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New Lectern at W&L Commencement Has Historic Significance

Few people attending Washington and Lee University’s 2015 commencement probably noticed the new lectern at the center of the podium or understood its historic significance.

The lectern is made from wood from the old “commencement tree” that graced W&L’s front campus since it was planted around 1866 and cut down in 1998. An ash tree with a canopy of between 40 and 50 feet, it used to be in full leaf during the many ceremonies for which it provided much needed shade to graduating seniors and their families.

The tree received its name because it was a pivotal point of the graduation stage when commencement was held on the lawn between the President’s House and R. E. Lee Episcopal Church. “The tree was the corner that anchored the stage, and it was the point from which we placed alignment markers in the ground and strung lines to get the stage square to the seating,” said Scott Beebe, projects engineer in facilities management.

Beebe was director of facilities at W&L when he made the decision to cut the tree down. A survey of all the trees on the front campus had identified the commencement tree as a liability since it was hollow. Realizing the historical significance, Beebe decided to mill a stack of boards for possible later use.

Decades later, the University’s existing lectern, made of dark brown plywood and used for all campus ceremonies, needed to be replaced. Randolph Hare, director of maintenance and operations in facilities management, remembered the planks from the commencement tree that had been drying in W&L’s barn for years and suggested that they be used to create a new lectern.

John Hoogakker, executive director of university facilities, took on the task of designing the new lectern, although he said it was hard to reach the planks and to mill wood of sufficient quality for a lectern.

Hoogakker, who has a significant background in architecture, researched the classical references around campus and studied detail and proportion in historic texts on classical architecture. As a result, the new lectern he designed has four columns that are very similar to the columns on Washington Hall.

One challenge that Hoogakker found was that he had never worked with wood from an ash tree before. “There was some quirkiness about the grain of the wood that surprised me, but it was a pleasant experience to learn to deal with this species of wood. I discovered things as I went along. For example, I had a very different finish in mind—something more like cherry or mahogany—but ash wood has a more rustic quality to it, and the dark part of the grain reached through the finish as a texture in a much different way than more traditional furniture woods. I think it gives the piece a character that I find pleasant and surprising.”

Patrick Harris, systems programmer and administrator in information technology services (ITS), built the lectern to Hoogakker’s design, and John Watkins, director of client services in ITS, created the four columns. Watkins’ greatest challenge was creating four identical columns by hand, instead of using a machine. “I think that, for the discerning eye, the design of the new lectern is really sophisticated, with the specifications for the different spaces and how the columns sit on the base,” observed Harris.

“Using the commencement tree gave the whole project a lot of meaning that it wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Hoogakker.