and poet who campaigned against censorship to literature.

Ferrell that day coined Ferlinghetti a "young turk in a world of old fogies."

"Nobody had ever done that before at University Day," Ferrell recalled this week. "It took everybody by complete surprise and it just broke everybody up."

With that, Ferrell had created a precedent he follows still. Award winners and honorary degree recipients are chosen a year or so prior to the event, so Ferrell has plenty of time to come up with just the right words.

He needs all that time; being clever ain't easy.

For soccer star Mia Hamm:

"Charlie Justice. Michael Jordan. Mia Hamm. Think: Mount Rushmore!"

"I'd heard [Chancellor Holden Thorp] refer to some noteworthy people on this campus as Mount Rushmore," Ferrell explained. "So the first person I thought of was Mia Hamm. All the athletes that have come through Carolina, to me, the three that stand out are Charlie Justice, Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm."

For Walter Hussman, Jr., a successful Arkansas newspaper publisher:

"Walter Hussman is an endangered species: A newspaperman who knows how to publish a newspaper and still make money at it."

Ferrell is from Pasquotank County. His voice has some drawl in it, and he tends to speak slowly, words measured.

He prefers University Day - traditionally held inside Memorial Hall - to commencement, which is in Kenan Stadium, where his voice echoes. To focus, he usually tries to make eye contact with a familiar face in the front row.

For Elson Floyd, a former UNC-CH administrator who received a distinguished alumni award in 2004, while president of the University of Missouri:

"When he was young, Elson Floyd wanted to be a lawyer. Look what happened to him."

If he isn't familiar with a particular honoree's background, Ferrell does what most of us do: he googles until he finds information he can use. And he's always successful.

Well, almost.

So, Joe: Was there ever an award winner who stumped you?

"There was one," he said. "I just couldn't think of anything funny about him. He's so serious and solemn. I don't want to say who it was. That's the one that got away."

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About the blogger

Eric Ferreri covers higher education and general news.