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Graduations can be a real handful

For principals, provosts and school presidents, the ceremony can mean hundreds or thousands of handshakes. Physical damage can result.

June 19, 2013|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Gonzalo Moraga, right, principal of instruction at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, shakes hands with a graduate during the school's commencement ceremony. Moraga said that he shook hands with over 400 students during the ceremony.
Gonzalo Moraga, right, principal of instruction at Woodrow Wilson Classical… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Present diploma. Smile. Shake hands. Repeat — 528 times.

Over and over, Occidental College President Jonathan Veitch handed a diploma to a graduate and shook a hand.

Some walked quickly across the stage while others moseyed — creating an accordion effect in the assembly line of hands he'd have to shake.

By the last names beginning with B, he sighed deeply and wiped his brow. The sun now draped the amphitheater and his gown was growing heavy. His smile never wavered.

Only 508 more hands to shake.

For presidents, provosts and principals, the celebration of years of study adds up to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of congratulatory hand-grasping. Often, one man or woman must shake the hands of an entire graduating class.

It's not easy.

At graduations, the sheer number of handshakes completed by one person in a relatively short amount of time could result in ligament damage and soft tissue trauma, said Debbie Amini, an occupational therapist and assistant professor at East Carolina University.

"Especially if you have some overzealous graduates," she said. "All it takes is somebody who is really excited to squeeze and shake too hard."

UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal attended seven graduation ceremonies over three days last weekend — shaking about 3,500 hands. He's averaged that many for the last seven years, he said.

"Some years my hand has been sore, one year my shoulder hurt, but I was in pretty good shape this year," he said. "I'm honored to do it. Every hand I shook, those students worked hard for four years and accomplished a lot — that's what keeps me going."

All the handshaking gives him a certain respect for politicians, Blumenthal said, though he's never had to kiss a baby during a ceremony. He has, however, gently shaken babies' hands when graduates bring their infants on stage.

Over the years, some students have skipped the handshake in favor of giving him "a slap on the rump," he said. "Santa Cruz has a lot of free spirits."

The handshake is generally believed to have originated in ancient times as a gesture showing that one comes in peace — by demonstrating no weapon in hand. It has since developed into an exercise of greeting and respect.

At one time, President Theodore Roosevelt held the record for most handshakes in a day with 8,513 at a White House reception in 1907.

Roosevelt was bested by the mayor of Atlantic City in 1977, who in an effort to set a new record, shook more than 11,000 hands in one day.

Today, the honor is held by Bill Richardson, a one-time presidential hopeful. During his bid for governor of New Mexico in 2002, he apparently shook more than 13,000 hands in an eight-hour period at the state fair.

He'd go on to win.

Long Beach school board President Jon Meyer has shaken countless hands during the 24 high school graduations he has attended during his time as a principal and school board member.

He claims that his hand usually doesn't hurt too badly after a ceremony. "It does get pretty sweaty, though," he admitted.

"I get a kick out of it," he said. "You can get a read on the student — what kind of grip is it? Is it a cursory slap? Are they grabbing it firmly? Is it limp? You look in their eyes and you know a little about this kid and what they're all about."

At Wilson High School in Long Beach last week, some graduates gave high-fives, low-fives and fist bumps in lieu of the typical handshake. One boy struggled with his gown, completed the handshake, then got tangled in the California flag on the way offstage.

Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts, shook the hands of each of the more than 1,000 graduates this year.

"The occupational hazard is not my hand, it's my cheeks," he said. "I smile a lot."

Glenn took mental account of all the different kinds of handshakes he experienced. Among them: the "Grad Grip," which is the run-of-the-mill shake, grab and dash off the stage. The "near miss" for those who in their nervousness mess up the hand placement and fumble through it. The "paparazzi pump" are those who won't stop shaking and grinning until everyone is done taking photographs.

Despite the jokes, Lane said, graduation day is the "most magnificent day of the year."

"The community college students, a lot of them are part time, they raise families, work two or three jobs, they put a lot into it," he said. "That day means everything."

At Occidental, Veitch said there is a certain choreography and timing required. While shaking one hand and offering congratulations, he tries to listen to the name being called to personalize the next encounter, while also posing for a photograph and reaching for the next diploma to be handed to him.

"It's an assembly line," he said. "But a glamorous one."

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