For all but one of the past 30 years, John Meeske ’74 has marched along with graduating students and other members of the campus community onto the Old Campus for Commencement carrying a wooden staff that features the symbolic mythical creature known as “the yale.”
But this year’s procession will be a special one for Meeske, who is retiring after serving at the university for 40 years and as a Commencement procession marshal for three decades.
Meeske, now associate dean for student organizations and physical resources for Yale College, began working in the Yale College Registrar’s Office shortly after graduating in 1974. He jokes that his long-time job as procession marshal is his “penance” for having missed his own graduation.
A history of art major, Meeske had finished work toward his undergraduate degree a semester early and was newly married by the time the graduation ceremony took place in May. He skipped the event to travel to Europe for his honeymoon with his new wife, Nancy Woodington ’73, who was then a student at Yale Divinity School.
Since becoming a Commencement marshal in the early 1980s, Meeske has only missed the graduation ceremony once: Last year, he was unable to attend because his son was graduating from the Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
“I had good reason to miss Commencement last year,” says Meeske. Although his son’s college graduation took precedence over his role as a marshal, Meeske admits he never wondered whether anyone would mind when he missed his own graduation.
“Sometime after my honeymoon, my mother said, ‘Did it ever occur to you that your father and I might have wanted to see you graduate?’” recalls Meeske. “I have to admit that it hadn’t.”
His parents, however, ultimately had the opportunity to see Meeske in a Yale graduation procession when they came to see his wife graduate after earning her Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and literature in 1983.
In Meeske’s first job at Yale in the Registrar’s Office, he was responsible for assigning classrooms, a task he describes as being somewhat similar to working on a puzzle.
“It’s a little bit tricky at Yale because we don’t have pre-registration for classes, so you have to guess how many students are likely to enroll in every course,” he says, adding that he also learned negotiating skills while dealing with faculty members about their classroom locations.
“I remember one year that I had assigned a classroom to a noted English professor, Martin Price. The year before, my wife had taken a class with him, and the classroom was probably about the remotest place possible: It was on the sixth floor of the Old Art Gallery, and the elevator only went up to the fifth floor. Then you had take to the stairway up. I assigned the classroom to Professor Price because I knew he was familiar with the location. But after I assigned it to him, he told me he’d rather die than go back to that room. So, of course, I said, ‘Okay, you’ve paid your dues.’”
Meeske had originally intended to work in the Registrar’s Office for two years while his wife finished her degree at the Divinity School, at which point he thought he would pursue graduate study to become an architect. (He cites an architecture class taught by Vincent Scully, Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art in Architecture, as a “life-changing” experience during his freshman year.) He chose to stay on while she continued her doctoral work, however, and says that he earned an education of a different sort in his office.
“There were three of us in the office, and the other two staff members — Associate Registrar Richard Shank and Lila Freedman, who edited the Yale College course catalogue — were incredibly smart people,” Meeske says. “They both were lovers of words who used them carefully. I learned more from them about writing than I had in my four years at Yale. With their various talents and interests, it was incredibly stimulating for me to be in that environment.”
Meeske served as Yale College registrar from 1985 until he moved, a decade later, to the Yale College Dean’s Office, where he became dean of administrative affairs.
When he moved to the Yale College Dean’s Office, Meeske — by then known for his skill at the task of assigning student housing — took that responsibility with him. He also worked with architects on the renovation of all 12 residential colleges.
“I think that was one of the most enjoyable of all of my duties at Yale,” says Meeske, “perhaps because of my art history background and my interest in architecture.”
In his current position, Meeske has continued to oversee student housing and the more than 500 undergraduate student organizations on campus, and says he has relished his interactions with students.
“Students are great fun to work with,” he says. “It’s challenging in some ways but you pick up that enthusiasm and energy they have. They’re so smart — smarter than ever — and it’s just exciting to be around them.”
The associate dean says that his long career at Yale — all of it spent in offices in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall — has never been boring because every role he has filled has presented new challenges, and technological advances throughout the years have kept him on his toes.
When he was first in the Registrar’s Office, for instance, all records were maintained on paper, and he remembers when the office got its first computer.
By the time that he had completed nearly a decade at the university, says Meeske, he lost interest in pursuing graduate study in architecture.
“Besides, working with architects on the college renovations allowed me a way to incorporate my architectural interests, along with vacation trips to Europe with my family, during which I could appreciate all kinds of architecture as well as art museums.”
Over his four-plus decades at Yale, first as a student and then as an administrator, Meeske says, he has seen enormous change at the university, all for the better. His entering class was only the second co-educational class at Yale.
“Yale is a better and better place for students,” comments Meeske. “I think that the university is more responsive to students than it was when I was an undergraduate here. I knew my dean vaguely back then, but now, college deans and masters are immensely engaged in student life and are much more supportive. There are also more resources available for students, so the university has been fabulous in that way.”
While he can no longer recall how he came to be a Commencement marshal, Meeske says he has enjoyed being a part of yearly graduation exercises and, more recently, helping in the planning of Class Day festivities for seniors. The yale, the mythic creature on the staff he carries, resembles a cross between a mountain goat and a boar. Whenever it appears on campus, it is always of interest to students and campus guests.
“My parents did get to see me carrying the mace when they came for my wife’s graduation,” Meeske laughs, “so I guess that counts for something.”
After he retires in early summer, Meeske will travel with his wife to Mongolia to visit their son, who is serving in the Peace Corps there. He also hopes to purchase a modest old house in France or Germany.
“I love old houses,” says Meeske. “Our current home in Woodbridge was built in 1780, and I’ve done a lot of home renovations. It would be fun to do more of that.”
He also intends to continue singing, as he has done since he was a member of the Yale Whiffenpoofs, the Yale Glee Club, the Alley Cats, and the Bach Society, among other singing groups, as an undergraduate. A tenor, he has long sung with the choir of Trinity Church on the Green, which he joined his senior year at Yale, and has been featured in a number of classical and opera performances in the New Haven area.
“Singing was my major activity at Yale,” recalls Meeske, “and so long as I have health I will continue doing that.”
The associate dean says he will miss the community that is Yale, but says he is excited about what comes next in his life.
“I’m a little nervous,” he admits, “because Yale has been such a feature of my life for so long. It’s one thing to think about retirement and another to experience it. So I’m sure I’ll miss it, but I think there are enough other things that will keep me busy.”