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The Secrets to Planning a Presidential Inauguration

News of Note

Published October 17, 2023

At Smith, presidential inaugurations don’t come around too often. In the past 150 years, there have been only 11. On October 21, we’ll add another when Sarah Willie-LeBreton is installed as the college’s 12th president. Leading up to the event, which will include two days’ worth of performances, lectures, lunches, dinners, campus tours, and special exhibitions, staff, students, and faculty are coming together to ensure a joyful and memorable celebration. Below, some of the people involved in the planning—from the student body speaker to an alum marshmallow maker—reveal the ins and outs of preparing for a successful inauguration.  

Mary Barr, Associate Director of Retail & Catering

As told to Rachael Hagerstrom ’02

“When the new president was announced in John M. Greene Hall a year ago, everybody came out to Chapin lawn and just attacked all the food. From that point, we knew, ‘Here is inauguration.’ 

“Last May, Andy Cox had the team block off the week of inauguration so we’d have time just for this—no requests for time off—and then the dining team started to plan this mega event. The executive director of culinary [services], German Alvarado, planned the menus. Patrick Diggins ordered all the food. Patty Hentz and the area managers started getting together for staffing, for production, for prep. 

“We need pounds and pounds of chicken and shrimp. There’s an immense amount of product, an immense amount of staff support—which includes loads of overtime—to make it successful. I’m only as successful as my team is, and my team does a great job. 

“We talked Wednesday [Oct. 11] about what to do if it rains. We had a meeting and we’re all on our phones to play this magic game of what’s next Friday and Saturday going to look like? All of us are on different websites trying to find the best weather source. The end result is that we all say, ‘We live in New England. It’s too early. So let’s wait to see.’

“There’s going to be 3,600 people we’re going have to feed that weekend. I’ve been in the business for 35 years. I’ve owned my own restaurant. I’ve been the director at restaurant groups. The next weekend is going to be the biggest weekend I’ve ever had in my career.” 

Mary Barr

Steve Campbell, Assistant Director of Events Operations

As told to Jan McCoy Ebbets

“I’m deep into the nitty-gritty right now—scheduling and coordinating production for two full weekends of events. It’s a busy season. This morning, I was up on Chapin lawn setting up the tent for Family Weekend [October 13–15]. That same tent will be used the following weekend for inauguration events. Earlier this morning, I called United Staging about the three-level stage they’ll be setting up in the ITT (Indoor Track and Tennis Facility) for the president’s installation.

 “I’ve got three main areas on campus: Chapin lawn, the ITT, and Scott Gym. That gym will be transformed into an elegant dining space for a private dinner with the president after her installation. We’re also handling the campus Illumination Night. It’s overwhelming—coordinating production schedules and making sure all the right work orders are in and tasks are completed. For instance, for the gym transformation, there’s special lighting that goes in and a huge rug that is 10 feet wide and runs the 74-foot length of the gym; there’s delivery of dinner china, coat racks, and hangers. That’s only a few of the many, many things we’re handling.

 “It's a lot. But this is my fifth Smith inauguration, and I’m fortunate to work with a ton of people here who have a vast amount of expertise and knowledge. There will be some things, and maybe emergencies, that pop up, but I always say I have contingencies. And I have contingencies for the contingencies. People who attend will probably never notice [if something goes awry]. Because we got it covered. I’ll say it again: I’ve got a ton of good people that I’m working with. It’s a great team. And we’ll get it done.”

Steve Campbell

Andrea Fernandes, Director of Events Management

As told to Rachael Hagerstrom ’02

“Inauguration is like Commencement on steroids. It’s slightly overwhelming. Just the scale, magnitude, the expectations—it’s a larger audience. This is for everyone. We’re making 6,000 s’mores kits. It’s the biggest event of my career.

“A year ago, I started putting spaces on hold. I started booking rooms in hotels. I told vendors to block the dates off. 

“I chair four subcommittees and have five staff. The vendors, speakers, other people I’ve talked to would be in the hundreds. For Commencement, we have 2,000 tasks. For inauguration, it is about 6,000. We have to know how many chairs to place in the ITT; we have to ensure that all the remarks are close-captioned; we have to order podiums, signage, and banners. Every time I go into a meeting, I get 90 things added to my plate. 

“You can do all that planning, up to a point. Once it starts, it starts, and you figure things out. If people walk away saying, ‘Wow, that was amazing,’ and they didn’t notice any hiccups, then we did our job.

“At the end of the day, it’s a success as long as Sarah walks away feeling the overwhelming support from the community, and the whole event evokes all the things she hopes it would.” 

Andrea Fernandes

Lindsey McGrath, Advancement Communications and Event Specialist

As told to John MacMillan

“When I think about the work I’m doing for inauguration, I really think about the Alumnae Association and Development team. We’ve all worked so hard together to make alums feel like they’re part of this special event. We’re doing a couple of really cool things that the team dreamed up and then shared with me to bring to life. 

 “We’re turning the newly renovated Alumnae House into a welcome center for the weekend. There’s going to be a trail mix bar, cider, and cider doughnuts, and the special tea that was created specifically for President Willie-LeBreton and the inauguration. We’ll also have lots of little mementos, like buttons and stickers—just some small things that alums can take away with them to remind them of the weekend. And they’ll be able to walk around the house and see how beautiful the renovation is.

 “The other thing we’re doing is creating what we’re calling a joy mosaic, which will be a piece of art made up of pictures alums submitted of themselves doing something that brings them joy. We have a couple of hundred really great submissions so far. One alum sent a picture of herself skydiving on her 75th birthday. Another sent one of her climbing a glacier. It’s going to be so cool and fun. I can’t wait for people to see it.

 “The goal is to make alums feel part of the celebration and connected back to Smith so that they know they always have a home here.”

Lindsey McGrath

Elena Palladino, Secretary of the Board of Trustees & Secretary of the College

As told to Rachael Hagerstrom ’02

“I’ve been involved since Kathy [McCartney] announced that she’d be stepping down, through the presidential search and announcing Sarah as our new president. 

“My role and the roles of others on campus are helping to remember and carry forward the traditions. One particular part of the installation ceremony is where the trustees and past presidents are going to give Sarah symbols of the presidency. She’s going to receive these symbols on stage. Those objects are kept in this office: The charter— it’s a copy of the charter—a key, the college seal, and what will now be Sarah’s presidential medal.

“I like the vantage point that I have in seeing from a bird’s eye view with the president and the board. I love the emphasis on traditions. I have a personal interest in history and it feels very connected for me—the historical focus of my job and being one of the keepers of the records.” 

Elena Palladino

Alexx Shuman ’12, Founder and Owner, The Vermont Marshmallow Co.

As told to Christina Barber-Just

“I made 6,000 marshmallows for the inauguration of the new president, which is so exciting. We sent 2,000 of our toasty vanilla marshmallows, 2,000 of our dulce de leche marshmallows, and 2,000 of our cinnamon sugar marshmallows. That’s what I could offer in the timeline. We have some other flavors available right now, but we weren’t going to be able to make them fast enough, so we sent our core collection of flavors that we have available year-round.

“It took us four days to fulfill the order because of the nature of the marshmallows needing to sit for 24 hours; it’s a curing process. On day one, we made the vanilla. On day two, we made the dulce de leche and cut and packaged the vanilla. Day three, we made the cinnamon and packaged the dulce de leche. And then on day four, we packaged up the cinnamon. 

“When we were packing up the marshmallows for shipment, they ended up filling three 20-by-20 boxes that weigh about 80 pounds each. It was like, ‘Oh, we need two people to go to UPS to drop this off.’ We sent them completely loose because the plan is for them to be repackaged into s’mores kits. Somebody on the other end has a lot of work ahead of them divvying up all those marshmallows! 

“Smith has been such an important part of the growth of my business, which is most of my life at this point. So, I am excited for Sarah Willie-LeBreton to be taking the helm and excited to see what direction she takes things. And I look forward to sitting down and sharing a cup of hot cocoa with her one day!”

Alexx Shuman ’12

Vanessa Nicole Silva-Burgos ’24, Student Speaker at Inauguration, All-Campus Student Body President

As told to Barbara Solow

“I am honored to be part of this moment in Smith’s history. This moment is powerful, with all the change and potential for transformation and greater justice on campus. I’ve written remarks for welcome speeches, graduation, and celebrations before. I’ve been preparing [for inauguration] since early September and, at the moment, I’m finalizing my remarks and workshop editing with deans and the board of trustees. I’ll begin rehearsing soon.

“This has been a lovely opportunity to reflect on this year, on President Willie-LeBreton’s leadership so far, and on what she has planned. It’s also been a time for me to reflect inwardly about my upcoming year and time so far as student body president.

“The air, the campus, the student body, the leadership of President Willie-LeBreton—everything looks and feels bright and invigorated. This gives me so much strength, joy, and hope for a truly great year. My personal three C’s also motivate me: compassion, collaboration, and coalition.

 “I hope people come away [from inauguration ceremonies] with gratitude for President Willie-LeBreton, inspiration for the year ahead, and a true belief in the care and intentionality students have for the college and community. I also want people to reflect and acknowledge that we are living in unprecedented times, and that it is not OK and it is OK, and we will persevere together. We all have a part to play in creating a more just community.”

Vanessa Nicole Silva-Burgos ’24

Christopher Stinehour, Lettercutter

As told to Rachael Hagerstrom ’02

Stinehour performed the exacting letterwork of adding “2023 Sarah Willie-LeBreton” to the Smith mace, which features the Grécourt Gates and the names and dates of all college presidents. The mace, originally sculpted from cherry and maple by noted artist and Smith professor Elliot M. Offner, is used in formal ceremonies such as Commencement.

“I do a lot of work for universities and institutions where they need this sort of thing. I’ve never done a mace before.

“I got interested in lettering when I was a student in calligraphy. And then I saw the work of this guy in Rhode Island, John Howard Benson. I went to Brown University, so there was a lot of his work around RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design] and on the Brown campus. I learned on my own; I started carving letters. I visited the shop and thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I also took a workshop with an English carver and then started a business on my own in California.

“Some people say, ‘Isn’t there a machine that can do that?’ Yeah, there is. But there’s something about hand-making something like this. This is all carved out. And all these little dowels—everything is put together by hand. There’s something in the object that the hand has left that a machine can’t. A machine is sterile, or too perfect. These [letters] are all hand-cut, so they’re all different. They’ve all got their own quirkiness. 

“It’s not a typeface from a computer. Each ‘e’ is different. The spacing is all over. And then that top; it’s fantastic. You see a handmade book, or anything handmade, and you know that there’s something special about it.”

Christopher Stinehour

Megan Young ’07, Assistant Director of Digital Strategy and Creative Services

As told to Megan Tkacy

Young led an effort to create two official Smith College teas (one black and one herbal, both organic) in tandem with the inauguration.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be working on something as cool as this. It’s been an honor to get to go to work and taste teas and design tea packaging. It’s just so fun. The idea was to create Smith’s own tea. When I was a student, I was house president for a year and helped set up the teas on Friday. Tea really means a lot to me as a tradition, so I thought, ‘Smith needs its own tea!’

“We wanted a strong, bold, classic tea, so black tea was a must. Our blend is smoky and strong, but also smooth and mellow—it’s delicious. For the other tea, we reached out to Sarah and asked her what her favorite teas were. She talked about loving the combination of fruity and spicy, so we worked with the Metropolitan Tea Company in Canada to incorporate those notes. The resulting herbal tea is amazing—it’s fruity and minty and spicy (from licorice); it’s all the things Sarah was looking for in an afternoon tea.

“The tea tradition is such a great symbol of the community at Smith, which I experienced as a student and now as an employee. Community is so important to Sarah, so I think everything with the teas came together perfectly—to honor her, welcome her, and celebrate her with this tradition that speaks so much to community. Dining will be serving the teas at Friday afternoon house teas, at special events, and we’re going to sell it at the bookstore.”